It’s a Saturday afternoon in 1955, and I am sitting with my father in the Palace Theater in Lorain, Ohio. I am 7 years old, and we are waiting for the start of a war movie called To Hell and Back. It is, my dad tells me, a true story, and the hero is a real hero playing himself. His name, I learned that day, was Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of all time.
As David A. Smith, senior lecturer in history at Baylor, writes in his introduction, Murphy’s “actions in World War II were of the sort from which chroniclers, balladeers, and poets since the days of the ancient Greeks have composed legends. He was the man charging headlong into fortified enemy positions, holding his own against an onslaught of enemy soldiers, defying the odds. Always brave, always valorous. Always alone.” And now, largely unknown to anyone under the age of 50.
Audie Murphy grew up in Hunt County, Texas, one of the many children of a feckless alcoholic father and a worn-out mother. Forced to quit school after the fifth grade, he learned to shoot partly to put food on the family table. (“If I missed,” he later said, “we didn’t eat.”) Once the United States entered World War II, Murphy tried to enlist in the Marines, but they wouldn’t have him. He was just five-feet-five-inches tall and weighed all of 112 pounds. Lying about his age—he was only 17—Murphy finally managed to join the Army, where he was soon “classified as a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) specialist and assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, of the 3rd Infantry Division.”
He killed his first man in Sicily—actually, two men. “I have shed my first blood,” he later recalled in his bestselling autobiography To Hell and Back (1949). “I feel no qualms; no pride, no remorse. There is only a weary indifference that will follow me through the war.” He will be in combat for 20 months and will ultimately kill, in face-to-face encounters, at least 240 enemy soldiers. Generally, he is cool in battle: “ ‘When I get in a situation where it’s tense and everything,’ he remarked later, ‘things seem to slow down for me. It doesn’t seem a blur. Things become very clarified.’ ” But when his closest friend, Lattie Tipton, is shot by a sniper, he goes on a rampage. As Smith writes:
He counterattacked like a berserker, bursting from his foxhole firing his carbine. He killed the two Germans who had been shooting at him, grabbed their machine gun, and “holding it like a BAR for firing from the hip,” Murphy found the gun crew that had killed Tipton and raked them with fire. “I remember the experience as I do a nightmare. A demon seems to have entered my body”—a demon that led him to clean out the entire hill of Germans. When the stress finally passed and the rush of adrenaline left his body, his hands began to tremble and he sank to the ground exhausted.
He received the Distinguished Service Cross and would be wounded three times, earning a Purple Heart with two oak clusters. He once nearly died when gangrene set into his wounds, but he always survived to fight again. And after every battle, he would immediately strip his gun and clean it. The readiness is all.
On January 26, 1945, near the small village of Holtzwihr, France, Second Lieutenant Murphy and his men were attacked by six German Tiger tanks supported by around 250 infantry in white winter gear. In short order, the Americans’ two tank destroyers were hit and disabled. Murphy then ordered his men to withdraw, while he stayed on to direct an artillery barrage. The Germans, however, kept on coming, “as though nothing would stop them.” Smith then describes what was, to my young self, the most thrilling moment of the autobiographical movie:
Murphy scrambled back to the .50 caliber machine gun mounted atop the burning tank-destroyer to his rear. He did not know if the gun was still operable, but it was now the only chance he had to slow down the Germans. He dragged the phone over to it and climbed on top. The body of the lieutenant was half in and half out of the turret, his blood running down the side.
The .50 caliber still worked.