In the days following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands of Americans rushed to enlist in the United States’ armed services. One of these was the son of a Hunt County Texas sharecropper family, Audie Leon Murphy.
He went to the Marine Corps, Navy and the Army, and all turned him down, for being underweight and under age. Murphy changed his diet to “fatten” up, and appeared at a Dallas recruiting station six months later, armed with a sworn affidavit from his sister, inflating his age by a year. It was 10 days past his 17th birthday when Audi Murphy, all 5’5½” and 112 lbs of him, enlisted in the United States Army.
Murphy’s company commander thought he wasn’t big enough for infantry service, and attempted to transfer him to cook and bakers’ school. Murphy refused. He wanted to be a combat soldier.
Joining the 3rd Infantry Division of George S. Patton’s 7th Army, Murphy participated in amphibious landings in Sicily in July, fighting in nearly every aspect of the Italian campaign.
From Palermo to Messina and on to Naples, Anzio and Rome, the Germans were driven out of the Italian peninsula in savage and near continuous fighting that killed a member of my own family.
By mid-December, the 3rd ID suffered 683 dead, 170 missing, and 2,412 wounded. Now Sergeant Murphy was there for most of it, excepting two periods when he was down with malaria.
Two months after the “Overlord” landings in Normandy, elements of the 7th Army landed in southern France in an operation called “Dragoon”. By mid-September, only three of Company B’s original roster remained, the rest either killed or removed due to wounds or illness. It was around this time when Audi Murphy received his first Purple Heart. A mortar blast resulted in a heel wound that wasn’t very serious, but a far more dangerous hip wound followed from a sniper, that December. Murphy repaid the sniper, with a bullet between the German’s eyes.
He was still in the hospital when his unit moved into the Vosges Mountains, in Eastern France.
The “Colmar Pocket” was an 850 square mile area held by German troops: Murphy described it as “a huge and dangerous bridgehead thrusting west of the Rhine like an iron fist. Fed with men and materiel from across the river, it is a constant threat to our right flank; and potentially it is a perfect springboard from which the enemy could start a powerful counterattack.”
Rejoining his unit in January, now Lieutenant Murphy became Company Commander, being the only officer remaining in the Company. Disease, wounds and casualties had reduced company B’s fighting strength by this time from an original 235, to 18.
What remained of the unit was awaiting reinforcements on January 26, 1945, as a combined force of German infantry and armor assembled itself outside of town. “I see the Germans lining up for an attack”, said Murphy. “Six tanks rumble to the outskirts of Holtzwihr, split into groups of threes, and fan out toward either side of the clearing. Then wave after wave of white dots, barely discernible against the background of snow, start across the field. They are enemy infantrymen”.
Let Lt. Murphy’s Medal of Honor Citation describe what happened next:
“Second Lieutenant Audie L. Murphy, 01692509, 15th Infantry, Army of the United States, on 26 January 1945, near Holtzwihr, France, commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. Lieutenant Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him to his right one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. Lieutenant Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, Lieutenant Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer which was in danger of blowing up any instant and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to the German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate Lieutenant Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he personally killed or wounded about 50. Lieutenant 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”.
After the war, Audi Murphy was asked how he could have grabbed that machine gun, and taken on an entire company of German infantry. “They were killing my friends”, he replied.
The man who had once been judged too small to fight was one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of WW2, having received every military combat award for valor the United States Army has to give, plus additional awards for heroism, from France and from Belgium.
Audi Murphy returned to civil life and a 21-year career in Hollywood, starring in 40 feature films and a television series. The transition was difficult There were frequent bouts of depression and insomnia, and an addiction to sedatives. He turned to poetry and songwriting for a creative outlet, but images of German war orphans could bring him to tears of guilt. He slept with a loaded gun under his pillow, and there were episodes which professional colleagues and family members, found alarming.
In Murphy’s Day it was called “Battle Fatigue”, or “Shell Shock”. He was candid about his own difficulties, and called on government to give increased consideration to the emotional toll inflicted on those whom it sent into combat.
Audi Murphy was killed in a plane crash near Catawba, Virginia, and buried with full military honors, in Arlington National Cemetery. He was 45.
Nine years later, the American Psychiatric Association recognized Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the 3rd edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Data from the National Vital Statistics System, a collaboration of the National Center for Health Statistics of the Department of Health and Human Services, reveals a suicide rate among veteran populations approximately twice that of comparable civilian populations.
I wonder about that term. “Disorder”. The word makes it sound like there’s something wrong with these guys.
When a soldier experiences an event, so traumatic that the very memory of it causes pain, I don’t understand how that can be characterized as a “disorder”. To me it seems like the properly functioning conscience of a good man, recoiling in horror at what he’s seen in service to his country.