Who better to honor this Memorial Weekend than Audie Murphy? Through LIFE magazine's July 16, 1945 issue ("Most Decorated Soldier"/cover photo), Audie Leon Murphy became one the most famous soldiers of World War II and widely regarded as the most decorated American soldier of the war. After the war he became a celebrated movie star for over two decades, appearing in 44 films. He later had success as a country music composer. And how appropriate that we honor him this weekend. In addition to be America’s Most Decorated Soldier, Audie Murphy died in a plane crash on Memorial Day Weekend, May 28, 1971.
Audie Leon Murphy was born to sharecroppers near the community of Kingston in Hunt County, Texas. His parents were of Irish descent, Emmett Berry Murphy (February 20, 1886–September 20, 1976), and his wife, Josie Bell (née Killian (1891–1941). He grew up on farms in Hunt County and has several memorials there. He was the sixth of twelve children, two of whom died before reaching adulthood.
In 1933, Emmett and Josie Murphy with their 5 children June, Audie, Richard, Gene, and Nadine moved to Celeste, Texas with the primary purpose of enrolling the children in school. They lived in an abandoned railroad boxcar on the southern end of the small community for several months before renting a rundown home in Celeste until 1937. The railroad car no longer exists.
While the family lived in Celeste, the two remaining Murphy children, Beatrice and Joseph, were born. It was here that Audie befriended the Cawthon family who played a prominent role in his life. In 1937, the Murphy family moved back into the abandoned railroad car for several weeks and then moved to a farm near Floyd, Texas located just west of Greenville. Audie finally moved out on his own in 1939 at the age of 15 after finding a job with Haney Lee, who had a farm nearby
Audie Murphy spent a lot of time with his grandparents, Jefferson D. and Sarah Elizabeth Killian, at their hope in Farmersville, Texas. In fact, the Killian’s was a place of refuge for the Murphy children when times were difficult during the years of the depression. At the height of the depression, around 1929 or 1930, Audie's oldest sister, Corrine, left the Murphy family and moved in with the grandparents in their Farmersville home to help relieve some of the financial stress burdening the Murphy family.
As the family moved from community to community over the years, they never strayed too far from the Killian home. Around 1933-36 (depending on the account), Emmett Murphy, who was known to disappear for weeks at a time while apparently seeking employment, finally vanished permanently. He had attempted to convince his wife and family to move with him to West Texas where he hoped to find work in the oil fields. Unconvinced that this was a wise move, Mrs. Murphy did not want to leave the area where her parents and lifelong friends lived.
At the time of their mother's death, Audie was approximately 17 years old and was declared by the county to be old enough to take care of himself. The placement of his siblings in the Boles Childrens Home in Quinlan was an event that Audie vowed to correct. On more than one occasion during the war, he told his buddies that he hoped to someday earn enough money to reunite what remained of his family. As it turned out, Audie was able to keep his promise.
Audie attended elementary school in Celeste, Texas until his father abandoned the family. Audie dropped out to help support the family. He worked for one dollar per day, plowing and picking cotton on any farm that would hire him. Murphy became very skilled with a rifle, hunting small game like squirrels, rabbits, and birds to help feed the family.
One of his favorite hunting companions was neighbor Dial Henley. When Henley commented that Murphy never missed what he shot at, Murphy replied, "Well, Dial, if I don't hit what I shoot at, my family won't eat today."
On May 23, 1941, his mother died. He worked at a combination general store, garage and gas station in Greenville. Boarded out, he worked in a radio repair shop. Later that year, with the approval of his older, married sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Corinne Burns (usually referred to as "Corrine"), who was unable to help, Murphy placed his three youngest siblings in an orphanage to ensure their care. He reclaimed them after World War II.
He had long dreamed of joining the military. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Murphy tried to enlist in the military, but the services rejected him because he was underage. In June 1942, shortly after what he and his sister Corrine believed was his 17th birthday, Corrine adjusted his birth date so he appeared to be 18 and legally able to enlist. His war memoirs, TO HELL AND BACK, maintained this misinformation, leading to later confusion and contradictory statements about his year of birth.
Murphy was small, only 5 ft 5 inch and 110 pounds, but he tried once again to enlist and was declined by both the Marines and Army paratroopers as too short and underweight. The Navy also turned him down for being underweight. The United States Army finally accepted him and he was inducted at (some reports say Dallas) Greenville, Texas and sent to Camp Wolters near Mineral Wells, Texas for basic training. During a session of close order drill, he passed out. His company commander tried to have him transferred to a cook and bakers' school but Murphy insisted on becoming a combat soldier, and after 13 weeks of basic training, he was sent to Fort Meade, Maryland for advanced infantry training.
Murphy was awarded 33 U.S. decorations and medals, five medals from France, and one from Belgium. He received every U.S. decoration for valor available to Army ground personnel at the time. He earned the Silver Star twice in three days, two Bronze Star Medals, three Purple Hearts, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Medal of Honor.
After seeing the young hero's photo on the cover of the July 16 edition of Life Magazine and sensing star potential, actor James Cagney invited Murphy to Hollywood in September 1945. Despite Cagney's expectations, the next few years in California were difficult for Murphy. He became disillusioned by the lack of work, was frequently broke, and slept on the floor of a gymnasium owned by his friend Terry Hunt. He eventually received token acting parts in the 1948 films “Beyond Glory” and “Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven.” His third movie, “Bad Boy,” gave him his first leading role.
He also starred in the 1951 adaptation of Stephen Crane's Civil War novel, “The Red Badge of Courage,” which earned critical success. Murphy expressed great discomfort in playing himself in “To Hell and Back.” In 1959, he starred in the western “No Name on the Bullet,” in which his performance was well-received despite being cast as the villain, a professional killer who managed to stay within the law.
After returning home from World War II, Murphy bought a house in Farmersville, Texas for his oldest sister Corrine, her husband Poland Burns, and their three children. His three youngest siblings, Nadine, Billie, and Joe, had been living in an orphanage since Murphy's mother's death, He intended that they would be able to live with Corrine and Poland. However, six children under one roof proved difficult for Corrine and Poland to parent, and Murphy took his siblings to live with him.
Despite a lot of post-war publicity, his acting career had not progressed and he had difficulty making a living. Buck, Murphy's oldest brother, and his wife agreed to take Nadine in, but Murphy could not find a home for Joe. He approached James "Skipper" Cherry, a Dallas theater owner who was involved with the Variety Clubs International Boy's Ranch, a 4,800 acres ranch near Copperas Cove, Texas. He arranged for Joe to live at the Boy's Ranch. Reportedly, Joe was very happy there and Murphy was able to frequently visit his brother as well as his friend Cherry. In a 1973 interview, Cherry recalled, "He was discouraged and somewhat despondent concerning his movie career."
Variety Clubs International was financing “Bad Boy,” a film to help promote the organization's work with troubled children. Cherry called Texas theater executive Paul Short, who was producing the film, to suggest that they consider giving Murphy a significant role in the movie. Murphy performed well in the screen test, but the president of Allied Artists did not want to cast someone in a major role with so little acting experience. Cherry, Short, and other Texas theater owners decided that they wanted Murphy to play the lead or would not finance the film. The producers agreed and Murphy's performance was well-received by Hollywood. As a result of the film, Universal Studios signed Murphy to a seven-year studio contract. After a few box-office hits at Universal, the studio bosses gave Murphy increased scope in choosing his roles.
Murphy's 1949 autobiography TO HELL AND BACK became a national bestseller. The book was ghostwritten by his friend, David "Spec" McClure, already a professional writer. Murphy modestly described some of his most heroic actions—without portraying himself as a hero. He did not mention any of the many decorations he received, but praised the skills, bravery, and dedication of the other members of his platoon. Murphy even attributed a song he had written to "Kerrigan".
Murphy portrayed himself in the 1955 film version of his book with the same title, “To Hell and Back.” Murphy was initially reluctant to star in the movie, fearing it would appear he was cashing in on his war experience. He suggested Tony Curtis for the role. Unlike in most Hollywood films, where the same soldiers serve throughout the movie, Murphy's comrades are killed or wounded as they were in real life. At the film's end, Murphy is the only member of his original unit remaining. At the ceremony where Murphy is awarded the Medal of Honor, the ghostly images of his dead friends are depicted. This insistence on reality has been attributed to Murphy and his desire to honor his fallen friends. Audie Murphy's oldest son, Terry, portrayed Audie's younger brother Joseph Preston "Joe" Murphy (at age four).
The film grossed almost $10 million during its initial theatrical release, and at the time became Universal Studios's biggest hit of the studio's 43-year history. The movie is thought to have held the record as the company's highest-grossing motion picture until 1975, when it was surpassed by Steven Spielberg's “Jaws.”
In the 25 years he spent in Hollywood, Murphy made 44 feature films, 33 of them Westerns. He played outlaws Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Bill Doolin. His films earned him close to $3 million in his 23 years as an actor. He also appeared in several television shows, including the lead in the short-lived 1961 NBC western detective series “Whispering Smith,” set in Denver, Colorado. For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Murphy has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1601 Vine Street.
|Audie Murphy in one of his many western roles|
In addition to acting, Murphy also became successful as a country music songwriter. He teamed up with musicians and composers including Guy Mitchell, Jimmy Bryant, Scott Turner, Coy Ziegler, Ray and Terri Eddlemon. Murphy's songs were recorded and released by well-known artists including Dean Martin, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride, Jimmy Bryant, Porter Waggoner, Jerry Wallace, Roy Clark, and Harry Nilsson. His two biggest hits were "Shutters and Boards" and "When the Wind Blows in Chicago".
Murphy was reportedly plagued by insomnia, bouts of depression, and nightmares related to his numerous battles throughout his life. His first wife, Wanda Hendrix, often talked of his struggle with this condition, even claiming that he had held her at gunpoint once. For a time during the mid-1960s, he became dependent on doctor-prescribed sleeping pills called Placidyl. When he recognized that he had become addicted to the drug, he locked himself in a motel room where he took himself off the pills, going through withdrawal for a week.
Always an advocate of the needs of America's military veterans, Murphy eventually broke the taboo about publicly discussing war-related mental conditions. In an effort to draw attention to the problems of returning Korean and Vietnam War veterans, Murphy spoke out candidly about his own problems with PTSD, known then and during World War II as "battle fatigue". He called on the United States government to give increased consideration and study to the emotional impact that combat experiences have on veterans, and to extend health care benefits to address PTSD and other mental-health problems suffered by returning war veterans.
Murphy married actress Wanda Hendrix in 1949; they were divorced in 1951. He then married former airline stewardess Pamela Archer, by whom he had two children: Terrance Michael "Terry" Murphy (born 1952) and James Shannon "Skipper" Murphy (born 1954). They were named for two of his most respected friends, Terry Hunt and James "Skipper" Cherry, respectively. Murphy became a successful actor, rancher, and businessman, breeding and raising Quarter Horses. He owned ranches in Texas, Tucson, Arizona and Menifee, California.
On May 28, 1971, Murphy was killed when the private plane in which he was a passenger crashed into Brush Mountain, near Catawba, Virginia, 20 miles west of Roanoke, Virginia in conditions of rain, clouds/fog and zero visibility. The pilot and four other passengers were also killed. In 1974, a large granite marker was erected near the crash site. On June 7, 1971, Murphy was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. A special flagstone walkway was later constructed to accommodate the large number of people who visit to pay their respects. It is the second most-visited grave site, after that of President John F. Kennedy.
The headstones of Medal of Honor recipients buried at Arlington National Cemetery are normally decorated in gold leaf. Murphy previously requested that his stone remain plain and inconspicuous, like that of an ordinary soldier. An unknown person maintains a small American flag next to his engraved Government-issue headstone, which reads as follows:
Audie L. Murphy, Texas. Major, Infantry, World War II. June 20, 1924 to May 28, 1971. Medal of Honor, DSC, SS & OLC, LM, BSM & OLC, PH & 2 OLC.
Murphy’s diverse honors are far too numerous to list here so I’ll mention only those in the county of his birth, Hunt County, Texas. From the mid-1990s through the present, an annual celebration of Murphy and other veterans in all branches of service has been held on the weekend closest to Murphy's birthday at the American Cotton Museum, renamed The Audie Murphy/American Cotton Museum (in Greenville, Texas), which houses a large collection of Murphy memorabilia and personal items. His statue stands in front of the museum.
A monument in his honor stands in Celeste, the small town where he attended school for five years. Farmersville also claims Audie Murphy, since that is where his sister Corinne lived and the address on his draft information.
Highway 69 from Greenville to Fannin County is the Audie Murphy Memorial Highway, and Highway 34 crosses the railroad tracks in Greenville on the Audie Murphy Memorial Overpass.
Mark your calendar for the annual Audie Murphy Day celebration in Farmersville, Texas with a Military flyover at 10 am followed by parade downtown and program under the Onion Shed.
|Audie Murphy statue at Greenville, Texas Museum|
As we remember those who have gone before us this weekend, let’s remember soldiers like Audie Leon Murphy and his comrades.
Thanks to Wikipedia, www.audiemurphy.com, and the Chambers of Commerce of Greenville, Celeste, and Farmersville, Texas.