Audie Murphy: A Legendary Hero of World War II
On January 26, 1945, Second Lieutenant Audie Murphy cemented his legacy as one of the greatest soldiers in United States military history. In his previous 18 months of combat across Italy and France, the 19-year-old Texan had already earned two Silver Stars and the Distinguished Service Cross. Murphy understood that fighting was about instincts, later writing, “The brain will turn to animal cunning. The job lies directly before us: Destroy and survive.” He would live by those instincts in the fight to come.
Audie Murphy photographed in 1948, wearing several of the medals for valor that he earned during the Second World War. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Near the village of Holtzwihr in Eastern France, Murphy and around 40 other Americans were confronted by 250 German troops, backed by six Panzer tanks. The young second lieutenant ordered his men to withdraw to pre-prepared defensive positions along a nearby tree line. As they went for cover, Murphy stayed behind with his field telephone to call in an artillery strike. He managed to radio in his coordinates before the German tanks let loose. The fire from the behemoths erupted around him and a nearby U.S. tank destroyer was hit and set ablaze. The situation looked bleak and the American position was collapsing fast. Despite this ferocious onslaught, Murphy continued to hold his ground, calling in for assistance from Allied artillery.
After expending his M-1 carbine ammunition on the enemy, Murphy grabbed his field telephone and took cover atop the burning tank destroyer that had recently been hit. Over the radio, the artillery commander was asking how close the Germans were to his position. Murphy yelled back, “Just hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one of the bastards.” With the tank destroyer slowly being engulfed by flames, his position was anything but stable. Murphy noticed that the vehicle’s .50-caliber machine gun turret was still operational and quickly seized it. The weapon allowed him to dispense bursts of heavy fire at the enemy. As his instincts took over, Murphy was intent on destroying the enemy, later writing, “I am conscious only that the smoke and the turret afford a good screen, and that, for the first time in three days, my feet are warm.”
In 1955, Murphy played himself in “To Hell and Back,” the film adaptation of his own memoir about World War II.
Murphy remained atop the burning tank destroyer for nearly an hour, repelling attacks from German soldiers on three sides. While fighting the enemy, he remained on the phone, directing artillery fire. Private Anthony Abramski witnessed the scene, later writing, “I expected to see the whole damn tank destroyer blow up under him any minute,” but not even an enemy blast that sent razor sharp shrapnel flying into his leg could stop him. Murphy only withdrew when he finally ran out of ammunition. As he limped away, the second lieutenant noticed a vague pain in his leg, but otherwise, felt “nothing: no sense of triumph; no exhilaration at being alive.” Murphy described that existence had “taken on the quality of a dream in which I am detached from all that is present.”
Standing up against impossible odds, Murphy had killed or wounded some 50 German troops. His efforts to direct artillery fire took down dozens more. Private Abramski later wrote that it was the “greatest display of guts and courage I have ever seen,” but Murphy’s work wasn’t done yet. Despite his injuries, he refused to be evacuated from the field and rallied his men in a counterattack that successfully drove the enemy back. For his actions at Holtzwihr, Murphy was awarded the United States military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor.
Audie Murphy saluting Lieutenant General Alexander Patch after receiving the Medal of Honor. (Photo: Audie L. Murphy Memorial Website)
When victory was declared in Europe in May 1945, Murphy still hadn’t even reached his 21st birthday. After years of bravery on the battlefield, earning him several dozen medals for valor, Murphy returned to the United States as his nation’s most decorated soldier. His face appeared on the cover of Life Magazine and in the minds of his countrymen, Audie Murphy was a special kind of hero. He was persuaded by James Cagney to take up acting and went on to forge a career that included more than 40 films. In 1955, he played himself in “To Hell and Back,” the film adaptation of his own memoir about World War II. The movie was tremendously successful, standing as Universal Studios’ most profitable release until “Jaws” in 1975.
Arlington National Cemetery: Biography of Audie Murphy.
Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation: Audie Murphy Medal of Honor Citation.
History.com: Audie Murphy’s World War II Heroics, 70 Years Ago.
To Hell and Back by Audie Murphy.