With his slight build, soft voice, and sweet, round boyish face, Audie Murphy’s unassuming demeanor was hardly the standard picture of a war hero—or a Western movie star. But Audie was exactly that, brave, rugged, and just, but with a humble heart.
“I can’t ever remember being young in my life,” Audie once said, and he had good reason to feel that way. His life prior to World War II and Hollywood was one of poverty and neglect. As a young boy, he shouldered responsibilities that would burden adults twice his age.
Born Audie Leon Murphy on June 20, 1924 to sharecropper Emmett Berry Murphy and Josie Bell Killian in Kingston, Texas, he was the seventh of twelve children. As a boy, Audie was shy, a loner and given to bursts of temper and radical mood swings. His father drifted in and out of their lives, and finally, abandoned them altogether. At just 10 years old, a fifth grader, Audie left school to help support his mother and siblings. He worked picking cotton, earning one dollar a day for his effort. The income helped, but feeding 11 brothers and sisters and his mother was a challenge. In order to put food on the table, Audie learned to hunt. Little did he know, his accuracy with a rifle would serve him well when the rumblings of war called him to the front lines. As the war advanced in Europe, he followed the news and was eager to get into the fight, but tragedy was about to strike much closer to home.
For years, Audie worked hard to support his family, and he was devoted to his mother, Josie Bell. In 1941, his beloved mother, passed away from pneumonia and heart failure. An older married sister wasn’t able to care for all the kids. Devastated, Audie watched as three of his youngest siblings were taken from the Murphy home and placed in a Christian orphanage. The others, old enough to get along on their own, went their separate ways. The loss of his mother hit Audie so deep, it plagued him for the rest of his life.
“She died when I was sixteen. She had the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen. It reached almost to the floor,” he said, later in life, “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.”
Now, on his own, Audie moved into a boarding house and found work at a radio repair shop and a gas station that doubled as a general store, but he still dreamed of getting into the action overseas. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was determined, more than ever, to join The Marines, but he didn’t meet their weight and height requirements. Nor did the Paratroopers or Navy feel he was fighting material. Reluctantly, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army, and even if he had a birth certificate, he would have been turned away, as he was underage. Desperate, he convinced his older sister to sign an affidavit stating he was a year older than his actual age, and soon he was off to boot camp, but with the intention of transferring to a more prestigious branch of the military. He set his sights on, eventually, becoming a glider pilot.
The March to War
Any notion of the U.S. Army being beneath him, or the “easy way out,” was soon dispelled. During his very first close-order drill session, he fainted, flat-out cold. As if that wasn’t humiliation enough, he immediately gained the nickname, “baby,” and his commanding officer, thinking he would spare the clearly unsuitable recruit any further embarrassment, offered to send Audie to train as a cook rather than as a combat soldier. Stubborn to the core, Audie persisted and his C.O. finally relented, allowing him to retain his combat classification. It was the smartest decision that
C.O. made because Audie proved himself to be brave, fierce, a strategic thinker, a skillful sharpshooter, and a born leader.
One of his fellow United States Army Officers said of Murphy, “Don’t let that baby face fool you, that’s the toughest soldier in the Third Division.”
Indeed, he fought fiercely, often putting himself in danger, drawing fire, to save his men.
On January 26, 1945, in eastern France, Audie’s men came under attack by the Germans. They were gravely outnumbered as six tanks and 250 enemy infantrymen advanced with all their firepower. Audie ordered his men back, so they could regroup and better defend themselves until reinforcements arrived. Clearly, they wouldn’t be able to hold their position for long as the Germans advanced. On his own, and suffering a leg wound, Audie climbed onto a nearby abandoned tank that was on fire. Manning the machine gun, he fired on enemy troops attacking him on three sides, for almost an hour. He managed to impede their advance and allow his men to engage in the counterattack that drove the Germans into retreat.
In all, he suffered wounds three times in battle, and at the end of World War II, Lt. Murphy had earned 28 medals, including The Medal of
Honor and three Purple Hearts, plus three medals from France and one from Belgium.
When victory was declared, Audie Murphy was still technically a minor, having not yet reached 21st birthday. The war forced him to face horrific situations that demanded split-second life or death decisions, and he made them with valor and wisdom beyond his years, but the experience took its toll. For the rest of his life, he battled his own inner demons, plagued by nightmares, bouts of insomnia and depression, in what we know today as PTSD. He once remarked, he couldn’t get to sleep without a loaded gun under his pillow.
Upon his return to The United States, he was rightfully lauded a hero, wined and dined, and parades were held in his honor. He was the symbol of the triumphant conqueror. Though he could be testy in other aspects of life, when it came to the military and his role in World War II, he was nothing but respectful and humble.
“I never liked being called the ‘most decorated’ soldier,” he once said, “There were so many guys who should have gotten medals and never did—guys who were killed.”
When James Cagney saw the baby-faced warrior’s photo on the cover of Life magazine, he contacted Audie, and invited him to Hollywood to try his hand at acting. He arrived in California with just his good looks and a willingness to give it a shot.
“I’m working under a great handicap,” Audie once said, “…no talent.”
James Cagney’s production company financed acting and dancing lessons for Audie, but still his new career practically stalled. He had signed on as a contract player with Cagney for $150 per week, but hadn’t been cast in one film. In 1947, a disagreement with Cagney’s brother, William, co-owner of the film company, ended Audie’s contract. Cut loose and on his own in a town where careers were built on coveted contracts, and “who you knew,” and destroyed by gossip, rumor, and innuendo, Audie took a room in Terry Hunt’s Athletic Club and lived on his army pension, $113 per week.
A fighter all his life, Audie wasn’t about to give up. He may not have had that inner calling or that flash of brilliance that many famous stars display from a young age, but one thing he did have: determination. In 1948, he met writer David McClure, who helped him get a bit part in Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven, and the agent of Audie’s then girlfriend, actress Wanda Hendrix, got him a small part in Beyond Glory, a film starring Alan Ladd. Things were looking up. In 1949, Audie landed his first lead role in Bad Boy, in spite of the production company president’s concern about Audie’s lack of experience.