On the big screen, our hero faces off with the villain. Silence falls in the theater as the two dramatically share prolonged stares from opposite ends of a suspended catwalk, the hero clad in the red, white, and blue of our nation, the villain wearing the standard black of evil. When, at last, he flies into action, our hero moves not with the magic of fantasy but with the smooth, muscled control of a trained fighter, swinging his shield up to block a strike even as he delivers a crippling blow of his own. The battle stretches over several minutes and involves all the greatest movie elements: near-misses, terrible falls, and, of course, our hero has his own narrow scrape with death. Captain America is a multi-billion-dollar trademark; small children and grown men alike wear his logo, women flush at the idea of such a man, and millions of people worldwide share a communal wish: what if Captain America was real?
Well, maybe he is.
Audie Murphy was born in 1925 into a family of sharecroppers in Texas, and after his father abandoned them and his mother passed away, he was forced to drop out of school in 5th grade. It was then that his skills as a marksman began to evolve as he hunted extensively to put food on the table for his dozen siblings. When World War II began, he was too young to meet the minimum age requirements, but with the help of his older sister, he obtained the falsified documents necessary to enlist. He was just 16 when he tried the Navy first, and then the Marine Corps, but both turned him down – he was, after all, only 5’5” and 110 pounds (one cannot help but wonder if they sorely regret those refusals to this day). And so it was with the U.S. Army that young Audie found his military home.
Basic training wasn’t exactly easy on Audie, in fact, he passed out one day, prompting the DS to suggest he be transferred out as a cook. After he regained consciousness, though, Audie insisted he was a fighter and demanded to remain in the infantry, and with what probably felt like mistaken judgment at the time but ended up being brilliance, the Army allowed him to enter service as a Grunt. Our small-in-stature Audie was sent to North Africa to begin his service, and he was surely bored to tears wandering around the desert, but it wasn’t long before he got his baptism by fire. As part of Company B, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, he finally saw combat during the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.
Probably because he was so small, Audie had been slated as division runner. But just because he was a runner didn’t mean he wasn’t going to fight, and one day while he was out with a scouting patrol, he stumbled across a pair of Italian officers attempting to flee Canicatti, where a battle was underway (we won). He killed both men and was promoted from PFC to Corporal.
Then he came down with malaria, which he’d probably contracted in North Africa. He was out of action for a week – and if you know malaria, you know one week isn’t enough – before rejoining his men where they were protecting a machine gun emplacement. (Sidenote: Audie would suffer the ill effects of malaria throughout his service, so just picture being 5’5” and 110 pounds to start, and then struggling through malaria.) This is Audie Murphy we’re talking about, though, and he was a hero with more than a capital “H,” he was a HERO in all capitals…bold letters.
As a corporal, Audie apparently decided to step it up a notch. First he fought at Salerno in the landing of Battipaglia, which was a cakewalk, because he was Audie Murphy, y’all. Then one day he was in yet another scouting party near the Volturno River, and all hell broke loose. They were attacked by 7 Germans, and Audie reacted in typical style, fighting like he was ten feet tall and bulletproof. When the dust settled, three Germans were dead, four had been taken prisoner, and Audie was promoted to sergeant. Then he was promoted to staff sergeant. Then he had another bout of malaria, so they forced him into a hospital bed, making him miss the landing at Anzio, something he probably never forgave them for.
“I remember the experience as I do a nightmare. A demon seems to have entered my body. My brain is coldly alert and logical. I do not think of the danger to myself. My whole being is concentrated on killing.” Audie Murphy
When he came back again raring for more, tragedy struck. His unit was patrolling near a vineyard in the South of France, and among them the man who had become Audie’s closest friend, 33-year-old Private Lattie Tipton, a Tennessean who served as a sort of combination big brother/father figure. The men were pinned down by German machine gun fire, and Tipton had already been wounded, so Audie urged him to leave and seek medical treatment. Tipton refused, insisting on joining the fight. According to Audie, his friend looked at him and said, “Come on, Murphy, let’s move up. They can kill us, but they can’t eat us. It’s against the law.” Just scant minutes later, the Germans waved a white flag, and although he should’ve known better as a seasoned combatant, Tipton rose from cover. The Germans cut the man down with a barrage of machine gun fire, and Audie watched in horror as his best friend fell to the ground, dead.
This is when what can only be described as blind fury took over. In a Hulk-worthy rage, Audie first used his own weapon to kill every German in sight, and when he ran out of ammo, he snatched up a German heavy machine gun and turned it on its former owners. Witnesses say he cut down every German in a 100-yard radius, which included not one but two machine gun nests and multiple snipers. Audie later relayed the story himself: “As the lacerated bodies flop and squirm, I rake them again, and I do not stop firing while there is still a quiver of life in them.” Audie emerged from the firefight completely unscathed, much to the shock of his unit – they had watched as he flew into the rage and wiped out the enemy forces – and this action was the one for which he received the Distinguished Service Cross. Making his feelings clear, Audie immediately passed the medal on to the late Tipton’s daughter.
It was Audie’s favorite carbine that was wounded before he ever was on a day he and his unit were forcing the Germans to retreat deep into the Vosges Mountains. In a particularly pitched battle, a mortar went off near him; the blast killed two others, but Audie survived. His lucky carbine, however, was not so fortunate, because the stock was shattered. Being who he was, Audie simply wired it back together and carried on, and that carbine was about to save his life. (Also, it was right about then he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant despite protesting he didn’t want to be promoted again.)
Not two weeks after Audie resected his rifle’s mangled stock, he received his first serious battle wound. It took place near Saint-Die-des-Vosges in France, an area most people nonchalantly refer to as St. Die – and how cool is that? Audie and his men were moving as stealthily as possible through the woods when a German sniper finally nailed him right through the hip. So there Audie was, lying on the frozen ground with his life’s blood seeping into foreign soil, and one might think it was the end, but it wasn’t. This is, after all, Audie-freaking-Murphy we’re talking about. Intent on finishing the American off, the sniper moved from cover, and now that Audie could see him, he did what any hero would do. He calmly picked up his lucky carbine in one hand and fired it like a pistol, striking the German dead with a round right between his eyes. Maybe the sniper couldn’t make such a fantastic shot even with two hands while hidden, but Audie Murphy could, prone, wounded, in pain, and one-handed. The wound ended up badly infected – probably because Audie did something like calling it a flesh wound and moving on – and surgeons were forced to remove a big chunk of his hip.
By the age of 20, Audie was an old hand at combat, and he and Company B ended up in the woods near a German village called Holtzwihr. The men waited…and waited…and then the Germans made their move. First, six German tanks rolled out, immediately putting two American tank destroyers out of commission. Sensing imminent defeat, Audie ordered his men away, but refused to leave the battle himself, staying put with the field phone. Phone in hand, Audie began calling in artillery fire against the advancing Germans. At that point, our hero was surrounded on all sides by German tanks, so he did what he had to do. He climbed atop one of the smoldering tank destroyers and made good use of its .50-cal machine gun.
The diminutive-in-stature-only man quickly took out dozens of German soldiers, which gave the tanks no choice but to fall back since they suddenly lacked infantry protection. During the one-man battle, a German squad crept up behind him, and when they were just 10 yards away, Audie let them know they hadn’t snuck at all, but had walked right into his bullets. Opening fire from his dangerously blazing perch, Audie mowed down the entire squad. Later, he was told the destroyer was clearly about to blow up at any moment (it did, right after he climbed down), and no one could believe he’d taken such a risk, at which point Audie probably fixed them with a stare and said something like, what, don’t you know me?
During that battle, some lucky German had fired a round that found its way into Audie’s leg, but he apparently didn’t even notice until afterwards. Adrenaline is a beautiful thing. It was then the powers-that-be decided it was high time Audie Murphy received a Medal of Honor, and because they didn’t want it to be a posthumous award, they removed him from front-line battle. Of course, Audie found a way around that more than once including the time he went in and rescued his company after it was pinned down by the enemy in western Germany.
Audie Murphy is an American hero like no other. When he finally did go home, he ended up becoming an actor, enjoying a 21-year career. You might have seen him starring as himself in a little movie called To Hell and Back. Audie Murphy was, though the epitome of everything a hero should be, still human, and upon his return home he suffered from PTS, confiding in a friend that he no longer found joy in life. And yet he fought on, fighting his personal demons and proving what true strength is all about. Sadly, he was killed on May 23, 1971, at the young age of 46, when the private plane he was in crashed on Virginia’s Brush Mountain.
Audie Murphy was a real-life Captain America, and all without receiving the bulking-up concoctions the comic-book character was given. When you think American Hero, the first name to come to mind should always be Audie Murphy.
If you’re impressed, well, so was everyone else. Audie Murphy was our nation’s most decorated American combat soldier in World War II. Every single award was well-deserved, and because we believe you should get a better idea of his heroism, here’s a list:
- Congressional Medal of Honor
- Distinguished Service Cross
- Silver Star (2)
- Legion of Merit
- Bronze Star (2, one with a “V” device)
- Purple Heart (3)
- Good Conduct
- Presidential Unit Citation (2)
- American Campaign
- European-Africa-Middle Eastern Campaign (10, plus Arrowhead device)
- WWII Victory
- Army of Occupation w/Germany Clasp
- French Legion of Honor
- French Croix de Guerre (3)
- Belgian Croix de Guerre
- Combat Infantryman Badge
- Marksman Badge (with rifle component bar)
- Expert Badge (with bayonet component bar)
- Outstanding Civilian Service Medal
- Texas Legislative Medal of Honor
Hooah, Audie Murphy. Captain America hasn’t got a thing on you.
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