January 26, 1945. Lieutenant Audie Murphy performs the action that will merit the Medal of Honor, capping off a string of frankly unbelievable events in Italy and France that resulted in him being the most highly decorated American soldier in World War II.
Murphy is a figure whose story does not diminish with familiarity. At 17, underweight and underage, he was not drafted; his sister had to falsify an affidavit that lied about his birth year so he could actually enlist in June 1942. He was assigned to the 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, which fought in multiple actions across the Mediterranean (including the horrific battle of Anzio – coming up in a later post this month) and southern France. Murphy, starting as a private, became a Staff Sergeant at 19 years old and was battlefield commissioned a Lieutenant in October 1944, after he had already earned the Silver Star with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster and a Bronze Star with Valor. His combat actions and leadership were beyond the pale for anyone before or since; reading the citations and seeing the descriptions of what he did is frankly ridiculous.
I say all this to establish that before this action I’m about to describe, Murphy had performed countless outlandish feats of daring, leadership, and courage, enough that it should be no surprise what he did next.
On January 26, 1945, Murphy was commanding Company B of the 15th Infantry Regiment in the Colmar area of eastern France, where American forces were under a strong German attack. The first indication that the Germans were coming was a direct hit on an American armored vehicle in the middle of a field. The vehicle’s flames licked up, but the .50 caliber heavy machine gun mounted on top was still intact. As Murphy ordered his troops to fall back, he took his rifle and a radio and raced towards the burning vehicle.
Murphy mounted the fiery wreck with his radio and observed a whole line of enemy infantry and tanks coming out of the woods directly at him. Taking hold of the machine gun, he laid down fire while calling artillery support in from his radio. Alone in this field, on top of a flaming hulk, Murphy held off an enormous German force for over an hour. Even though he was shot in the leg, he kept hammering away. He killed or wounded at least 50 Germans; they eventually broke off the attack in the face of this one-man death factory and fell back. Murphy only stopped shooting when he was out of ammunition. He rejoined his company and led them forward to finish driving off the attack.
So that’s a real thing that happened.
For that action, Murphy was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Good story, right? Happily ever after?
Well, first of all, no.
The good news: Audie Murphy became a well-known film star after the war, mainly starring in Westerns and other light movies. In 1951, he played the lead in an adaptation of “The Red Badge of Courage,” and in 1955 he reluctantly starred as himself in the film based on his memoir, “To Hell and Back.”
The bad news: the reason Murphy was reluctant was the severe PTSD he suffered from his war experiences. He slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow, and medical examinations after the war showed that he was suffering from recurring nightmares, the headaches we would now know as TBI, and vomiting. He couldn’t sleep. He sobbed when he saw newsreel footage of German orphans, allegedly because he worried that he might have killed their fathers. His friends and family reported multiple episodes of violence, moodiness, and lashing out, including brandishing a weapon. He also became addicted to sleeping pills.
Audie Murphy dealt with these problems the same way he always had: like the badass he was. He locked himself alone in a hotel room for a week to break his addiction cold turkey. Since there was still a social stigma against PTSD, he used his fame and undeniable courage to speak out in support of Korea and Vietnam Vets suffering from it, using his own trauma to help others feel they weren’t alone. He successfully lobbied Congress to fund studies on PTSD and support mentally disabled veterans.
In 1971, Audie Murphy was killed in a plane crash near Roanoke, Virginia. He is buried to this day at Arlington National Cemetery, where he was laid to rest in view of much of the 3rd Infantry Division. It is the cemetery’s second most-visited gravesite after Kennedy. Unlike other Medal of Honor recipients, his stone is not decorated with gold; he had always been just a simple man from Texas.
The United States has never known a better man.
Except for the fact that he apparently threatened his actress wife, Wanda Hendrix with a gun during one of his flashback episodes...but Hendrix, and future historians, spoke of his condition with sympathy rather than anger. It seems like she knew what he was going through.
Audie Murphy's most modern bio is David A. Smith's The Price of Valor: The Life of Audie Murphy, America's Most Decorated Hero of World War II (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2015). For his own words there is always To Hell and Back (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1949) and the associated film version, which honestly holds up pretty well all things considered.