National Medal of Honor Day: Audie Murphy and Desmond Doss
Since the American Civil War, 3,507 Americans have been awarded the United States military’s highest decoration for valor under fire, the sacred Medal of Honor. Today, on National Medal of Honor day, we pay tribute and show our unbreakable devotion to this eternal group of American heroes. The selflessness, bravery, and fighting spirit exhibited by this immortal group of warriors will forever ensure their reverent place in the hearts and minds of the American people. I dedicate this post to two of those great guardians, the legendary Audie Murphy and Desmond Doss.
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.
Desmond Doss: The Hero of Hacksaw Ridge
On October 12, 1945, President Harry Truman presented the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration for valor under fire, to one of the most remarkable American heroes of World War II, Desmond Thomas Doss.
Born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1919, Doss was raised as a strict Seventh Day Adventist, a Protestant Christian denomination. Devout in his faith, which forbade him from bearing arms and engaging in violence, Doss was offered a military deferment after the United States entered the Second World War. Feeling duty-bound to serve his country, however, he enlisted in the Army Medical Corps as a noncombatant. “While I believe in the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill,’” Doss later reflected, “and that bearing arms is a sin against God, my belief in freedom is as great as that of anyone else, and I had to help those boys who were fighting for it.”
Desmond T. Doss. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)
Doss’ conscientious objector status made military life difficult. His convictions about not bearing arms and not performing duties on the Saturday Sabbath led to mockery and harassment from some of his comrades. One source even records that “Doss was mocked when he knelt to pray next to his bunk,” and another notes that certain “recruits threw shoes at him while he prayed, and they tried to have him transferred out of their unit.” Regarding himself as a conscientious cooperator, Doss endured it all and never wavered from his deeply held beliefs. He might not have been willing to take another life, but he firmly resolved to go forward on the battlefield and save as many lives as he could.
Doss’ mission to serve and save began in earnest after he became a medic in the 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division. For his actions on Leyte in the Philippines from November 1944 to February 1945, he earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service. For his superhuman heroics at the bloody Battle of Okinawa between April 29 and May 21, 1945, Doss would become an eternal legend.
During the struggle for the island of Okinawa, Doss’ battalion climbed up cargo nets to ascend a 400-foot-high jagged cliff. The treacherous terrain was nicknamed Hacksaw Ridge and atop the plateau awaited thousands of determined Japanese defenders. Fighting an enemy entrenched in hidden caves and holes, American forces were thrown into a ferocious fight to secure the ridge. Treating the wounded in the thick of the action and dragging them to safety was 26-year-old Desmond Doss.
On one of his revered Sabbath days, Doss was the only medic available to join the forces assaulting Hacksaw Ridge. He advanced with the attackers into a maelstrom of concentrated Japanese artillery and heavy weapons fire. Japanese resistance was so fierce that American forces were driven back down the cliff, leaving behind many dead and wounded. The only one to stay behind and care for those most in need was Doss. “They had no way of getting back and I could not leave them up there,” he explained, “I was the only medical corpsman with them, so I just went ahead and continued to pick up the wounded still lying in front of the lines and then began the job of getting them off the cliff.” For several hours, Doss continuously exposed himself to enemy fire, treated the wounded, carried each man to the edge of Hacksaw Ridge, and lowered each man to safety in a rope sling. Through this process, he ultimately saved the lives of some 75 soldiers. After each soldier had been lowered to safety, Doss reportedly said, “Dear God, let me get just one more man.”
This clip from the 2016 blockbuster film Hacksaw Ridge powerfully depicts the efforts of Desmond Doss to rescue the wounded and lower them down to safety from the 400-foot-high jagged cliff.
Desmond Doss’ heroics did not end after his miraculous efforts to rescue 75 soldiers atop Hacksaw Ridge. He continued to risk his life over and over again in the face of intense enemy fire to save his fellow man on the battlefield. His selflessness and bravery were never in doubt. On the night of May 12, for example, Doss was treating wounded soldiers when a Japanese grenade exploded and seriously injured him in both legs. Instead of pulling another medic away from the raging battle to treat him, however, he took care of his wounds by himself. Just five hours after Doss was wounded, he was being carried away from the battlefield on a stretcher. Rather than thinking of himself, he gave up his spot on the stretcher so that medics could place another badly wounded soldier on it. As he was walking back to friendly lines, Doss was struck by enemy fire, which shattered his arm. Using a rifle stock as a splint, he managed to crawl 300 meters to a medical aid station.
For his gallantry under fire from April 29 - May 21, 1945, Doss became the first consciousness objector to receive the Medal of Honor. As his Medal of Honor Citation states, “His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.” To this day, the hero of Hacksaw Ridge remains an enduring symbol of the sacred American spirit. Unwavering in his faith, courage, and conviction, Desmond Doss will always be a reminder to the world of what it truly means to be an American hero.
Sources on Audie Murphy
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.
Sources on Desmond Doss
Congressional Medal of Honor Society: Desmond T. Doss. Library of Virginia: Desmond Thomas Doss. U.S. Army: Pfc. Desmond Doss - The Unlikely Hero Behind 'Hacksaw Ridge.'