Audie Murphy was a star in more ways than one. He was the most decorated hero of World War II, after being rejected for service because of his youth and size. He returned from war hailed as a hero, only to see hard times once again as he tried to find civilian employment. But that was just the beginning of his story, as he became a movie star, songwriter, veteran's advocate, and a role model. His was a truly amazing life.
Audie Leon Murphy was born in Hunt County, Texas on June 20th, 1926. He is pictured on the right at age four. He started school when he was nine and went through either the fourth, fifth, or eighth grade (sources vary) before quitting for good. His parents were sharecroppers, and they produced twelve children, nine of whom survived childhood. Murphy's father deserted the family in 1936, and young Audie hunted game and worked in the cotton fields to help support the family.
Murphy volunteered for service right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, although he was only 15 years old. Rejected because of his age, he waited until he turned 16, then passed himself off as 18 years old. Murphy was rejected by the Marines because he was only 5'5". He was rejected by the Navy because he was too skinny at 110 pounds. The Army accepted him, but did not want to send him into combat because he looked so young. Murphy insisted on combat duty, and was granted the opportunity. After training in Morocco, he went into combat in Italy and later France.
He was pulled out of action twice for malaria and three times for being wounded in action, but always went straight back to the front. He was actually wounded five times, but twice refused medical treatment. Murphy was credited with killing 240 German soldiers, capturing many others, and destroying six tanks single-handedly.Â You can find a chronology of his heroic war exploits here. Image from the movie To Hell and Back.
Along the way, Murphy was promoted up to sergeant in the battlefield, but refused a promotion to 2nd lieutenant on the grounds he didn't want to leave his unit. To make him an officer, his superiors had to order him to headquarters, discharge him from the army, then commission him as a 2nd lieutenant. He was then sent back into battle as an officer in his old unit. Murphy later attained the rank of major when he served with the National Guard during the Korean War.
Murphy was awarded every medal for heroism that the US military had to bestow (some more than once), plus five from France and one from Belgium.
After the war, Murphy was invited to try his luck in Hollywood. As he joined the military at a young age, he had no training in a particular trade, but he was used to being in the spotlight. It took several years of small roles and hard times before he was recognized as a gifted action star. In 1949, Murphy wrote his autobiography, To Hell and Back,Â which downplayed his heroics and military awards. He suggested Tony Curtis play him in the movie, but was cast in the role himself. The film was a hit and made Murphy a box office star. Murphy appeared in 44 movies, produced two, and wrote one. He also appeared in quite a few TV shows and documentaries. Although To Hell and Back was his biggest role, he was particularly known for his many westerns.
Many people don't know this, but Murphy wrote quite a few country songs in the 1960s. His biggest hit was Shutters and Boards, which was recorded by Porter Wagoner, Jerry Wallace, Jimmy Dean, Teresa Brewer, and many other artists. He is pictured here with songwriting partner Scott Turner.
Murphy suffered from what was then called battle fatigue and is now termed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, at a time when no one talked about it. He became depressed and dependent on the prescription drug Placidyl. When he became aware of the addiction in the '60s, he locked himself away for a week to detox on his own. He then spoke out about his experience in order to draw attention to suffering veterans of the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Murphy urged the military and Veterans Administration to recognize the disorder in order to help those struggling with PTSD.
Audie Murphy was among six people who died in a plane crash on Brushy Mountain near Roanoke, Virginia in May 28, 1971. The small plane had left from Atlanta without a flight plan and was reported missing two days later. Low visibility due to rain and fog are thought to be the cause of the crash. The war hero was 46 years old. Murphy is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His grave is the second-most visited at the cemetery, after president Kennedy's. Headstones of Medal of Honor recipients at Arlington are normally decorated with gold leaf, an honor Murphy refused before his death. Murphy was married twice and had two children. Image by Flickr user -VMI-.
See also: 7 Movie Stars Who Really Were Heroes.