17 November 2010

Real Life Heroes: 2nd Lt. Audie Murphy

By Lorelie Brown

When I went through Basic Training for the US Army ten years ago, we'd have whole days or afternoons when we watched old black-and-white movies. Some of my fellow recruits bitched that they were boring, but I'd been an old-movie-addict for a long time and had already seen most of them. Despite that, one of them was new to me--as was the information that the lead character really was the man who'd done all the amazing things in the movie.

The movie: To Hell and Back. The actor and hero: Audie Murphy.

So who was Audie Murphy? A good ole boy from Texas, he was one of twelve children, though only ten lived to adulthood. When his father abandoned the family in the mid-1930s, Audie went to work. He also put food on the table by hunting and learned to be an excellent shot simply because if he didn't make his kill, his family didn't eat.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Murphy tried to enlist. But whoops--he was only 16 at the time. A year later, his sister helped him fudge his birth certificate so that he could enlist even though he was still only seventeen. He still had to struggle to avoid assignment to a cook and bakers' school, but eventually he got his wish. He became a private in the Infantry. (Although, let's think that one through for a while. Not only did he bust his ass in order to join the military, he fought like hell to be a grunt. Cannon fodder. Got to wonder about a guy like that.)

Murphy kicked around Africa for a while without seeing action. But then...oh boy, then. He was part of the invasion of Sicily on 10 July 1943. After slamming their way through Italy, the 3rd Division (now with Sergeant Murphy in tow) moved on to Southern France. Not long after they got there, Murphy saw a German machine gun nest kill his best friend, Lattie Tipton. Apparently that set Murphy off, because he single-handedly took out the machine gun nest, then used it to take out several nearby German positions. Not only did the incident net him the Distinguished Service Cross, it would later become the crux of his autobiography, To Hell and Back, which would also later become a movie.

But Staff Sergeant Murphy (from private to staff sergeant in a matter of months of battle--and it didn't stop there) wasn't done picking up awards. After two Silver Stars, he was promoted to First Lieutenant, which also got him promoted from Platoon Sergeant to Platoon Leader. (The attrition rates tangentially related to such wicked fast promotions are very sad if you stop to think about them.) He spent ten weeks recuperating from a sniper's bullet and returned to his unit in France.

On 25 January, 1945, Second Lieutenant Audie Murphy was appointed commander of Company B 15th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division. Big day, right? But apparently 2LT Murphy didn't think that was a big enough deal for January. The very next day, the Battle of Holtzwihr, France began. Murphy established a position, sending all his men to the rear, but he stayed on. He used the machine gun from a burning tank destroyer to take out huge swaths of the German infantry, including an entire squad that had tried to hide in a ditch. For his actions, Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor, fully rounding out his medal collection. In less than two years, 2LT Murphy had collected every single medal of valor available to US service personnel.

The Army, obviously realizing the marketing gold mine they had in Murphy, immediately moved him to a liaison position, taking him off the front line. After his determination to get to the front line and his wanton disregard for his own safety, I'm sure Murphy was pissed. He eventually returned to the States, but life was tough for a while. Much later on, Murphy came clean about his struggles with what was then called "battle fatigue" and is now known as PTSD. His first wife claimed he once held her at gunpoint and his insomnia and nightmares were rampant. He did go on to create a good life eventually, staying with his second wife until his death and being an actor in more than 44 films.

Lorelie Brown's first book, JAZZ BABY, is currently available from Samhain Publishing and will be released 4 January in paperback. Her second romance, an 1880s-set western, will be published by Carina Press in Summer 2011.