Audie Murphy had always wanted to be a soldier, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he tried to enlist, but the Army, Navy and Marine Corps all turned him down for being underweight and underage. After his sister provided an affidavit falsifying his birth date by a year, he was accepted by the U.S. Army on 30 June 1942. After basic training at Camp Wolters, he was sent to Fort Meade for advanced infantry training. During basic training he earned the Marksman Badge with Rifle Component Bar and Expert Badge with Bayonet Component Bar. It was only the beginning of what would eventually distinguish Audie L. Murphy the most highly decorated soldier for combat valor in the military history of the United States.
Murphy was shipped to Casablanca in French Morocco on 20 February 1943. He was assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, which trained under the command of Major General Lucian Truscott. He participated as a platoon messenger with his division at Arzew in Algeria in rigorous training for the Allied assault landings in Sicily, and was promoted to private first class on 7 May and corporal on 15 July.
When the 3rd Infantry landed at Licata, Sicily, on 10 July, Murphy was a division runner. On a scouting patrol, he killed two fleeing Italian officers near Canicattì. Sidelined with illness for a week when Company B arrived in Palermo on 20 July, he rejoined them when they were assigned to a hillside location protecting a machine-gun emplacement, while the rest of the 3rd Infantry Division fought at San Fratello en route to the Allied capture of the transit port of Messina.
Murphy participated in the September 1943 mainland Salerno landing at Battipaglia. While on a scouting party along the Volturno River, he and two other soldiers were ambushed by German machine-gun fire, which killed one of the Americans. Murphy and the other survivor of his group responded by killing five German soldiers with hand grenades and machine-gun fire. While taking part in the October Allied assault on the Volturno Line, near Mignano Monte Lungo Hill 193, he and his company repelled an attack by seven German soldiers, killing three and taking four prisoner. Murphy was promoted to sergeant on 13 December.
In January 1944 Murphy was promoted to staff sergeant. He was hospitalized in Naples with malaria on 21 January, and was unable to participate in the initial landing at the Anzio beachhead. He returned on 29 January and participated in the First Battle of Cisterna, and was made platoon sergeant of Company B platoon following the battle. He returned with the 3rd Division to Anzio, where they remained for months. Taking shelter from the weather in an abandoned farmhouse on 2 March, Murphy and his platoon killed the crew of a passing German tank. He then crawled out alone close enough to destroy the tank with rifle grenades, for which he received the Bronze Star with "V" Device. Murphy continued to make scouting patrols to take German prisoners before being hospitalized for a week on 13 March with a second bout of malaria. Sixty-one infantry officers and enlisted men of Company B, 15th Infantry, including Murphy, were awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge on 8 May. Murphy was also awarded a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Bronze Star. American forces liberated Rome on 4 June, and Murphy remained bivouacked in Rome with his platoon throughout July.
Murphy received the Distinguished Service Cross for action taken on 15 August 1944, during the first wave of the Allied invasion of southern France. After landing on Yellow Beach near Ramatuelle, Murphy's platoon was attacked by German soldiers while making their way through a vineyard. He retrieved a machine gun that had been detached from the squad and returned fire at the German soldiers, killing two and wounding one. Two Germans exited a house about 100 yards away and appeared to surrender; Murphy's best friend responded to them, and they shot and killed him. Murphy advanced alone on the house under direct fire. He wounded two, killed six, and took eleven prisoner.
Murphy was with the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment during the 27–28 August offensive at Montélimar that secured the area from the Germans. Along with the other soldiers who took part in the action, he received the Presidential Unit Citation.
Murphy's first Purple Heart was for a heel wound received in a mortar shell blast on 15 September 1944 in northeastern France. His first Silver Star came after he killed four and wounded three at a German machine gun position on 2 October at L'Omet quarry in the Cleurie river valley. Three days later, Murphy crawled alone towards the Germans at L'Omet, carrying an SCR-536 radio and directing his men for an hour while the Germans fired directly at him. When his men finally took the hill, 15 Germans had been killed and 35 wounded. Murphy's actions earned him a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Silver Star. He was awarded a battlefield commission to second lieutenant on 14 October, which elevated him to platoon leader. While en route to Brouvelieures on 26 October, the 3rd Platoon of Company B was attacked by a German sniper group. Murphy captured two before being shot in the hip by a sniper; he returned fire and shot the sniper between the eyes. At the 3rd General Hospital at Aix-en-Provence, the removal of gangrene from the wound caused partial loss of his hip muscle and kept him out of combat until January. Murphy received his first Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Purple Heart for this injury.
The Colmar Pocket, 850 square miles (2,200 km2) in the Vosges Mountains, had been held by German troops since November 1944. On 14 January 1945, Murphy rejoined his platoon, which had been moved to the Colmar area in December. He moved with the 3rd Division on 24 January to the town of Holtzwihr, where they met with a strong German counterattack. He was wounded in both legs, for which he received a second Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Purple Heart. As the company awaited reinforcements on 26 January, he was made commander of Company B.
The Germans scored a direct hit on an M10 tank destroyer, setting it alight, forcing the crew to abandon it. Murphy ordered his men to retreat to positions in the woods, remaining alone at his post shooting his M1 carbine and directing artillery fire via his field telephone while the Germans aimed fire directly at his position. Murphy mounted the abandoned, burning tank destroyer and began firing its .50 caliber machine gun at the advancing Germans, killing a squad crawling through a ditch towards him. For an hour, Murphy stood on the tank destroyer returning German fire from foot soldiers and advancing tanks, killing or wounding 50 Germans. He sustained a leg wound during his stand, and stopped only after he ran out of ammunition. Murphy rejoined his men, disregarding his own wound, and led them back to repel the Germans. He insisted on remaining with his men while his wounds were treated. For his actions that day he was awarded the Medal of Honor. The 3rd Infantry Division was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions at the Colmar Pocket, giving Murphy a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for the emblem.
On 16 February, Murphy was promoted to first lieutenant and was awarded the Legion of Merit for his service 22 January 1944 – 18 February 1945. He was moved from the front lines to Regimental Headquarters and made a liaison officer.
The United States additionally honored Murphy's war contributions with the American Campaign Medal, the European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with arrowhead device and campaign stars, the World War II Victory Medal, and the Army of Occupation Medal with Germany Clasp. France recognized his service with the French Legion of Honor – Grade of Chevalier, the French Croix de guerre with Silver Star, the French Croix de guerre with Palm, the French Liberation Medal and the French Fourragère in Colors of the Croix de guerre, which was authorized for all members of the 3rd Infantry Division who fought in France during World War II. Belgium awarded Murphy the Belgian Croix de guerre with 1940 Palm.
Brigadier General Ralph B. Lovett and Lieutenant Colonel Hallet D. Edson recommended Murphy for the Medal of Honor. Near Salzburg, Austria on 2 June 1945, Lieutenant General A.M. Patch presented Murphy with the Medal of Honor and Legion of Merit for his actions at Holtzwihr. When asked after the war why he had seized the machine gun and taken on an entire company of German infantry, he replied, "They were killing my friends." Murphy received every U.S. military combat award for valor available from the U.S. Army for his World War II service.
When actor and producer James Cagney saw the 16 July 1945 issue of Life magazine depicting Murphy as the "most decorated soldier" he brought him to Hollywood. Cagney and his brother William signed him as a contract player for their production company and gave him training in acting, voice and dance. They never cast Murphy in a movie and a personal disagreement ended the association in 1947. Murphy later worked with acting coach Estelle Harman, and honed his diction by reciting dialogue from William Shakespeare and William Saroyan.
Murphy moved into Terry Hunt's Athletic Club in Hollywood where he lived until 1948. Hollywood writer David "Spec" McClure befriended Murphy and collaborating with him on Murphy's 1949 book To Hell and Back. McClure used his connections to get Murphy a $500 bit part in Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven. The agent of Wanda Hendrix, whom he had been dating since 1946, got him a bit part in the 1948 Alan Ladd film Beyond Glory directed by John Farrow. His 1949 film Bad Boy gave him his first leading role. The film's financial backers refused to bankroll the project unless Murphy was given the lead; thus, Allied Artists put aside their reservations about using an inexperienced actor and gave him the starring role.
Universal Studios signed Murphy to a seven-year studio contract at $2,500 a week. His first film for them was as Billy the Kid in The Kid from Texas in 1950. He wrapped up that year making Sierra starring Wanda Hendrix, who by that time had become his wife, and Kansas Raiders as outlaw Jesse James. Universal lent him to MGM in 1951 at a salary of $25,000 to play the lead of The Youth in The Red Badge of Courage, directed by John Huston. After reading the script for the film, Audie was reluctant to play the role of a coward who runs away from his first battle. Being assured the “coward” would redeem himself toward the end of the film, Audie went on to play the part. He was far more comfortable in the role of the heroic leader of the final charge at the end of the film.
Audie was initially reluctant to appear as himself in the film To Hell and Back, the 1955 adaptation of his book directed by Jesse Hibbs, he eventually agreed and it became the biggest box office hit in the history of Universal Studios up to that time. The Hibbs-Murphy team proved so successful in To Hell and Back that the two worked together on five subsequent films. The partnership resulted in the 1956 western Walk the Proud Land, and the non-westerns Joe Butterfly and World in My Corner. They worked together for the last time in the 1958 western Ride a Crooked Trail.
In his later years, Audie Murphy squandered his fortune on gambling and bad investments. Those investment included Arab oil wells in the Middle East. They were seized by the Israelis during the Six Day War as retribution for war damage. He was now in financial ruin.
On 28 May 1971, Audie Murphy was killed in the crash of a private plane in which he was a passenger. The plane crashed into Brush Mountain, near Catawba, Virginia, 20 miles west of Roanoke in conditions of rain, clouds, fog and zero visibility. The pilot and four other passengers were also killed. The aircraft was a twin-engine Aero Commander 680 flown by a pilot who had a private-pilot license and a reported 8,000 hours of flying time, but who held no instrument rating. The aircraft was recovered on 31 May. After her husband died, Pamela Murphy moved into a small apartment and got a clerk position at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles, where she remained employed for 35 years
On 7 June 1971, Murphy was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. In attendance were Ambassador to the U.N. George H.W. Bush, Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland, and many of the 3rd Infantry Division. I made the trip down from New York to Washington to attend and pay my respects. I arrived in the dark the night before the burial and walked up to Arlington National Cemetery in the pitch dark. As I proceeded up the hill towards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near where Audie was to be buried, I noticed an eerie light emanating from where I thought the ceremony was to be held the following day. As I got closer I saw that there were hundreds of people holding candles and standing in silence. I thought to myself what a fitting vigil this was for our nation’s most decorated war hero. There WERE people who still appreciate what Audie had done for our country. Not wanting violate the sanctity of the moment, I slowly and quietly approached a young lady in the rear rank of the group. In a very low whisper that I myself almost couldn’t hear, I asked if all this was for Audie Murphy. She whispered, “Who? Who is that? … We are here for Bobby Kennedy.” I walk away in a silent state of shock. “Who was that, indeed?”
Next day I was there bright and early. The grave site was set up with chairs and flowers. Those that were not members of the family had to remain along the far curb across the street from the burial site. After a few hours wait the funeral procession appeared with the honor guard in the front of caisson carrying the flag draped coffin of Audie Murphy. Behind followed Pamela Murphy and her two sons, friends of the family and a variety military dignities.
The coffin was removed from the caisson by 6 men … all wearing the Medal of Honor around their necks. It was both very solemn and impressive … befitting for the man who was being carried to his final resting place. There were many floral arrangements in the shape and color of the 3rd Infantry Division patch … absolutely beautiful and so properly fitting. After a few short comments, the flag was removed from the coffin … ceremoniously folded by the Guard of Honor … and presented to Mrs. Murphy. Then the firing of the 21 gun salute by 7 members of the Guard of Honor … 3 volleys. There was a moment of silence and then from far off somewhere unseen … the solemn notes of Taps. Tears rolled unceremoniously down my cheeks. There was no controlling them. Then it was all over and everyone began to disburse and go about their business. It was an honor for me to be there.
The headstones of Medal of Honor recipients buried at Arlington National Cemetery are normally decorated at the top with a facsimile of the Medal of Honor in gold leaf. Murphy previously requested that his stone remain plain and inconspicuous, like that of an ordinary soldier. The headstone contains the incorrect birth year 1924, based upon the falsified materials among his military records. In 1974, a large granite marker was erected just off the Appalachian Trail at the 3,100′ elevation crash site.