Audie Murphy was the son of a poor Texas sharecropper. The farm boy earned fame as the most decorated United States combat soldier of World War II. Among his 33 awards was the Medal of Honor, the highest military recognition for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States of America.
He also received every United States military medal for valor, some of them more than once. He also was recognized with five awards by France and Belgium. Credited with killing more than 240 of the enemy while wounding and capturing many others, he became a legend within the 3rd Infantry Division.
Beginning his service as a teenage Army private, Audie quickly rose to the enlisted rank of staff sergeant, was given a battlefield commission as second lieutenant. Murphy fought in nine major campaigns across the European Theater. He was wounded three times.
During his three years of active combat service, Audie became one of the best fighting soldiers in history. Many believe his accomplishments will never be repeated by another soldier, especially given today’s high-tech warfare.
On Sept. 21, 1945, at the age of 21, Audie was released from the U.S. Army. His picture appeared on the cover of Life magazine.
Actor James Cagney invited Murphy to Hollywood. The next two years were hard times for Murphy. He slept in a local gymnasium until he began receiving token acting parts.
In 1950 Murphy got a contract with Universal-International where he starred in 26 films. Most of those films were Westerns. His 1949 autobiography “To Hell and Back” was a best-seller. Murphy starred as himself in a film biography released by Universal-International in 1955 with the same title. The movie, “To Hell and Back,” held the record as Universal’s highest grossing picture until 1975 when it was finally surpassed by the movie “Jaws.”
Murphy married actress Wanda Hendrix in 1949. They were divorced in 1951. He then married former airline stewardess Pamela Archer. Pam was the love of his life. They were parents of two sons.
Despite his success in Hollywood, Audie never forgot his rural Texas roots. He returned frequently to the Dallas area where he owned a small ranch. He also had ranches in California and Arizona. He was a successful thoroughbred and quarter horse owner and breeder. His films earned him close to $3 million in 23 years as an actor. But Audie loved to gamble. He was an avid high-stakes poker player. He won and lost fortunes.
Murphy wrote poetry and was successful as a songwriter. Dozens of his songs were recorded by Dean Martin, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride, Porter Waggoner, and Roy Clark. His two biggest hits were “Shutters and Boards” and “When the Wind Blows in Chicago.”
Audie suffered from battle fatigue, known as post-traumatic stress disorder. After the war, he was plagued by insomnia and depression. During the mid-’60s he became dependent on prescription sleeping pills. When he recognized that he was addicted to the drug, he locked himself in a motel room, stopped taking the sleeping pills and went through withdrawal symptoms for a week.
Audie was always an advocate for the needs of veterans. After his addition, he broke the taboo about discussing war-related mental problems. In an effort to draw attention to the problems of returning Korean and Vietnam War veterans, Murphy spoke candidly about his personal problems. He publicly called for the United States government to give more attention to the emotional impact war has on veterans and to extend health care benefits to include the mental health problems of returning war vets.
While on a business trip over Memorial Day weekend 1971, Murphy was killed at the age of 46. He was a passenger in a private plane flying in fog and rain that crashed into the side of a mountain near Roanoke, Va.
On June 7, 1971, Murphy was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
Pam Murphy, wife and widow of Audie Murphy, established her own distinctive 35-year career working as a patient liaison at the Sepulveda Veterans Administration Hospital. Every soldier who was a patient in the hospital was treated with respect and dignity by Pam Murphy.
“Nobody could cut through VA red tape faster than Mrs. Murphy,” said one veteran. “She was our angel.”
When Audie died, he was broke, having squandered millions on gambling, bad investments and other women.
“Even with the adultery and desertion at the end, he always remained my hero,” Pam said.
Pam Murphy died on April 8, 2010. She was 90 years old.
One year Dennis McCarthy of the Los Angeles Times asked Pam to be the focus of a Veterans Day column for all the work she had done. Pam declined. “Honor them, not me,” she said. “They’re the ones who deserve it.”
Nov. 11 is Veterans Day. Let’s do as Pam Murphy said and honor them.
Rev. Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.