A Brief History
On January 26, 1945, the heroic tale of America’s bravest soldier (according to me) reached its zenith when Audie Murphy performed the incredible feats of military courage and effectiveness that earned him the Medal of Honor.
Already the recipient of virtually every single US Army medal for valor that could be earned, Murphy had returned to combat in January 1945 after recuperating from a previous wound. Leading a platoon and then a company of infantry against a larger force of German soldiers in the Colmar Pocket battle area of France, Murphy was wounded in both legs, but to cover the retreat of his men he manned the machine gun of a burned out M-10 tank destroyer (open on top of the vehicle) and held off a German attack with this .50 caliber machine gun and his M-1 carbine. Despite being wounded again, when he ran out of ammo, Murphy withdrew to his troops, and forgoing medical care led his men in a successful defense against the attack of the German soldiers. Murphy had personally killed or wounded at least 50 Germans.
Only after the German attack was repulsed did Murphy allow himself to be treated for his wounds, and even then, only by remaining at the battle scene continuing to direct his unit, refusing evacuation. For these actions Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor, but his story is so much more fascinating than just this account.
Born into a poor sharecropper family in Texas, Murphy’s dad abandoned the family and his mother died when he was a teen. Murphy picked cotton after dropping out of school in the 5th grade, and by age 16 was working in a radio repair shop. At this time his 3 younger siblings were placed in an orphanage by the state. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the 16 year old Murphy, with the help of an older sister, tried to falsify his age and enter service with the Army, Marine Corps and the Navy, but was refused entry by all 3 services. The young man barely looked his age and weighed only 115 pounds (at about 5’8”), but was eventually accepted by the Army in June of 1942.
Service overseas in combat followed in Morocco, then Sicily, and then Italy, in each theater earning honors for valor and promoted up the ranks to staff sergeant. During his time in Italy Murphy suffered a couple of bouts of malaria, ending up hospitalized for a week each time.
The invasion of Southern France was next on this warrior’s agenda, where he earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award. A Purple Heart for a wounded heel was earned soon afterwards, and then Murphy earned the Silver Star (the nation’s third highest award) not once, but twice! On October 14, 1944, Murphy was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. Shot in the hip while performing heroics later that month, Murphy developed gangrene and was out of action until January 1945 while he recovered, although he had permanently lost muscle tissue from the gangrene.
The action in the Colmar Pocket followed Murphy’s return to combat, and a promotion to 1st Lieutenant also followed. With his leg wounds from the Colmar battle, Murphy spent the next months in regimental headquarters as a liaison officer.
Murphy had earned not only the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, 2 Silver Stars, 2 Bronze Stars, 3 Purple Hearts, a Legion of Merit, and the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor, as well as a host of other US military awards and medals, but he had also been awarded the French Legion of Honor, 2 French Croix de Guerre (one with a Silver Star and one with a Palm), as well as the Belgian Croix de Guerre and other medals.
A straightforward, unassuming, and nice man, Murphy was not the swaggering hero you find in adventure movies. When asked about his Medal of Honor earning actions, he simply explained, “They were killing my friends.”
After the war Murphy left the Army, but joined the National Guard in 1950, moving up the ranks to Major until his transferring to the Army Reserve in 1966, from which he retired in 1969. Murphy found himself somewhat of a celebrity on his return from Europe, and began an acting career in 1948 in which he appeared in 40 movies and a television series. Murphy’s 1949 book about his war experience, To Hell and Back, is an absolute must read for any person interested in military history. Typical of Murphy, he does not dwell on his heroics. The book was made into a film starring Murphy as himself in 1955. The film was the biggest hit Universal Studios had ever had to that point.
Murphy did not look or talk like a big, tough hero, but in spite of that he certainly was one of America’s greatest heroes and bravest soldiers ever. With a rock bottom poverty stricken youth and lack of formal education, this Texan went on to join the pantheon of heroes of all time. Audie Murphy, Alvin York, and Lewis “Chesty” Puller are among the author’s favorite military heroes. Question for students (and subscribers): Who ranks among your favorites? Please share with us those that you admire in the comments section below this article.
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