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The Amazing Life of Audie Murphy

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  You can find a chronology of his heroic war exploits here. Image from the movie To Hell and Back.

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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.

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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.

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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,  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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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