Audie Murphy Earns Medal of Honor

 
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Audie Murphy Earns Medal of Honor

Audie Murphy (1925-1971) in full dress uniform
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: January 26, 1945

For today's spotlight on history, we will examine the defining moment in the life of the most decorated soldier in the U.S. Army. Audie Murphy survived service in Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France during the Second World War. In the post-war years, he established himself as a Hollywood star, but was also plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder.

Background

Audie Leon Murphy was born June 20, 1925 in Kingston, Hunt County, Texas. He was the seventh of twelve children of a family of sharecroppers. He was raised by his mother, as his father had deserted the family. Audie dropped out the fifth grade and took a job picking cotton for a dollar a day. After the death of his mother in 1941, he worked at a radio repair shop and at a combination general store, garage and gas station in Greenville. He was also an expert hunter, using his skills to put food on the family table.

Murphy had always wanted to be a soldier, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he tried to enlist, but the Army, Navy and Marine Corps all turned him down for being underweight and underage. [At 5'5" and 110 lbs., he was not an imposing figure.] After his sister provided an affidavit falsifying his birth date by a year, he was accepted by the U.S. Army on June 30, 1942. After basic training at Camp Wolters, TX, he was sent to Fort Meade, MD for advanced infantry training.

Murphy was assigned to the 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division when he arrived in North Africa. Between February, 1943 to October, 1944, Murphy was promoted from private first class to 2nd lieutenant for his battlefield prowess. During this time, he was hospitalized twice for malaria and twice for wounds received in combat. Murphy participated in Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France in August of 1944. The Germans retreated northward before the attacks of the Americans and Free French forces, In January of 1945, the 3rd Infantry Division entered the Vosges Mountains to confront German forces occupying Alsace and Lorraine.

Prelude to the Battle

German resistance in Alsace-Lorraine – located in eastern France on the German border – was decidedly bitter, as the Third Reich considered these areas as parts of Germany taken from them by treaty and given to France. After the German victory over France in 1940, these provinces were reintegrated into the German nation. Adolf Hitler ordered that Alsace-Lorraine be defended to the death. Consequently, the Allies committed strong force to reduce the German military presence in this area. It was during this operation that Audie Murphy risked his life to blunt a German attack. For his heroic actions he was awarded the Medal of Honor…

Map of Alsace (green & pink areas) and Lorraine (yellow) [Town of Colmar in northern green area of Alsace]
Map of Alsace (green & pink areas) and Lorraine (yellow)
[Town of Colmar in northern green area of Alsace]

Medal of Honor Citation

2d Lt. Murphy commanded Company B, which was attacked by 6 tanks and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to prepared positions in a woods, while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him, to his right, 1 of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. 2d Lt. Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, 2d Lt. Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment, and employed its .50 caliber machinegun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to German fire from 3 sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate 2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he killed or wounded about 50. 2d Lt. Murphy's indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction, and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy's objective.

Aftermath

Not long afterwards, Murphy was promoted to 1st lieutenant, and transferred to Regimental Headquarters as a liaison officer. He received his Medal of Honor on June 2, 1945 in a ceremony near Salzburg, Austria. In June he was sent stateside to Fort Sam Houston, TX and then went home for rest and recuperation. He was discharged from the Army on September 21, 1945.

Footnote #1: Between 1948 and 1969, Murphy made 45 films, many of them westerns. Probably his two best known films were 1951's The Red Badge of Courage, and 1955's To Hell and Back. Murphy was cast as himself in To Hell and Back, which was based on his autobiography of the same name. He also starred in a 1961 TV series Whispering Smith. He made a number of appearances as himself on various variety and game shows in the 1950's. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – dedicated in 1960 – at 1601 Vine Street.

Footnote #2: Murphy had been plagued since his military service with insomnia and bouts of depression, and slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. A post-service medical examination on June 17, 1947 revealed symptoms of headaches, vomiting, and nightmares about war. His medical records indicated that he took sleeping pills to help prevent nightmares. He also wrote poetry and song lyrics to overcome his "battle fatigue."

Footnote #3: Murphy bred quarter horses at ranches in California and Arizona. He invested large sums of money in the hobby. Murphy had a gambling habit that left his finances in a poor state. In 1968, he stated that he lost $260,000 in an Algerian oil deal and was dealing with the Internal Revenue Service over unpaid taxes. In spite of his financial difficulties, Murphy refused to appear in commercials for alcohol and cigarettes, mindful of the influence he would have on the youth market.

Footnote #4: On May 28, 1971, Murphy was killed when the private plane in which he was a passenger crashed into Brush Mountain, near Catawba, VA, 20 miles west of Roanoke in conditions of rain, clouds, fog and zero visibility. On May 7, 1971 Murphy was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. [The headstones of Medal of Honor recipients buried at Arlington National Cemetery are normally decorated in gold leaf. Murphy previously requested that his stone remain plain and inconspicuous, like that of an ordinary soldier.] It is the second-most visited gravesite in the cemetery, next to that of President John F. Kennedy.

Audie Murphy's grave marker, Arlington National Cemetery
Audie Murphy's grave marker, Arlington National Cemetery

Footnote #5: As a result of legislation introduced by U.S. Congressman Olin Teague five months after Murphy's death in 1971, the Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital in San Antonio, now a part of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, was dedicated in 1973.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.