To Hell and Back
“I never liked being called the ‘most decorated’ soldier. There were so many guys who should have gotten medals and never did–
guys who were killed.”
Today would be the 88th birthday of Audie Murphy if he had not died in a plane crash, fittingly enough on Memorial Day weekend, forty-three years ago.
In the Fifties actor Audie Murphy achieved stardom, mainly in Westerns. Murphy looked like a typical Hollywood “pretty boy” but he was anything but. From a family of 12 in Texas, he was the sixth child, Murphy had dropped out of school in the fifth grade to help support his dirt poor family after his worthless father ran off. His mother died in 1941. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army at 16, lying about his birthday, partially to help support his younger brothers and sister and partially because he dreamed of a military career. He served with the Third Infantry Division in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany. By the end of the War, just before his 19th birthday, he was a First Lieutenant and had earned, in hellish combat, a Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, a French Legion of Honor, a French Croix de Guerre, a Belgian Croix de Guerre, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. He was the most decorated soldier of the US Army in World War 2. Here is his Medal of Honor Citation which helps explain why Murphy entitled his war memoir To Hell and Back:
Second Lt. Murphy commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position 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, one 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 machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to German fire from three 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 that 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 his single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way back 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.
Due to his physical injuries, some of which never healed, Murphy had to turn down an appointment to West Point. He remained in the Texas National Guard, serving in the 36th Infantry Division, retiring as a Major in 1966. Along with his physical injuries, Murphy also had a bad case of post traumatic stress disorder from his years in combat, and would be haunted by frequent nightmares of his wartime experiences for the rest of his life. In the film made on his wartime exploits, Murphy kept much of the focus on his buddies, most of whom were killed in the War. His battlefield exploits were toned down, partially out of modesty by Murphy, but also because the reality of what he did would have seemed simply unbelievable on the screen. Murphy at the end of the War was numb from all the combat he had seen and the ending of his memoir To Hell and Back reflects this:
Like a horror film run backwards, images of the war flicker through my brain. The tank in the snow with smoldering bodies on top. The smell of burning flesh. Of rotting flesh too. Novak rotting in a grave on Anzio. Horse-Face. Knowed an old girl once. The girl, red-eyed and shivering, in the Naples dawn. And Kerrigan. Kerrigan shuffling cards with half a hand. He was far luckier than Antonio. Yes, Antonio, trying to stand on the stumps of his legs with the machine gun ripping his body. And Brandon dead under the cork tree. Deer daddy, I’m in school. “I’ll never enter another schoolroom,” says Elleridge.
He was right. It is as though a fire had roared through this human house, leaving only the charred hulk of something that once was green.
Within a couple of hours, I have had enough. I return to my room. But I cannot sleep. My mind still whirls. When I was a child, I was told that men were branded by war. Has the brand been put on me? Have the years of blood and ruin stripped me of all decency? Of all belief?
Not of all belief. I believe in the force of a hand grenade, the power of artillery, the accuracy of a Garand. I believe in hitting before you get hit, and that dead men do not look noble.
However, as terrible as the War had been he still came through with hope:
But I also believe in men like Brandon and Novak and Swope and Kerrigan; and all the men who stood up against the enemy, taking their beatings without whimper and their triumphs without boasting. The men who went and would go again to hell and back to preserve what our country thinks right and decent.
Rest in peace Mr. Murphy, and my gratitude for the peace and freedom that brave men like you bought at a very high price for me and mine.