Born the seventh of twelve children, future Hollywood cowboy Audie Murphy grew up dirt poor picking cotton on a sharecropper’s farm in Hunt County, Texas. His mother Josie loved to take her family to the First Baptist Church in Farmersville where she played piano. Murphy had to quit school after the eighth grade so he could help raise his brothers and sisters after Josie passed away. His father walking out and leaving the family in dire straits no doubt hastened her premature demise. Murphy watched helplessly as his brothers and sisters were doled out to orphanages and relatives.
Seeking an escape, he looked to the Marines. World War II had just been declared and, like so many other young men, Murphy lied about his age in his attempt to enlist. But it was not his age that kept him out of the Marines — it was his size — just 112 pounds. Not tall enough to meet the minimum requirements either — five feet five inches — he tried to enlist in the paratroopers, but again was denied entrance. Despondent, he chose the infantry.
Following basic training Murphy was sent to North Africa during preparations to invade Sicily. It was there that he first saw combat, proving himself to be a highly skilled soldier and proficient marksman. Which isn’t that surprising — when Murphy was little he used to borrow a single shot .22 rifle and kill rabbits, squirrels, and other small game so his family wouldn’t go hungry.
On January 26, 1945, near the village of Holtzwihr, France, Lieutenant Murphy’s forward positions came under fierce attack by the German army. Against the onslaught of six Panzer tanks and 250 infantrymen, Murphy ordered his men to fall back to better their defenses. Alone, he jumped on top of a deserted tank destroyer engulfed in flames. Taking over the machine gun, Murphy stayed there for nearly an hour, repelling the attack of German soldiers on three sides and single-handedly killing 50 of them. He was wounded in the leg during the heavy fire.
Murphy’s courageous performance stalled the German advance and allowed him to lead his men in the counterattack which ultimately drove the enemy from Holtzwihr. For this Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for gallantry in action. By the end of World War II, Murphy had become the nation’s most-decorated soldier, earning an unparalleled 28 medals.
Murphy admitted on more than one occasion that “I never liked being called the ‘most decorated’ soldier. There were so many guys who should have gotten medals and never did — guys who were killed and never came back home.”
Murphy had a lot of difficulty adjusting to civilian life. He said, “War is like a giant pack rat, it takes something from you and it leaves something behind in its stead. It burned me out in some ways so that now I feel like an old man but still sometimes act like a dumb kid. It made me grow up too fast. You live so much on nervous excitement that when it is over you fall apart.”
Murphy suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] and was haunted by depression, insomnia, and nightmares throughout his adult life. He could only sleep with a loaded pistol under his pillow, even when he became one of the most popular movie stars of his generation and got to work alongside screen icons like Audrey Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart.
During the mid-60’s he became dependent for a time on doctor prescribed sleeping pills called Placidyl. When he recognized that he had become addicted, he locked himself in a motel room, stopped taking the pills and went through withdrawal symptoms for a week.
Always an advocate for the needs of veterans, he broke the taboo about discussing war related mental problems. In an effort to draw attention to the problems of returning Korean and Vietnam War veterans, Murphy spoke out candidly about his personal problems with PTSD.
Ironically, during Memorial Day Weekend 1971 the recently named director of Telestar Leisure Investments was tasked with inspecting a production plant in Virginia where Modular Properties constructed pre-fabricated buildings [e.g. homes and motels]. On the brink of bankruptcy after losing $260,000 in an Algerian oil venture, accumulating untold gambling debts, and being unable to obtain distribution for the bleak A Time for Dying western which served as his second production credit, Murphy departed Atlanta’s DeKalb Peachtree Airport in a private plane carrying five other passengers. The plane ran into fog and rain and crashed into the side of Brush Mountain near Roanoke, Virginia, after 19 minutes of cliffhanging distress signals. Thrown clear of the wreckage, Murphy was only 45 years old when he died.
Murphy was buried in a formal military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors despite having requested a “simple, plain and ordinary burial” and specifically in his will that the funeral “exclude any and all public officials and military personnel.”
His grave is the second-most visited grave at Arlington, topped only by that of President John F. Kennedy. Typically, the headstones of Medal of Honor recipients at Arlington are decorated in gold leaf, but Murphy had requested that his stone remain plain and inconspicuous, as would be the case with an ordinary soldier.
Upon the distribution of To Hell and Back, the movie version of his best-selling autobiography of the same name, Murphy told a reporter, “It seems to me that if you’re afraid or living with some big fear, you’re not really living. You’re only half alive. I don’t care if it’s the boss you’re scared of or a lot of people in a room or diving off of a dinky little board, you gotta get rid of it. You owe it to yourself. Makes sort of a zombie out of you being afraid. I mean you want to be free, don’t you? And how can you if you are scared? That’s prison. Fear’s a jailer. I never moved into combat without having the feeling of a cold hand reaching into my guts and twisting them both into knots.”
If you ever watch one of Murphy’s movies like The Red Badge of Courage, No Name on the Bullet, or The Unforgiven, pay close attention to his steel gray eyes. He wasn’t a classically trained actor by any means and was often noticeably uncomfortable and awkward around pretty girls that he really liked — but there was a certain resilience — a toughness if you will — hiding underneath the surface.
Audie Murphy was the genuine article, the real deal. It’s men and women like him who sacrificed so much for their country that deserve to never be forgotten [Author’s Note: Partially compiled from sources linked within the text, I articulated this speech to friends and family at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church during a 4th of July Weekend].
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