Audie Leon Murphy (20 June 1925 to 28 May 1971) was an American soldier, actor, songwriter, and rancher. He was one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of World War II.
He received every military combat award for valour available from the US Army, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism. Murphy received the Medal of Honour for valour that he demonstrated at the age of 19 for single-handedly holding off a company of German soldiers for an hour at the Colmar Pocket in France in January 1945, then leading a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition.
Murphy was born into a large family of sharecroppers in Hunt County, Texas. His father abandoned them, and his mother died when he was a teenager. Murphy left school in fifth grade to pick cotton and find other work to help support his family; his skill with a hunting rifle helped feed his family.
After the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, Murphy’s older sister helped him to falsify documentation about his birthdate in order to meet the minimum-age requirement for enlisting in the military. Turned down initially for being underweight by the Army, Navy and the Marine Corps, he eventually was able to enlist in the Army. He first saw action in the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily; then in 1944 he participated in the Battle of Anzio, the liberation of Rome, and the invasion of southern France. Murphy fought at Montélimar and led his men on a successful assault at L’Omet quarry near Cleurie in north-eastern France in October.
After the war, Murphy embarked on a 21-year acting career. He played himself in the 1955 autobiographical film To Hell and Back, based on his 1949 memoirs of the same name, but most of his roles were in westerns. He made guest appearances on celebrity television shows and starred in the series Whispering Smith. Murphy was a fairly accomplished songwriter. He bred quarter horses in California and Arizona, and became a regular participant in horse racing.
Suffering from what would today be described as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Murphy slept with a loaded handgun under his pillow. He looked for solace in addictive sleeping pills. In his last few years, he was plagued by money problems but refused offers to appear in alcohol and cigarette commercials because he did not want to set a bad example. Murphy died in a plane crash in Virginia in 1971, which was shortly before his 46th birthday. He was interred with military honours at Arlington National Cemetery, where his grave is one of the most visited.
Audie Murphy was born on 20 June 1925, in Kingston, a small rural community in Hunt County in northeastern Texas. He was the seventh of twelve children born to Emmett Berry Murphy (1887-1976) and his wife Josie Bell Murphy (née Killian; 1891-1941). The Murphys were sharecroppers of Irish descent.
As a child, Murphy was a loner with mood swings and an explosive temper. He grew up in northeastern Texas around the towns of Farmersville, Greenville, and Celeste, where he attended elementary school. His father drifted in and out of the family’s life and eventually deserted them. Murphy dropped out of school in fifth grade and got a job picking cotton for a dollar a day (equivalent to $19 in 2020) to help support his family; he also became skilled with a rifle, hunting small game to help feed them. After his mother died of endocarditis and pneumonia in 1941, he worked at a radio repair shop and at a combination general store, garage and gas station in Greenville. Hunt County authorities placed his three youngest siblings in Boles Children’s Home, a Christian orphanage in Quinlan. After the war, he bought a house in Farmersville for his eldest sister Corinne and her husband, Poland Burns. His other siblings briefly shared the home.
The loss of his mother stayed with Murphy throughout his life. He later stated:
She died when I was sixteen. She had the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen. It reached almost to the floor. She rarely talked; and always seemed to be searching for something. What it was I don’t know. We didn’t discuss our feelings. But when she passed away, she took something of me with her. It seems I’ve been searching for it ever since.
World War II Service
Murphy had always wanted to be a soldier. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, he tried to enlist, but the Army, Navy and Marine Corps all turned him down for being underweight and underage. After his sister provided an affidavit that falsified his birth date by a year, he was accepted by the US Army on 30 June 1942. After basic training at Camp Wolters, he was sent to Fort Meade for advanced infantry training. During basic training, he earned the Marksman Badge with Rifle Component Bar and Expert Badge with Bayonet Component Bar.
Murphy was shipped to Casablanca in French Morocco on 20 February 1943. He was assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, which trained under the command of Major General Lucian Truscott. He participated as a platoon messenger with his division at Arzew in Algeria in rigorous training for the Allied assault landings in Sicily. He was promoted to private first class on 07 May and corporal on 15 July.
When the 3rd Infantry landed at Licata, Sicily, on 10 July, Murphy was a division runner. On a scouting patrol, he killed two fleeing Italian officers near Canicattì. Sidelined with illness for a week when Company B arrived in Palermo on 20 July, he rejoined them when they were assigned to a hillside location protecting a machine-gun emplacement, while the rest of the 3rd Infantry Division fought at San Fratello en route to the Allied capture of the transit port of Messina.
Murphy participated in the September 1943 mainland Salerno landing at Battipaglia. While on a scouting party along the Volturno River, he and two other soldiers were ambushed; German machine gun fire killed one soldier. Murphy and the other survivor responded by killing five Germans with hand grenades and machine gun fire. While taking part in the October Allied assault on the Volturno Line, near Mignano Monte Lungo Hill 193, he and his company repelled an attack by seven German soldiers, killing three and taking four prisoner. Murphy was promoted to sergeant on 13 December.
In January 1944, Murphy was promoted to staff sergeant. He was hospitalised in Naples with malaria on 21 January and was unable to participate in the initial landing at the Anzio beachhead. He returned on 29 January and participated in the First Battle of Cisterna, and was made a platoon sergeant in Company B following the battle. He returned with the 3rd Division to Anzio, where they remained four months. Taking shelter from the weather in an abandoned farmhouse on 02 March, Murphy and his platoon killed the crew of a passing German tank. He then crawled out alone close enough to destroy the tank with rifle grenades, for which he received the Bronze Star with “V” device.
Murphy continued to make scouting patrols to take German prisoners before being hospitalised for a week on 13 March with a second bout of malaria. Sixty-one infantry officers and enlisted men of Company B, 15th Infantry, including Murphy, were awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge on 08 May.
Murphy was awarded a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Bronze Star. American forces liberated Rome on 04 June, and Murphy remained bivouacked in Rome with his platoon throughout July.
During the first wave of the Allied invasion of southern France, Murphy received the Distinguished Service Cross for action taken on 15 August 1944.
After landing on Yellow Beach near Ramatuelle, Murphy’s platoon was making its way through a vineyard when the men were attacked by German soldiers. He retrieved a machine gun that had been detached from the squad and returned fire at the German soldiers, killing two and wounding one. Two Germans exited a house about 100 yards (91 m) away and appeared to surrender; when Murphy’s best friend responded, they shot and killed him. Murphy advanced alone on the house under direct fire. He killed six, wounded two and took 11 prisoner.
Murphy was with the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment during the 27-28 August offensive at Montélimar that secured the area from the Germans. Along with the other soldiers who took part in the action, he received the Presidential Unit Citation.
Murphy’s first Purple Heart was for a heel wound received in a mortar shell blast on 15 September 1944 in northeastern France. His first Silver Star came after he killed four and wounded three at a German machine gun position on 02 October at L’Omet quarry in the Cleurie river valley. Three days later, Murphy crawled alone towards the Germans at L’Omet, carrying an SCR-536 radio and directing his men for an hour while the Germans fired directly at him. When his men finally took the hill, 15 Germans had been killed and 35 wounded. Murphy’s actions earned him a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Silver Star. He was awarded a battlefield commission to second lieutenant on 14 October, which elevated him to platoon leader. While en route to Brouvelieures on 26 October, the 3rd Platoon of Company B was attacked by a German sniper group. Murphy captured two before being shot in the hip by a sniper; he returned fire and shot the sniper between the eyes. At the 3rd General Hospital at Aix-en-Provence, the removal of gangrene from the wound caused partial loss of his hip muscle and kept him out of combat until January. Murphy received his first Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Purple Heart for this injury.
The Colmar Pocket, 850 square miles (2,200 km2) in the Vosges Mountains, had been held by German troops since November 1944. On 14 January 1945, Murphy rejoined his platoon, which had been moved to the Colmar area in December. He moved with the 3rd Division on 24 January to the town of Holtzwihr, where they faced a strong German counterattack. He was wounded in both legs, for which he received a second Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Purple Heart. As the company awaited reinforcements on 26 January, he was made commander of Company B.
The Germans scored a direct hit on an M10 tank destroyer, setting it alight, forcing the crew to abandon it. Murphy ordered his men to retreat to positions in the woods, remaining alone at his post, shooting his M1 carbine and directing artillery fire via his field radio while the Germans aimed fire directly at his position. Murphy mounted the abandoned, burning tank destroyer and began firing its .50 calibre machine gun at the advancing Germans, killing a squad crawling through a ditch towards him. For an hour, Murphy stood on the flaming tank destroyer returning German fire from foot soldiers and advancing tanks, killing or wounding 50 Germans. He sustained a leg wound during his stand, and stopped only after he ran out of ammunition. Murphy rejoined his men, disregarding his own injury, and led them back to repel the Germans. He insisted on remaining with his men while his wounds were treated.
For his actions that day, he was awarded the Medal of Honour. The 3rd Infantry Division was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions at the Colmar Pocket, giving Murphy a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for the emblem.
On 16 February, Murphy was promoted to first lieutenant and was awarded the Legion of Merit for his service from 22 January 1944 to 18 February 1945. He was moved from the front lines to Regimental Headquarters and made a liaison officer.
The United States additionally honored Murphy’s war contributions with the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with arrowhead device and 9 campaign stars, the World War II Victory Medal, and the Army of Occupation Medal with Germany Clasp. France recognised his service with the French Legion of Honour – Grade of Chevalier, the French Croix de guerre with Silver Star, the French Croix de guerre with Palm, the French Liberation Medal and the French Fourragère in Colours of the Croix de guerre, which was authorised for all members of the 3rd Infantry Division who fought in France during World War II. Belgium awarded Murphy the Belgian Croix de guerre with 1940 Palm.
Brigadier General Ralph B. Lovett and Lieutenant Colonel Hallet D. Edson recommended Murphy for the Medal of Honour. Near Salzburg, Austria on 02 June 1945, Lieutenant General A.M. Patch presented Murphy with the Medal of Honour and Legion of Merit for his actions at Holtzwihr. When asked after the war why he had seized the machine gun and taken on an entire company of German infantry, he replied, “They were killing my friends.”
Murphy received every US military combat award for valour available from the US Army for his World War II service.
Post-war Military Service
Inquiries were made through official channels about the prospect of Murphy attending West Point upon his return to the United States, but he never enrolled. According to author Don Graham, Murphy suggested the idea and then dropped it, possibly when he realised the extent of academic preparation needed to pass the entrance exam.
Murphy was one of several military personnel who received orders on 08 June 1945 to report to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, for temporary duty and reassignment. Upon arrival on 13 June, he was one of four assigned to Fort Sam Houston Army Ground & Services Redistribution Station and sent home for 30 days of recuperation, with permission to travel anywhere within the United States during that period. While on leave, Murphy was feted with parades, banquets, and speeches. He received a belated Good Conduct Medal on 21 August.
He was discharged with the rank of first lieutenant at a 50% disability classification on 21 September and transferred to the Officers’ Reserve Corps.
Since his military service, Murphy had been plagued with insomnia and bouts of depression, and he slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. A post-service medical examination on 17 June 1947 revealed symptoms of headaches, vomiting, and nightmares about the war. His medical records indicated that he took sleeping pills to help prevent nightmares. During the mid-1960s, he recognised his dependence on the sedative Placidyl, and locked himself alone in a hotel room for a week to successfully break the addiction. Post-traumatic stress levels exacerbated his innate moodiness, and surfaced in episodes that friends and professional colleagues found alarming. His first wife, Dixie Wanda Hendrix, claimed he once held her at gunpoint. She witnessed her husband being guilt-ridden and tearful over newsreel footage of German war orphans. Murphy briefly found a creative stress outlet in writing poetry after his Army discharge. His poem “The Crosses Grow on Anzio” appeared in his book To Hell and Back, but was attributed to the fictitious character Kerrigan.
To draw attention to the problems of returning Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, Murphy spoke out candidly about his own problems with posttraumatic stress disorder. It was known during Murphy’s lifetime as “battle fatigue” and “shell shock”, terminology that dated back to World War I. He called on the government to give increased consideration and study to the emotional impact of combat experiences, and to extend health care benefits to war veterans. As a result of legislation introduced by US 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.
Texas Army National Guard
At the end of World War II, the 36th Infantry Division reverted to state control as part of the Texas Army National Guard, and Murphy’s friends, Major General H. Miller Ainsworth and Brigadier General Carl L. Phinney, were the 36th’s commander and deputy commander respectively. After 25 June 1950 commencement of the Korean War, Murphy began a second military career and was commissioned as a captain in the 36th Infantry Division of the Texas Army National Guard. He drilled new recruits in the summer training camps, and granted the Guard permission to use his name and image in recruiting materials. Although he wanted to join the fighting and juggled training activities with his film career, the 36th Infantry Division was never sent to Korea.
At his request, he transferred to inactive status on 01 October 1951 because of his film commitments with MGM Studios, and returned to active status in 1955. Murphy was promoted to the rank of major by the Texas Army National Guard in 1956 and returned to inactive status in 1957. In 1969, his official separation from the Guard transferred him to the United States Army Reserve. He remained with the USAR until his transfer to the Retired Reserve in 1969.
Throughout an acting career spanning from 1948 to 1969, Murphy made more than 40 feature films and one television series. When actor and producer James Cagney saw the 16 July 1945 issue of Life magazine depicting Murphy as the “most decorated soldier”, he brought him to Hollywood. Cagney and his brother William signed him as a contract player for their production company and gave him training in acting, voice and dance. They never cast Murphy in a movie and a personal disagreement ended the association in 1947. Murphy later worked with acting coach Estelle Harman, and honed his diction by reciting dialogue from William Shakespeare and William Saroyan.
Murphy moved into Terry Hunt’s Athletic Club in Hollywood where he lived until 1948. Hollywood writer David “Spec” McClure befriended Murphy, collaborating with him on Murphy’s 1949 book To Hell and Back. McClure used his connections to get a $500 (equivalent to $5,000 in 2020) bit part in Texas, Brooklyn & Heaven (1948) for Murphy. The agent of Wanda Hendrix, whom Murphy had been dating since 1946, got him a bit part in the Alan Ladd film Beyond Glory directed by John Farrow earlier that same year. His 1949 film Bad Boy gave him his first leading role. The film’s financial backers refused to bankroll the project unless Murphy was given the lead; thus, Allied Artists put aside their reservations about using an inexperienced actor and gave him the starring role.
Universal Studios signed Murphy to a seven-year studio contract at $2,500 a week (equivalent to $26,900 in 2020). His first film for them was as Billy the Kid in The Kid from Texas in 1950. He wrapped up that year making Sierra starring Wanda Hendrix, who by that time had become his wife, and Kansas Raiders as outlaw Jesse James. Universal lent him to MGM in 1951 at a salary of $25,000 to play the lead of The Youth in The Red Badge of Courage, directed by John Huston. Murphy and Huston worked together again in the 1960 film The Unforgiven.
The only film Murphy made in 1952 was The Duel at Silver Creek with director Don Siegel. Murphy worked with Siegel one more time in 1958 for The Gun Runners. In 1953, he starred in Frederick de Cordova’s Column South, and played Jim Harvey in Nathan Juran’s Tumbleweed, an adaptation of the Kenneth Perkins novel Three Were Renegades. Director Nathan Juran also directed Gunsmoke and Drums Across the River. George Marshall directed Murphy in the 1954 Destry, a remake of Destry Rides Again, based on a character created by author Max Brand.
Although Murphy was initially reluctant to appear as himself in To Hell and Back, the 1955 adaptation of his book directed by Jesse Hibbs, he eventually agreed; it became the biggest hit in the history of Universal Studios at the time. To help publicise the release of the film, he made guest appearances on television shows such as What’s My Line?, Toast of the Town, and Colgate Comedy Hour. The Hibbs-Murphy team proved so successful in To Hell and Back that the two worked together on five subsequent films. The partnership resulted in Murphy appearing as John Phillip Clum in the 1956 western Walk the Proud Land, and the non-westerns Joe Butterfly and World in My Corner. They worked together for the last time in the 1958 western Ride a Crooked Trail.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz hired Murphy to play the titular role in the 1958 film The Quiet American. Murphy formed a partnership with Harry Joe Brown to make three films, starting with The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957). The partnership fell into disagreement over the remaining two projects, and Brown filed suit against Murphy.
In 1957 Murphy was cast as The Utica Kid along with James Stewart and Dan Duryea in the western Night Passage.
Murphy was featured in three westerns in 1959: he starred opposite Sandra Dee in The Wild and the Innocent, collaborated as an uncredited co-producer with Walter Mirisch on the black and white Cast a Long Shadow, and performed as a hired killer in No Name on the Bullet, a film that was well received by critics. Thelma Ritter was his costar in the 1960 Startime television episode “The Man”. During the early 1960s, Murphy donated his time and otherwise lent his name and image for three episodes of The Big Picture television series produced by the United States Army. He received the 1960 Outstanding Civilian Service Medal for his cooperation in the episode Broken Bridge, which featured his visits to military installations in Germany, Italy, Turkey and the US state of New Mexico to showcase the military’s latest weaponry.
Writer Clair Huffaker wrote the 1961 screenplays for Murphy’s films Seven Ways from Sundown and Posse from Hell. Willard W. Willingham and his wife Mary Willingham befriended Murphy in his early days in Hollywood and worked with him on a number of projects.
Willard was a producer on Murphy’s 1961 television series Whispering Smith, and co-wrote the screenplay for Battle at Bloody Beach that year. He collaborated on Bullet for a Badman in 1964 and Arizona Raiders in 1965. The Willinghams as a team wrote the screenplay for Gunpoint as well as the script for Murphy’s last starring lead in the western 40 Guns to Apache Pass in 1967. Murphy made Trunk to Cairo in Israel in 1966.
He first met director Budd Boetticher when Murphy requested to be his boxing partner at Terry Hunt’s Athletic Club. He subsequently appeared in the 1951 title role of Boetticher’s first western The Cimarron Kid. Boetticher wrote the script in 1969 for Murphy’s last film, A Time for Dying. Two other projects that Murphy and Boetticher planned to collaborate on – A Horse for Mr Barnum and When There’s Sumpthin’ to Do – never came to fruition.
Murphy married actress Wanda Hendrix in 1949. Their divorce became final two years later in 1951. Four days later, he married former airline stewardess Pamela Opal Lee Archer (07 October 1919/1920/1923 – 08 April 2010), with whom he had two sons: Terry Michael (born 14 March 1952), and James Shannon (born 1954).
Murphy bred quarter horses at the Audie Murphy Ranch in what is now Menifee, California, and the Murphy Ranch in Pima County, Arizona.
His horses raced at the Del Mar Racetrack, and he invested large sums of money in the hobby. Murphy’s gambling 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.
In May 1970, he was arrested in Burbank, California, charged with battery and assault with intent to commit murder in a dispute with a dog trainer. He was accused of firing a shot at the man, which he denied. Murphy was cleared of the charges.
Death and Commemorations
On 28 May 1971, Murphy was killed when the private plane in which he was a passenger crashed into Brush Mountain, near Catawba, Virginia, 20 miles (32 km) west of Roanoke in conditions of rain, clouds, fog and zero visibility. The pilot and four other passengers were also killed.
The aircraft was a twin-engine Aero Commander 680 flown by a pilot who had a private-pilot license and a reported 8,000 hours of flying time, but who held no instrument rating. The aircraft was recovered on 31 May. After her husband’s death, Pamela Murphy moved into a small apartment and got a clerk position at the Sepulveda Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles, where she remained employed for 35 years.
In 1975, a court awarded Murphy’s widow, Pamela, and their two children $2.5 million in damages because of the accident.
On 07 June 1971, Murphy was buried with military honours at Arlington National Cemetery. In attendance were Ambassador to the UN George H. W. Bush, Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland, and many of the 3rd Infantry Division. Murphy’s gravesite is in Section 46, headstone number 46-366-11, located across Memorial Drive from the Amphitheatre. A special flagstone walkway was later constructed to accommodate the large number of people who visit to pay their respects. It is the cemetery’s second most-visited gravesite, after that of President John F. Kennedy.
The headstones of Medal of Honour 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. The headstone contains the birth year 1924, based upon purportedly falsified materials among his military records. In 1974, a large granite marker was erected just off the Appalachian Trail at 37.364554°N 80.225748°W at 3,100′ elevation, near the crash site.
Civilian honours were bestowed on Murphy during his lifetime and posthumously, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2013, Murphy was honoured by his home state with the Texas Legislative Medal of Honour.
In 2014, the rock band Sabaton released a song titled “To Hell and Back” in reference to Audie Murphy and his film, on their album Heroes.
David McClure, his collaborator on the book To Hell and Back, discovered Murphy’s talent for poetry during their work on the memoir when he found discarded verses in Murphy’s Hollywood apartment. One of those poems, “The Crosses Grow on Anzio”, appears in To Hell and Back attributed to a soldier named Kerrigan. Only two others survived, “Alone and Far Removed” and “Freedom Flies in Your Heart Like an Eagle”. The latter was part of a speech Murphy had written at a 1968 dedication of the Alabama War Memorial in Montgomery, and later set to music by Scott Turner under the title “Dusty Old Helmet”.
Murphy was a fan of country music, in particular Bob Wills and Chet Atkins, but was not a singer or musician himself. Through his friend Guy Mitchell, Murphy was introduced to songwriter Scott Turner in 1961. The two collaborated on numerous songs between 1962 and 1970, the most successful of which was “Shutters and Boards” and “When the Wind Blows in Chicago”.