TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: Audie Murphy earned Medal of Honor for victories in WWII

By Ken Bridges
Special to the Herald Democrat
Audie Murphy played himself in this film, cementing himself as a war hero-turned-actor.

In Texas, 76 men have been awarded the Medal of Honor for their courage above and beyond the call of duty since the inception of the medal.  Perhaps the most recognizable of those figures from World War II was Audie Murphy.

Murphy was born into a desperately poor family in Hunt County in 1925.  His father abandoned the family when he was young, and he, his mother, and his sister moved between Farmersville and Greenville often for work.  He quit school in the fifth grade in order to help support the family, and in 1941, his mother died. 

Actor Audie Murphy, right, is been interview by one of the local media after arriving at Nashville Municipal Airport March 4, 1971. The Western movie star is in town to be part of the seventh annual Cerebral Palsy Telethon at the Municipal Auditorium.

When World War II started, Murphy tried to enlist in the Marines and the Navy, but both rejected him because of his short height and thin build.  However, the Army accepted him in 1942.  In 1943, he fought in Italy before being transferred to France in 1944.  High casualties in his platoon and his own gallantry resulted in a series of promotions from private to lieutenant.

On January 24, 1945, Murphy was wounded in both legs as his division held off an attack by Nazi forces near the German border.  High casualties led him eventually to take command of his company.

Actor Audie Murphy, the country's most decorated soldier of World War II, walks off the plane after arriving at Nashville Municipal Airport March 4, 1971. The Western movie star is in town to be part of the seventh annual Cerebral Palsy Telethon at the Municipal Auditorium.

On January 26, his company came under attack by advancing Nazi troops accompanied by six German tanks.  Not willing to see any more of his men injured, he ordered them to fall back to defensive positions in the nearby woods while he directed artillery against the Germans.  When a tank destroyer was hit, Murphy ordered the men to safety, climbed atop the burning destroyer, and started firing its .50-caliber machine gun against the Germans.  For nearly an hour, he single-handedly pinned down the Germans, killing nearly 50 enemy troops while being injured in the leg himself.  He then ordered his men into a counterattack that repelled the German force, saving the day.

For his gallantry, Murphy was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Portions of the incident were recreated in the popular 1955 autobiographical film To Hell and Back, which starred Murphy.

Actor James Cagney explains the intricacies of a motion picture camera to his visiting guest Lt. Audie L. Murphy of Farmersville, Texas, holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor, in Hollywood, Ca., on Sept. 25, 1945.

He was honorably discharged in 1945.  As one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War II, he also earned two silver stars and two bronze stars for bravery, the Distinguished Service Cross, and three Purple Hearts for injuries sustained in combat.  In spite of his own gallantry, Murphy was quick to point out the heroics of others whom he felt never got credit.  "There were so many guys who should have gotten medals and never did -- guys who were killed."

His fame led his to appear in more than forty movies after the war.  Most of his movies were westerns.  He would sometimes laugh about his acting.  "I'm working under a great handicap -- no talent," he would quip.  He also returned to military service in the Texas National Guard in the 1950s, eventually reaching the rank of major. 

Audie Murphy, in an undated publicity photo.

While he enjoyed success as an actor and rancher after the war, the post-war years were very chaotic for Murphy.  He engaged in very impulsive behavior such as addictions to gambling and problems with alcohol and prescription pain-killers and developed money problems.  He also developed severe problems with anxiety, violent outbursts, and migraines.  Murphy often talked about his own issues with what he called “shell shock,” a common name at the time for the condition which is more properly understood as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder today.  In the 1960s, he began urging the military to take more action to help veterans cope with these symptoms.

He died in a plane crash in 1971 at the age of 45.  In honor of his service, the Audie Murphy Veterans Hospital in San Antonio was dedicated in 1973, and the Audie Murphy American Cotton Museum was later established in Greenville.  In recent years, the military has worked to establish new programs to help combat veterans cope with PTSD issues, but it still remains a daunting problem for many veterans.

Ken Bridges

Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.