June 20th, 1925 is the birthday of America’s most decorated service members, Audie Murphy. In his service as a US Army infantryman in WWII, Murphy would receive virtually every combat valor award the Army had to offer, as well several high profile awards from France and Belgium.
Audie Murphy came from humble beginnings. Born into a large, impoverished family of Irish sharecroppers in Texas, Murphy was the seventh of twelve siblings. His father Emmett, was largely absentee, and eventually left his family altogether. Dropping out of middle school to support his family by picking cotton, Murphy also helped feed his family buying hunting small game and honed his shill with a rifle. Tragically, his mother Josie died of pneumonia and endocarditis in May 1941 when Murphy was only sixteen.
Audie Murphy had wanted to be a soldier since an early age, and after his mother's death, that desire intensified. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, Murphy attempted to enlist. He was turned down by the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, all for the same reasons: He was underage and underweight. Undeterred, Murphy tried again, gaining some weight and getting a fake signed affidavit from his sister that stated he was of age for military service. On June 30th, 1942, Audie Murphy enlisted into the United States Army in Dallas. Even after packing on the pounds, Murphy was considered undersized at 112 pounds and 5 feet 5 inches of height. He had to resist attempts to transfer him out the infantry to a non-combat role. After completing basic training and advanced infantry school, Private Audie Murphy was sent to the North African theatre assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Infantry Division.
Murphy would see combat in Sicily and Italy, and earn many awards and commendations, but his most famous action is the one cited for earning him the Medal of Honor. Murphy ,who had by this point received a battlefield commission to Second Lieutenant, was the only officer left to lead Company B as they awaited badlyneeded reinforcements near Holtzwhir, France. On January 26th, 1945, a German infantry counterattack supported by six tanks began. Company B was woefully under strength with only 18 soldiers of it’s original 235 available for action. After a M10 tank destroyer got struck German rounds, setting it ablaze and forcing the crew to dismount, Murphy ordered his men to fall back to prepared positions in a treeline. Reaming at his post with just an M1 carbine, he fired at the advancing German force, while using his wire telephone to direct artillery onto the enemy force. He then mounted the flaming M10, and engaged the enemy formation with the mounted M2 heavy machine gun while under withering fire from German troops for an hour. Murphy continued to pour on the rounds even after getting wounded in the leg. After running out of ammo for the M2, Murphy returned to his men and rallied them for a counterattack, with total disregard for his wound. When asked about why he mounted the M2 to fight alone, Murphy replied “They were killing my friends.”
Murphy’s Medal of Honor joined a staggering list of battlefield awards: A Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars (one with “V” device), and three Purple Hearts. Murphy also received the both the French and Belgian version of the Croix de Guerre, as well as the French Legion of Honor. After the war, Murphy began a burgeoning career in films in the late 1940s, famously playing himself in the screen adaption of his autobiography To Hell and Back. Murphy struggled heavily with post traumatic stress, financial issues, and addictions to drugs and alcohol. He spoke honestly about the horrors of his military services and advocated for a greater investigation into the effects of battle stress, and improved health care for returning veterans. Murphy died in a plane crash on May 28th, 1971. He was only 46.
Audie Murphy’s life is a testament to the diverse circumstances that lead to military service. Never the prototypical chiseled image of a soldier, he rose above perceived physical limitations with his dedicated character and service above and beyond all expectations . His struggles later in life also serve to highlight the continued need to help servicemembers deal with the trauma that war will always bring.