On this day in 1971, the most decorated combat hero of World War II is tragically killed. Audie Leon Murphy wasn’t supposed to be a hero! In fact, when he first tried to join the military, the Marines rejected him because of his small size. The paratroopers rejected him, too. Disappointed, he signed up to be a soldier.
The young Texan wasn’t one to be kept down! He soon proved himself to be a skilled marksman and a brave soldier.
Perhaps his most famous demonstration of bravery occurred on January 26, 1945. He was in the small town of Holtzwihr, France, with his unit of only 40 men. They’d been ordered to hold a particular road until reinforcements arrived. Unfortunately, the Nazis chose that moment to attack. Murphy’s men were badly outnumbered—there were up against 250 Nazis and 6 tanks!
Murphy ordered his men to fall back into the woods, even as he picked up his field phone and called for an Allied artillery attack. As Allied fire fell, he was able to take control of a burning tank. Perhaps more importantly, he took control of its machine gun! Germans were all around him, but he fired on the Nazi infantry for an hour until his ammunition ran out. He was talking on his field phone the whole time, helping to direct Allied artillery fire! When his ammunition was finally exhausted, he left the tank. Refusing medical treatment for his injuries, he organized his men into a counterattack. In the end, Murphy and his 40 men rebuffed the 250 Germans.
“I expected to see the whole damn tank destroyer blow up under him any minute,” Private Anthony Abramski later testified. “For an hour, he held off the enemy force single-handed, fighting against impossible odds. . . . The fight that Lieutenant MURPHY put up was the greatest display of guts and courage I have ever seen. There is only one in a million who would be willing to stand up on a burning vehicle, loaded up with explosives, and hold off around 250 raging KRAUTS for an hour and do all that when he was wounded.”
After the war, Murphy came home to a hero’s welcome! He’d earned 28 awards, including the Medal of Honor and some French and Belgian honors. He earned every American medal for valor. He’d done all of this, and he was only 20 years old! He was soon featured on the cover of Life magazine, which brought him to the attention of Hollywood. The soldier-turned-actor would go on to act in dozens of movies, and his memoirs would be made into a film, To Hell and Back. He also became a songwriter.
Despite these successes, everything was not rosy for Murphy in these years. He was candid about the fact that he suffered from “battle fatigue” (today known as post-traumatic stress disorder), and he struggled with insomnia. Nevertheless, he apparently didn’t know how to stay away from military service. He joined the Texas National Guard in 1950, hoping that he would be called to serve in the Korean War. It didn’t happen. He later transferred to the Army Reserve.
Murphy was killed in a private plane crash on May 28, 1971. After his death, he was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery. Finally, just two years ago, his home state of Texas posthumously awarded him its greatest military honor: the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor.
The poor son of sharecroppers was not supposed to be a hero—and yet he was! Determination, perseverance, exceeding expectations . . . . How AMERICAN.