Short, slightly built, baby-faced, and soft-spoken, Audie L. Murphy of Texas was far removed from the popular image of a warrior or hero.
The boy loved to hunt in the local scrubland. Blessed with sharp eyesight, quick reflexes, and a determined personality beneath his mild demeanor, he displayed uncanny accuracy with a rifle and was able to bag rabbits and squirrels for the family table. He was a natural marksman. These traits would serve him well later.
Restless and despondent about the hard times as the Great Depression gripped the nation, Emmett Murphy deserted his family several times, and in 1940 he left for good. Audie observed wryly, “My dad wasn’t lazy; he just had a genius for not considering the future.” A few months later, the boy suffered the most heart-rending experience of his life when his beloved mother died of a heart disease on May 23, 1941. Always close to her, he mourned for several months. Most of his siblings disappeared into orphanages as Audie spent several teenage years in casual labor – selling newspapers, picking cotton, and working in a filling station, a grocery store, and a radio repair shop.
He became keenly interested in military matters after listening to stories related to him by two uncles who had soldiered in France in 1918, and the boy often told friends that he wanted to enlist. Besides the possible adventure and glory it promised a youth, the profession of arms meant escape from grinding rural poverty. So, when the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, plunged America into World War II, Audie Murphy, now 17 years old, trudged off eagerly to a recruiting station.
His ardor was quickly dampened. Standing only five feet, five inches tall and weighing just 110 pounds, he was rejected by Marine Corps and Army airborne recruiters. But he was undeterred. On the advice of one of the recruiters, he went home and spent the next few months gaining weight with bananas and milk. Then, brandishing a letter from his sister attesting to his age as being 18, Audie presented himself to recruiters in Dallas and was accepted into the Army on June 30, 1942.
After 13 weeks of basic training at desolate Camp Wolters in Texas, during which he passed out while learning close-order drill, Audie was sent to Fort Meade, Maryland, in the late fall of 1942 for advanced infantry training. He adapted easily to Army life. Amid the camaraderie of barracks, mess halls, and pup tents, he felt he had finally found a home where he belonged. Because of his almost girlish features, he was nicknamed “Baby” by his comrades. An officer suggested that the unimposing youth become a headquarters runner rather than a rifleman, but he resisted stoutly. He was determined to prove himself in combat. He impressed his superiors with his bearing, leadership potential, and loyal attitude and was soon wearing the two stripes of a corporal.
In February 1943, Murphy rode a troopship to North Africa and the start of a brief but unprecedented military career. In North Africa, he joined B Company of the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, part of the proud 3rd “Rock of the Marne” Infantry Division of World War I fame. He would spend 28 months with the unit, though he had to wait for several months in North Africa before seeing action.
Audie’s introduction to war came early in July 1943, when the British Eighth and U.S. Seventh Armies invaded Sicily to dislodge the German and Italian defenders and push toward the key port of Messina, stepping stone to the Italian mainland. Audie’s regiment landed at Licata on July 10. The hard struggle to capture the dusty, craggy island dispelled notions that the young Texan had harbored earlier about war being adventurous or romantic; it was a matter of mountains, pack mules, lonely nights, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion.
But Audie, self-disciplined and no stranger to hardship, volunteered for patrols, was eager to take the point during advances, and demonstrated dexterity with weapons. He also exhibited early on a hard, matter-of-fact approach to infantry warfare that was uncommon among citizen soldiers. On one occasion, when he spotted two Italian officers escaping on white horses, he coolly shot them. Disturbed, his platoon leader asked him, “Why’d you do that?” Audie replied tersely, “That’s our job.”
Murphy was felled by malaria for several weeks in Sicily. When he recovered, he fiercely resisted efforts to send him as a replacement to another unit, and he rejoined his company at Salerno. The 3rd Infantry Division had landed there nine days after the British and American armies had gone ashore in Italy.
The division fought a series of actions around the Volturno River, and Audie soon found that if the Sicilian campaign had been bad, Italy was infinitely worse, with more mountains to climb, rainy days and cold nights, mud, and shells crashing down incessantly. He witnessed enough pain and death to last a lifetime. Out on patrol one dark night after a skirmish with German.
troops, Audie and his men took cover in an abandoned quarry. The enemy pursued them but were halted by American fire, which killed three men and caused the others to surrender. The action gained Murphy three stripes.
He and his comrades slogged up the Italian boot, through Mignano and Monte Lungo, and into the terrible Monte Cassino campaign. The doughty little Texan was never far from the front and became well known for enthusiastically venturing out alone to stalk and kill Germans wherever he could find them. He won his first Bronze Star for leading a night patrol to destroy with rifle grenades and Molotov cocktails a damaged German tank, which its crew was striving to repair.
Audie was the consummate infantryman. He handled small arms with assurance, and, unlike many citizen soldiers, did not hesitate to kill the enemy. Historian S.L.A. Marshall reported after World War II that a large percentage of American foot soldiers had seldom fired their weapons in action and rarely hit their targets when they did so. Murphy always fired and usually hit his target.
Although claiming to be as prone to fear as any of his comrades, Audie possessed tactical judgment that helped him to keep his nerve when others lost it. Despite his dearth of schooling, he had natural intelligence and a facility for assessing a combat situation. He said, “Experience helps. You soon learn that a situation is seldom as black as the imagination paints it. Some always get through.”
After another bout of malaria that sent him to a field hospital for 10 days, Murphy was offered a battlefield commission. But he declined it because he did not want to leave his company. Then, in January 1944, came the almost disastrous invasion at Anzio, where British and American forces were kept penned in the beachhead and pounded by German artillery and bombing for four months. Mere survival day by day was a victory for the hapless GIs and British Tommies at Anzio, and Audie Murphy watched many of his friends die there. He said ruefully, “I began feeling like a fugitive from the law of averages.” One of his friends, cartoonist Bill Mauldin, later incorporated the comment in one of his famous “Willie and Joe” drawings depicting the woes of U.S. foot soldiers in World War II.
Audie made it through the Anzio debacle unscathed, one of the few men in his company not to be wounded and awarded the Purple Heart. He was eventually the last of the 235 original members of his company to survive. A grave, solitary figure who seldom received letters at mail-call time, Audie was most at home with his comrades on the front lines. He was intensely loyal to his company. “As long as there’s a man in the line,” he said, “maybe I feel that my place is up there beside him.” He felt uneasy while on leave in Rome after the capital’s liberation by General Mark W. Clark’s U.S. Fifth Army on June 5, 1944. “We prowl through Rome like ghosts,” he reported, “finding no satisfaction in anything we see or do. I feel like a man briefly reprieved from death; and there is no joy within me. We can have no hope until the war is ended. Thinking of the men on the fighting fronts, I grow lonely on the streets of Rome.”
After the liberation of the Eternal City, the hard-fighting 3rd Infantry Division was pulled out of the line to retrain and re-equip for Operation Dragoon, the upcoming Allied amphibious invasion of Southern France between Toulon and Cannes. Bolstered with replacements, the division, now led by short, stentorian Major General John W. “Iron Mike” O’Daniel, landed on the beaches in the Bay of Cavalaire and at Pampelonne on August 15, 1944.
Audie Murphy’s B Company splashed ashore that morning near the town of Ramatuelle, south of St. Tropez. Three hours after crossing the beach and heading inland, the 1st Battalion, 15th Regiment was pinned down by a German machine-gun nest on “Pillbox Hill.” Audie’s company was moved forward from reserve to find a new line of approach, but it too was pinned down. So, on his own initiative, the little Texan crawled back downhill to the heavy weapons platoon, borrowed a .30-caliber machine gun, and scrambled back up the slope with his best friend, Private Lattie Tipton, to find a firing position. They swiftly killed two German defenders.
After exhausting their belt of ammunition, Murphy and Tipton charged and overran a German trench using carbines and hand grenades. When an enemy soldier in a nearby foxhole waved a white flag, Tipton carelessly rose to accept his surrender. He was shot dead. Enraged, Murphy grabbed an abandoned German MG-42 machine gun from the ground and charged along the hillside, firing from the hip and throwing grenades with his free hand. Alone, and shooting at anything that moved, he wiped out several enemy positions and killed five Germans, wounded two, and captured five. The rest of Audie’s unit, which had failed to support him despite his shouted curses, then moved up to occupy the ridgeline. The Texan’s gallantry ..
Supported by Free French and Resistance groups coming out of hiding, the American forces advanced swiftly up the Rhone Valley in the summer of 1944. For the men of the 3rd Infantry Division, the campaign was heartening after the hellish months in the interminable mountains and muddy valleys of Italy. “We experience great exhilaration,” reported Sergeant Murphy, “for there is nothing so good for the morale of the foot soldier as progress.” But, late in August 1944, a shell fragment nicked Audie’s heel and put him in a field hospital for two weeks.
In the fighting near Besancon on September 15, a German mortar round exploded near Murphy, killing two men nearby and sending him to a hospital for another week. He could not help wondering whether his luck was beginning to run out. By now, all of the men in his platoon with whom he had found comradeship in North Africa and Italy were either wounded or dead. The loss of comrades affected him deeply, and he resisted forging close relationships with their successors. He was perceived as a soldier fighting a war of his own.
Audie was also growing embittered. “So many men have come and gone that I can no longer keep track of them,” he lamented. “I have isolated myself as much as possible, desiring only to do my work and be left alone. I feel burnt out, emotionally and physically exhausted. Let the hill be strewn with corpses, so long as I do not have to turn over the bodies and find the familiar face of a friend.” He kept on fighting, and, like all of his comrades in the line, tried to stay alive day by day.
During the fighting around Cleurie on October 2, 1944, Audie unwittingly led a patrol into a German ambush. The GIs were pinned down by severe fire, so Murphy crawled around to a flank and charged alone against the enemy. Firing a Thompson submachine gun and tossing grenades, he wiped them out. He was awarded the prestigious Silver Star. Three days later, on October 5, several of Audie’s men were shot in a similar encounter. The gallant Texan stealthily worked his way forward until he could see the enemy positions and called down artillery and mortar salvos by radio. The Germans withdrew with heavy casualties, and Sergeant Murphy received an oak leaf cluster to his Silver Star.
Because of his courage and leadership, senior officers recommended Audie for a battlefield commission several times, but he always turned them down. He felt that his sparse education would preclude him from coping with the administrative duties of an officer. Also, the Army routinely rotated new officers out of their units, and Audie did not want to leave B Company. However, his battalion commander wangled a waiver on the rotation policy and assured Audie that he would receive help with his paperwork. So, Sergeant Murphy became 2nd Lieutenant Murphy on October 14, 1944.
Twelve days later, on October 26, he suffered his most serious wound of the war. While his unit was attacking through the Montagne Forest near Les Rouges Eaux, he was taken by surprise and shot in the right hip by a German sniper. Audie managed to kill his assailant, but he suffered intense pain for several hours before he could reach a field hospital. The wound turned gangrenous, and he had to endure two and a half dreary months of treatment and recuperation. Penicillin saved his life. He had plenty of time while in bed to indulge in the fatalism endemic to all infantrymen.
“These Krauts are getting to be better shots than they used to be, or else my luck’s playing out on me,” he noted. “I guess some day they will tag me for keeps.” After his recovery, Murphy could have gone home with his wounds and decorations. But his fighting spirit was undiminished.
The enemy was still fighting hard, and seasoned warriors like Audie Murphy were sorely needed on the front lines as the British, American, Canadian, and Free French Armies pushed, yard by yard and with heavy losses, toward the German border. So, after a well-deserved furlough in Paris, Murphy rejoined B Company on January 14, 1945. His most spectacular battlefield feat—the one that would earn him the coveted Medal of Honor—was yet to come.
The 3rd Infantry Division was getting ready for the push to the Alsatian city of Colmar in northeastern France, south of Strasbourg on the eastern slopes of the rugged Vosges Mountains. There, a German bridgehead west of the River Rhine intruded 80 miles wide and deep into the Allied lines. Eight enemy divisions, helped by a brutal winter, were preventing the French First Army—part of Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers’ Sixth Army Group—from reaching Colmar. A two-pronged French-American offensive was planned, starting on January 22, 1945, with the U.S. II Corps driving from the north and the French I Corps pushing from the south. The 3rd Division was spearheading II Corps.
On January 23, the 30th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division had been ordered to clear a wooded area, the Bois de Riedwihr, on the outskirts of the villages of Holtzwihr and Riedwihr, but a German counterattack of at least 10 tanks and 100 infantrymen had decimated the 30th, which withdrew after its soldiers were unable to dig foxholes in the frozen ground.
Lieutenant Murphy’s battalion had moved out of reserve to follow lead units of the 3rd Division across several rivers and through forests toward Riedwihr and was ordered to take the Bois de Riedwihr the following day. When the 15th Regiment stepped off, the enemy fire was intense, and casualties mounted quickly.
When the Texan awoke early on January 25, he found his hair frozen to the side of his foxhole. That afternoon, he was wounded yet again when German mortar fragments bloodied his left leg. He bandaged it hastily and refused to go to an aid station. Nevertheless, by midnight on January 25 Murphy’s men had reached a position 600 yards deep in the woods just north of Holtzwihr. They tried to dig in, but the ground remained frozen.
Michael D. Hull
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