Leon and 11 other siblings grew up in the dirt poor milieu of Texas sharecroppers. His father, when not home breeding additional heirs, wandered in and out of the family’s life until wandering off to never return.
Leon dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help support his family. His first job was picking cotton for a dollar a day. An expert marksman with a hunting rifle, small game supplemented the family diet. Later as an adult, Leon said of his childhood, “I can’t ever remember being young in my life.”
He adored his mother, Josie Bell, who passed from pneumonia and endocarditis in 1941 when Leon was 16 years old. Her death was a traumatic event for the teen, and Josie’s tragic death remained, if not haunted, Leon for the rest of his life.
He said of his mother, “She died when I was 16. 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.”
A troubled young man, prone to outbursts of anger and topsy-turvy mood swings, Leon toiled at several jobs trying to keep the family together, but all for naught. He stood by helpless as county authorities placed three of his youngest siblings in Boles Children Home, a Christian orphanage, and other siblings went with relatives.
The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor presented Leon an opportunity he had always longed for, to be a soldier. An older sister helped Leon to falsify his birth records to meet minimum enlistment requirements, a process that started when he was still 16 years of age. Short in stature and underweight, the Marines turned him down, as did the Army paratroopers and the Navy.
Grudgingly, if not despondently, Leon enlisted in the infantry. But he was, at long last, a soldier. Short, baby-faced for life, soft-spoken with a small physique, Leon appeared to be fragile. However, a fellow Army officer said of Leon, “Don’t let that baby-face fool you, he’s the toughest soldier in the Third Army.”
Destined to be known as the most decorated American soldier in World War II, Leon said of his Medal of Honor, “I never liked being called the ‘most decorated’ soldier. There were so many guys who should have gotten medals but never did… guys who were killed.”
After the war, Leon became a well-known actor, especially in Westerns, and said of the cowboy movies on his 40th birthday, “I guess my face is still the same, and so is the dialogue. Only the horses were changed.”
But still a down-to-earth salt-of-the-earth Texas bred man, he said of Hollywood, “Hell, I don’t think anyone has any friends in this industry. When you’re hot, everyone wants a piece of you. When word gets around you’re washed up, no one will touch you with a 10-foot pole. They’re afraid you will ask them for a job. Or a loan. Or maybe repayment of an old debt.”
Leon was not a party animal. He never smoked and rarely drank. Alcohol and cigarette commercial offers were turned down, all for good reason.
“How would that look,” he said of the offers. “A war hero drinking booze and smoking. I couldn’t do that to kids.”
He befriended the “little guys” in Hollywood, makeup artists, horse wranglers, film crews, and once deserted a party full of wealthy people to hang out with the African-American kitchen staff.
He always used his middle name, Leon, because he disliked his first name. However, in the Army he discovered that the name “Leon” was considered a redneck moniker; therefore, for the rest of his life he used his first name. The world at war and later the Hollywood elite, would recognize the hero from Texas as Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier in WWII. And this is his story.
After basic training, Murphy was assigned to the 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. Arriving too late in North Africa to join the action against Rommel, he nevertheless prepared with the 15th for the invasion of Sicily. was on Sicily that Murphy proved himself as a skilled soldier and expert marksman, especially in small-unit action.
In September 1943, he landed at Battipaglia near Salerno on mainland Italy. Near the Volturno River, he and two other soldiers were ambushed. German machine gunners killed one of the soldiers; Murphy and the other soldier fought back, killing five Germans with hand grenades and their own machine gun fire. In October near Mignano Monte Lungo Hill 193, he and his company stopped an assault by seven German soldiers, killing three and taking four as prisoners. Murphy was promoted to sergeant on Dec. 13.
Promoted to staff sergeant a month later, Murphy came down with malaria and was unable to participate in the initial Anzio Beach landing due to his hospitalization. Returning to his unit on Jan. 29, 1944, Murphy participated in the First Battle of Cisterna and earned a promotion to platoon sergeant of Bravo Company.
Then the 3rd Division returned to Anzio, and stayed in the area for months. On March 2, he and his platoon took shelter in an abandoned farmhouse where they killed the crew of a passing German tank. Crawling out to the tank alone, he destroyed the tank with rifle grenades. He received the Bronze Star with “V” device.
Murphy continued to lead patrols until hospitalized in March with another bout of malaria. On May 8, he and Company B were awarded the Combat Infantry Badge. Murphy received an Oak Leaf Cluster for his Bronze Star. He and his unit were bivouacked in Rome throughout the month of July.
Participating in Operation Anvil-Dragoon (invasion of southern France), Murphy’s division suffered 4,500 casualties, and he became one of the most decorated soldiers in his company. During one engagement, Murphy’s platoon was ambushed in a vineyard by German soldiers. Murphy grabbed a machine gun and returned fire, killing two enemy soldiers and wounding one other. Two German soldiers came out of a nearby house with an indication they wanted to surrender. When Murphy’s best friend responded to their surrender, the German soldiers shot him dead. Apparently, Murphy had had enough. He advanced alone under fire, killing six enemy soldiers, wounding two, and taking 11 prisoners.
Murphy received his first Purple Heart when an enemy mortar round detonated and shrapnel ripped his heel on Sept. 15, ’44. He received the Silver Star on Oct. 2 after killing four Germans and wounding three more in a machine gun nest. Three days later, Murphy crawled alone with a field radio and directed his unit against an enemy position while the enemy directed fire at him. His unit took the position.
Murphy received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant on Oct. 14. On Oct. 26, his platoon was attacked by German snipers. Acting alone, Murphy captured two before being wounded in the hip by one of the snipers. Murphy spotted the sniper, returned the fire, and shot the sniper between his eyes. Gangrene caused partial removal of his hip muscle which kept him out of combat until January 1945. But his biggest challenge was yet to come.
In the Vosges Mountains, 850 square miles of territory called the Colmar Pocket, an area held by the Germans for months: Murphy rejoined his platoon on Jan. 14, 1945 and moved on the town of Holtzwihr. In a strong German counterattack, Murphy suffered wounds in both legs. As the company awaited reinforcements on Jan. 26, Murphy was made Commander of Company B.
An American M-10 tank destroyer suddenly received a direct hit from German artillery. The tank crew abandoned the burning vehicle and under Murphy’s orders took cover in nearby woods. Murphy remained alone, fighting against six Panzer tanks and 250 advancing enemy infantrymen. Murphy kept up fire with his M-1 carbine while directing artillery fire via field radio on the enemy tanks and infantry. He then mounted the burning M-10 tank destroyer and manned the .50 machine gun. One German squad crawling forward through a ditch was entirely wiped out by Murphy’s eagle-eye marksmanship.
Lt. Murphy stood alone for over an hour on a burning tank destroyer that could blow up at any moment. He kept up a deadly fire against the tanks and advanced German infantry. Fifty German soldiers were either killed or wounded. Murphy again received a leg wound but kept on firing until he ran out of ammunition.
He rejoined his men. Despite of his leg wound, he led his men in a counterattack that repelled the Germans from the field of battle. Murphy remained with his men while medics tended to his wounds.
Audie Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor and became a national hero. The Army decided now-First Lt. Murphy was too valuable of an asset for further combat. He was pulled from the front lines and made a liaison officer at Regimental Headquarters. When asked why he had seized a machine gun on top of a flaming vehicle and taken on an entire company of enemy soldiers, Murphy replied simply, “They were killing my friends.”
Audie Murphy, the nation’s most decorated soldier, had earned an unmatched 28 medals, including three from France and one from Belgium. At war’s end in Europe, Murphy had received a number of wounds and the Medal of Honor, all before his 20th birthday.
Wined and dined by a grateful nation, featured on the cover of Life Magazine, actor James Cagney persuaded Murphy to give acting a chance in Hollywood. Murphy appeared in more than 40 feature films and a television series, and eventually retired from the US Army Reserves as a major.
Behind the baby-face, an up-and-down acting career, a strong advocate for extended health care for war veterans, and two troubled marriages, the war had taken its toll on the man from Texas. He took sleeping pills to avoid the nightmares of war, of the death of close friends, of killing and more killing.
During the 1960s, realizing his addiction to Placidyl, Murphy locked himself in a hotel room for a week and went “cold turkey” to break his addiction. Called shell shock or battle fatigue in WWII, Murphy was a victim of the unrecognized affliction now identified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He always slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow.
He raised race horses and invested a large amount of money in the hobby. Gambling on horses took a toll, as did an Algerian oil deal that failed and constant harassment from the I.R.S. for unpaid taxes. Still a fighter, Murphy never gave up.
On May 28, 1971, Murphy was one of five passengers on a twin engine Aero Commander 680 flown by a pilot with 8,000 hours of flying time, but who held no instrument rating. Near Roanoke, in fog, clouds, rain, and zero visibility, the Aero Commander 680 slammed into Brush Mountain near Catawba, Va. There were no survivors.
Buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, attendees to the funeral included then-Ambassador George H. W. Bush and Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland, along with many members of the 3rd Division. Murphy’s final resting place, across Memorial Drive from the Amphitheater and Tomb of the Unknown, is the second most-visited grave at Arlington, after the eternal flame gravesite of President John F. Kennedy.
As a Medal of Honor recipient, Audie Murphy was authorized a gold leaf to decorate his headstone. However, a gold leaf does not appear on his headstone. Murphy previously requested his stone remain simple and inconspicuous, like that of an ordinary soldier.