By Edward T. O’Donnell
Fifty-seven years ago this week, on Jan. 26, 1945, Audie Murphy and his small unit of soldiers faced a grim sight. Bearing down on them was a massive column of German soldiers and tanks. Before they could react, one of their own tanks was hit by an artillery shell and exploded in flames. Without a moment’s hesitation, Murphy leaped onto the burning tank and turned its machinegun on the advancing Germans. What subsequently unfolded turned out to be one of the greatest displays of courage in World War II.
Audie Murphy was born into a life of poverty in Texas in 1924. His father, Emmett Murphy, was a poor sharecropper who eked out a living for his wife and 12 children growing cotton. Unfortunately, he was also an alcoholic who squandered the family’s meager funds on booze and often disappeared for months. Young Audie, like his brothers and sisters, worked in the cotton fields from the age of 5. The family often went without food and shelter. “I never just had fun,” Murphy recalled many years later. “It was a full-time job just existing.”
Murphy’s father deserted the family for good in 1940 and his mother died a year later. Within months the United States was attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor and the war was on. Murphy, like so many thousands of young men, rushed to a military recruiting station. To his dismay, he was rejected by the Army because of his small size — he was 5-foot-5 and weighed only 112 pounds. He kept trying, however, and by July 1942 the Army relented. Anyone that eager to get into uniform, they surmised, was worth having — regardless of his size.
How right they were. From the moment he arrived in the European theater, in July 1943, Murphy displayed an unusual fearlessness in the face of battle. He frequently saved the lives of his fellow soldiers in the Army’s Third Infantry Division and exhibited an uncanny ability to shoot enemy soldiers. Both involved numerous occasions when he risked his life. When asked why he thought he survived so many brushes with death, he replied, “I’m a fugitive from the law of averages.” A later biography of Murphy highlighted this theme in its title: “No Name on the Bullet”.
Murphy’s most extraordinary moment came in late January 1945. He and his small contingent of 18 men and two tanks were moving through German-occupied France, near Strasbourg, when they were suddenly attacked by a German force of 250 soldiers and six tanks. Almost immediately one of the American tanks took a shell and exploded. Unfazed, Murphy climbed onto the burning tank, grabbed its mounted machinegun, and opened fire on the advancing line of Germans. At any moment the tank was liable to explode, yet he kept on firing. He also had the presence of mind, even as he was hit repeatedly by bullets and shell fragments, to call for an artillery attack by a nearby American unit. In less than an hour, 50 Germans lay dead and dozens more wounded. Almost singlehandedly Murphy had stopped the German assault. For his remarkable courage under fire, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
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When the war came to a close in the summer of 1945, Murphy emerged as the most decorated soldier in the war and for all time. In July, Life magazine put him on the cover under the headline “Most Decorated Soldier.” In all, he earned an incredible 37 medals, including four Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, the Distinguished Service Cross, and, of course, the Medal of Honor.
When Murphy returned to the U.S. and civilian life, he was an instant celebrity. First came a best-selling book, “To Hell and Back,” and then a contract with a Hollywood studio to star in a movie. Having never acted before, he took some time to study acting. His first movie, “Bad Boy,” opened in 1949. He appeared in 14 more films, including the hit “Red Badge of Courage” (1951), before his biggest role (as himself) in the autobiographical film “To Hell and Back” (1955). It remained Universal Studio’s highest grossing film until “Jaws” in 1975. In all, Murphy appeared in 44 films from 1949-71.
Despite his rags-to-riches story, Murphy led a troubled life. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or “battle fatigue,” a condition common among soldiers who undergo intense combat experiences. He had a volatile personality that made him difficult to work with. He also struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and gambling. But to his credit, Murphy used his status as a war hero with a record of unparalleled courage to call public attention to the problem of GI’s suffering from PTSD. With his credentials, he destigmatized PTSD as something shameful and helped make the disorder more acceptable to the American public saturated with images of war movie heroism.
Audie Murphy died at the age of 47 in a plane crash in Virginia. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. His gravesite remains one of the most popular among visitors to the cemetery.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Jan. 25, 1890: Nellie Bly returns to America a hero from her famous round-the-world trip.
Jan. 26, 1316: Edward Bruce of Scotland and his Irish allies battle the English at Ardscull, Ireland.
Jan. 28, 1986: Seventy-three seconds after launch, the space shuttle Challenger explodes, killing seven astronauts, including New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa Corrigan McAuliffe.
Jan. 25, 1926: Basketball Hall of Famer Richard “Tricky Dick” McGuire is born in New York City.
Jan. 25, 1691: Pioneer chemist Robert Boyle is born in Waterford.
Jan. 28, 1760: Philadelphia journalist and publisher Matthew Carey is born in Dublin.
Jan. 29, 1843: The 25th U.S. president, William McKinley, is born in Niles, Ohio.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at >odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.