CLOSE
Original image

The Amazing Life of Audie Murphy

Original image

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.

450_AudieMurphyBoyhood

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.

380young soldier

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.

450moviedecoration

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.

450_Audie Murphy group pic

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.

450medals

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.

350To-Hell-and-Back

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.

400scottturner

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.

450PTSD

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.
450headstone

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.

Original image
Getty Images
arrow
History
13 Vintage Photos of People Watching Solar Eclipses
Original image
Getty Images
Ahead of the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, take a peek at these old photos of Earthlings with their eyes glued to the skies.
Original image
Hulton Archive // Getty Images
arrow
History
10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
Original image
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios