April 16, 2008
The Little Soldier from Texas
By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily
In the May issue of Field & Stream, in "Cheers & Jeers," we had occasion to mention Audie L. Murphy and his 1949 autobiography, To Hell and Back. Most readers of this blog are aware that Murphy remains the most decorated serviceman in American history, but he was a remarkable person in other respects, and he is certainly worth remembering here.
Murphy came from a large, dirt-poor Depression-era Texas family. His father deserted, his mother died, and at the age of 16, Murphy found himself the sole support of his brothers and sisters. He couldn't manage, and they were placed in an orphanage.
In 1942, he enlisted in the Army. At 5'5" and 110 pounds he was pronounced unfit for combat duty, but he insisted, and was trained as an infantryman. Murphy was sent overseas, assigned to the Third Infantry Division, and saw 27 months of combat in North Africa, Italy, and France.
He began as a private and finished as a first lieutenant, having been awarded the Medal of Honor as well as 32 other U.S. medals, 5 French, and 1 Belgian. He received every American decoration for bravery that it was possible to get at that time.
Murphy returned home a celebrity, was introduced to Hollywood by James Cagney, and went on to a successful film career, making 44 pictures. His most notable was To Hell and Back, which was faithful to his book. This 1955 film was an enormous hit, and was Universal's leading money-maker until it was surpassed by Jaws in 1975. Its theme is the same as the book's: that the lot of a combat infantryman is unrelieved terror, grief, and misery, and that there is no glory anywhere. When asked what it was like to act in the film Murphy said: "I got to see my friends killed all over again."
He suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, and in the 1960s, became one of the first to talk about it openly. He drank, had nightmares, was married and divorced repeatedly, and is alleged to have suffered fits of violence.
Murphy might eventually have recovered, but on May 28, 1971, when he was 46 years old, the small plane in which he was flying crashed near Catawba, Virginia. All aboard were killed. I've often wondered what he thought in his last few seconds of life: To survive so much and die like this? And very possibly, No more dreams.
He was buried with full honors at Arlington Cemetery. Tradition dictates that Medal of Honor winners have grave markers set off by gold leaf, but Murphy's at his request, is plain. After John Kennedy's grave, more people visit it than any other.