To Hell and Back: The Epic Stand of Audie Murphy
On January 26, 1945, Second Lieutenant Audie Murphy and his small company of GIs watched in shock as approximately 250 German soldiers and six tanks emerged out of the woods and advanced toward their position near the village of Holtzwihr in eastern France. It was a perilous situation to be in, but at just 19 years old, Murphy had already faced it all, proving himself to be a soldier with a spine of steel in earlier fights across Italy and France. Since his boyhood days taking care of his 11 siblings and his mother in Hunt County, Texas, Murphy had proven that in the face of adversity, he could always be counted on to stand tall and do his duty. Now, with men ten years his senior looking to him for direction, the baby-faced Texan would go to hell and back to single-handedly turn the tide of battle against seemingly impossible odds.
With the enemy poised to strike, Murphy immediately sprang to action and ordered his men to fall back to a nearby tree line. As they moved to cover, the young second lieutenant remained within range of the enemy, using his field telephone to call for artillery support. Murphy managed to send in his coordinates, but before long, the earth began to tremble as the German tanks opened fire, shattering the landscape and scoring a hit on an American tank destroyer, which was quickly set ablaze.
Audie Murphy. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Unfazed by the danger, Murphy held his ground, calling in Allied artillery and watching as friendly fire crashed down to earth between him and the enemy, shrouding the landscape in a haze of smoke. Taking sharp aim at the Germans with his M-1 Carbine, Murphy fired every round he had before grabbing his telephone and taking cover atop the burning tank destroyer. “How close are they to your position?” asked a voice over Murphy’s radio. From his blazing perch, the lieutenant roared back, “Just hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one of the bastards!”
As scorching flames consumed the tank destroyer, Murphy manned the vehicle’s .50-caliber machine gun turret to keep the enemy at bay. “My numbed brain is intent only on destroying,” Murphy later wrote in his bestselling autobiography, To Hell and Back. “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.” Acting as a one-man Army, Murphy poured out steady bursts of fire at the enemy while also remaining on the phone to direct friendly artillery fire. His bullets obstructed the advance of the German foot soldiers so severely that their tanks could not risk rumbling forward without the infantry’s support. He “killed them in the draws, in the meadows, in the woods-wherever he saw them,” testified an eyewitness about Murphy.
In 1955, Murphy played himself in To Hell and Back, the film adaptation of his own memoir about World War II.
For the men back at the tree line, the image of Murphy blasting away at the enemy from atop the burning tank destroyer was nerve-wracking and awe-inspiring all at the same time. “I expected to see the whole damn tank destroyer blow up under him any minute,” said Private Anthony Abramski. In the private’s eyes, Murphy’s stand was the “greatest display of guts and courage I have ever seen,” and he was not alone in holding that belief. “He saved our lives,” said another soldier. “If he hadn’t done what he did,” the Germans would have annihilated us.”
For an hour, the Germans unleashed all of their strength against Murphy. They attacked from three sides and some troops advanced to within ten yards of his position, but every attempt to overcome this singular soldier ended in failure. During the chaos, an enemy blast nearly sent Murphy flying off the tank destroyer and razor sharp shrapnel injured his leg, but he held on through it all. After his machine gun had finally ran out of ammunition, Murphy limped back to his men. He was still far from finished fighting the enemy.
Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back. (Photo Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica)
Despite the trial he had just endured, Murphy refused to receive medical attention for his injuries. Instead, he rallied his men and led a counterattack that drove the Germans from the field. Through the unbreakable will of one man, an unbelievable victory against an overwhelming enemy force had been achieved. He took down nearly 50 enemy soldiers during the great struggle. In doing so, he saved his own men from ruin. An American artillery observer who was an eyewitness to the desperate fight remarked that Murphy’s feat was “the bravest thing I've ever seen a man do in combat.”
Murphy’s titanic resistance on January 26, 1945 earned him the United States military’s highest decoration for valor in combat, the Medal of Honor. It was one of the 28 medals he earned for his service in the Second World War. He emerged from the conflict as America’s most decorated soldier and won the hearts of his countrymen as he settled back into life on U.S. soil. After the war, Murphy starred under the bright lights of Hollywood and was involved in making more than 40 films over the course of his acting career. In 1955, ten years after his epic stand at Holtzwihr, Murphy re-lived his wartime experiences, playing himself in To Hell and Back, the film adaptation of his famous memoir about World War II.
Audie Murphy receiving the Medal of Honor. (Photo Credit: Audie L. Murphy Memorial Website)
To this day, Audie Murphy remains one of the most revered soldiers in American history. His story is a reminder that through pure bravery and selflessness, incredible ordeals can be overcome. In the face of extreme adversity, Murphy knew that the only way forward was to bravely stand up and fight. He will forever hold an immortal place among the pantheon of heroes who fought and bled for the United States of America.
Arlington National Cemetery: Audie Murphy.
History.com: Murphy's World War II Heroics, 70 Years Ago.
To Hell and Back by Audie Murphy.
Washington Examiner: A Tragic Hero.