Near Holtzwihr, Colmar Pocket, Northeastern France January 26, 1945

On this date in 1945 U.S. Army Second Lt. Audie Murphy, age 20, com­manded an infan­try com­pany when it came under attack from 200 German infan­try­men and a half dozen Mark VI Tiger tanks on the out­skirts of Holtz­wihr (now part of Porte-du-Ried), a village near Colmar on the eastern slopes of the wintry Vosges Moun­tains in North­eastern France. Armed with a .30 caliber, semi-auto­matic M1 car­bine, Murphy called in artil­lery fire. When the tanks and infan­try con­tin­ued to approach, Murphy, who had ini­tially been rejected by both the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army because he was too short (5 ft, 6 in), scampered aboard a burning Amer­i­can tank destroyer and fired a .50 caliber machine gun against an armor-in­fan­try enemy advancing on three sides through swirling smoke and snow, turning it back. Wounded in the leg the previous day, the consum­mate rifle­man held the enemy off for three hours. Some came within 10 yards of Murphy. After exhausting his ammu­ni­tion, he limped back to his com­pany and led a counter­attack, forcing the Germans to retreat. For his extraor­di­nary cour­age, Murphy received the Medal of Honor, the highest mili­tary award for bravery that can be given to any person in the United States.

During his three years of active ser­vice in nine major cam­paigns across the Euro­pean Theater (North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, and Ger­many), Murphy was credited by the U.S. Army with killing over 240 enemy soldiers while wounding more than 500 and cap­turing about 100. He became the most deco­rated sol­dier in U.S. history. Among his 33 medals, ribbons, cita­tions, and badges were one Bel­gian and five French medals, including the French Legion of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre. When he left active ser­vice with the rank of first lieu­ten­ant, Murphy was still under 21. His 1949 auto­biographical account of his service, To Hell and Back, was a best seller.

With Holly­wood good looks, Murphy went on to a long film career (44 films), which included playing him­self in a film bio­graphy released by Universal-Inter­na­tional in 1955 with the same title as the book. The movie ver­sion held the record as Uni­ver­sal’s highest-grossing picture until 1975, when the movie Jaws sur­passed it. Twice married, the father of two sons whom he adorned, Murphy wrote poems and lyrics for country-and-western songs, raised thorough­bred horses, joined the Shriners best known for their hospitals, and worked on behalf of troubled children.

Murphy died three weeks short of his 46th birthday in a plane crash on the side of a moun­tain near Roanoke, Vir­ginia, on May 28, 1971. Fittingly, his body was recovered two days later on Memo­rial Day. He is buried in Arling­ton National Ceme­tery out­side Washing­ton, D.C. His grave­site near the amphi­theater is the second most popular desti­na­tion after Presi­dent John F. Kennedy’s. Not­with­standing his tragic and un­timely death, Murphy may very well be remembered as the last genuine American Hero.

Audie Murphy: To Hell and Back

Audie Murphy publicity photograph, 1948Audie Murphy on LIFE Magazine, July 16, 1945

Above: Seventh of 12 children of a dirt-poor Texas share­cropper and a grade school drop­out at age 9, Audie Murphy (1925–1971) enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1942. He was the recip­i­ent of 33 medals, ribbons, cita­tions, and badges, more than had any other sol­dier in his coun­try’s his­tory, many of them more than once, and most of them awarded before he had turned 21. Medals included the Medal of Honor, Distin­guished Ser­vice Cross, Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, Bronze Star with cluster, Purple Heart with cluster, Legion of Merit, the prized Com­bat Infantry­man Badge, French Legion of Honor, French Croix de Guerre with Palm and Star, French Liberation Medal, and Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm. He appeared next to the caption “Most Decorated Soldier” on the cover of Life Magazine for July 16, 1945.

Gen. Patch and 2nd Lt. Audie Murphy, Salzburg, June 2, 1945Audie Murphy at Metal of Honor ceremony, June 2, 1945

Left: On June 2, 1945, near Salzburg, Austria, U.S. Seventh Army com­man­der Lt. Gen. Alex­ander Patch presented (now) 1st Lt. Audie Murphy with the Medal of Honor and the Legion of Merit for his actions at Holtz­wihr, France, 5 months earlier. The official U.S. Army cita­tion for Murphy’s Medal of Honor read in part: “His [Murphy’s] directing of artil­lery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he killed or wounded about 50. 2d Lt. Murphy’s indomi­table cour­age and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his com­pany from pos­sible encircle­ment and destruc­tion, and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective.”

Right: A photo taken by a Red Cross worker shows the doughty 19‑year‑old Texan standing in the fore­ground as Lt. Gen. Patch reads the U.S. Army cita­tion from the make­shift plat­form on June 2. Years after the war Murphy was asked by a reporter how the Army could have arrived at the ca­su­alty figures he sup­posedly inflicted on the enemy. “I don’t know how they know,” he replied. “Maybe the War Depart­ment kept count some­how. Maybe the officers sent in totals. I didn’t keep count. I don’t know how many. I don’t want to know.” In a subse­quent inter­view when asked the question, “How does it feel to have killed 240 men?” Murphy retorted: “To begin with, I didn’t kill that many; how the hell does anyone think it felt. It didn’t feel either way; good or bad. Feeling wasn’t a luxury in the infantry.”

Audie Murphy, cowboy movie starHollywood movie poster of Audie Murphy

Above: With his natural intelligence, facility for assessing com­bat situ­a­tions, and fighting spirit, Audie Leon Murphy rose from the rank of private to become a com­pany com­mander in 30 months with the vete­ran Third “Rock of the Marne” Infan­try Divi­sion of World War I fame. After the war Murphy went on to a suc­cess­ful career as a film star, appearing in 44 fea­ture films and 29 tele­vision epi­sodes in 21 years, most of them low-budget Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s. But the war years haunted him all his short life. In a 1955 inter­view at the time of the release of his auto­bio­graphi­cal film To Hell and Back, in which he played himself, Murphy remarked rue­fully: “War is like a giant pack rat. It takes some­thing from you and leaves some­thing behind in its stead. It burned me out in some ways so that now I feel like an old man. . . . It made me grow up too fast. You live so much on ner­vous excite­ment that when it is over, you fall apart. That’s what war took from me, the excite­ment of living.” Asked in an inter­view near the end of his life, “How does a sol­dier get over a war,” Murphy lowered his head and in a barely audible voice said, “I don’t think they ever do.”

Excellent Documentary on Audie Murphy, 1925–1971