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Critical Mass: Unassuming Audie Murphy a true American hero – Arkansas Online

Audie Murphy was a small man, a touch over 5 feet, 5 inches tall. He came from a Texas sharecropper family; after his mother took ill in 1936, and his father — who was “not lazy, but had a genius for not considering the future” — abandoned her and his 11 children. Audie became a breadwinner. He picked cotton and worked in a store and shot rabbits to go with the molasses and bread they ate. His mother, Josie, died in May 1941, when he was 15 years old.

“I can’t ever remember being young in my life,” he’d say much later.

He was 16 when he first tried to enlist in the Marines, immediately after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was turned down for being underweight and underage.

He had his sister swear out a false affidavit to the effect that he was a year older than he was, and went on an eating binge that brought his weight all the way up to 112 pounds. The Army finally took him in June 1942, and during basic training he excelled as a marksman but passed out during a close order drill in the hot Texas sun.

His company commander thought he was too slightly built for combat and tried to have him transferred to cook and baker school. But Murphy had, according to his ghostwritten autobiography, always wanted to be a soldier.

They sent him overseas in 1943, when he was 18. By the end of the war, it was said he had killed 241 enemy soldiers. Inducted as a private, he would be rapidly promoted to corporal and sergeant, finally receiving a rare battlefield commission to second lieutenant and platoon leader.

At 19, he won the Medal of Honor for beating back a German tank and infantry attack literally alone — firing from the top of a stranded tank destroyer and calling in artillery fire on top of his own position. (Allegedly when he was asked how close the Germans were to his position, Murphy cracked, “Just hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one of the bastards.”) Then, after the Germans retreated, Murphy rounded up the remaining 19 (out of an original 128) men in his company and organized a counter-attack.

He was awarded 36 other medals; his foreign commendations included the French Forrager, Legion of Honor and Croix de Guerre with Palm and Silver Star and the Belgian Croix de Guerre 1940 with Palm. The Texas legislature also awarded him a Medal of Honor. He is commonly referred to as the most decorated soldier of World War II.

When he returned from Europe after V-E Day in June 1945, he was greeted as a hero, with parades and banquets. Life put him on the cover of its July 16, 1945, issue. It turned out Audie Murphy was a handsome kid, invariably described as “baby-faced” or “boyish.” James Cagney saw the photo, called Murphy and invited him out to Hollywood.

Murphy came, somewhat reluctantly, painfully aware that he had no talent or affinity for the work but that he could only live so long on after-dinner speeches and his $113 a month Army pension. When Cagney met him in person, he was astonished that the war hero was “very thin,” with a “bluish-gray complexion.”

Cagney canceled the hotel room he’d booked for Murphy and took him into his own home. Cagney and his brother William signed Murphy as a $150 a week contract player for their production company and set him up with acting, voice and judo lessons.

But they never cast him in a movie, and in 1947, he moved into a room at Terry Hunt’s Athletic Club in Hollywood where he met screenwriter David “Spec” McClure, who had served in the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps during World War II. McClure encouraged Murphy to seek a book deal, and soon he signed with Henry Holt and Co. to write his memoir, with McClure serving as ghostwriter.

McClure also got Murphy his first screen role as a newspaper copy boy in “Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven.” (A similarly small part, in the Alan Ladd feature “Beyond Glory,” was filmed earlier but was released later. Murphy’s girlfriend and later wife, Wanda Hendrix, helped him secure that role.)

As Murphy continued to act in increasingly larger roles in B pictures, he and McClure embarked on writing the promised memoir. They flew to Europe to retrace Murphy’s steps through Sicily, and Salerno, Anzio, southern France and southern Germany to revisit the battlefields where he won his medals.

The process was laborious; Murphy was likely a natural introvert and came back from the war with what we would now recognize as a classic case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. (He struggled with insomnia, bouts of depression, and nightmares related to numerous battles throughout his life. Hendrix was alarmed that he slept with a captured Walther beneath his pillow and claimed he once pulled it on her after she startled him. They divorced in 1951.)

Though he laboriously wrote some passages in longhand, he probably wrote less than 10% of the book. For the rest of it, McClure relied on Murphy’s medal citations and Donald Taggart’s classic “History of the Third Infantry Division in World War II” for his facts. Then he’d try to interview the taciturn Murphy about his experiences, type what he thought had happened, and send his copy to Murphy.

Sgt. Audie Murphy (left) receives a battlefield commission to second lieutenant from his commanding officer Col. Howe (Paul Langton) as Capt. Marks (Bruce Cowling) looks on in a scene from 1955’s “To Hell and Back.”

Murphy would often reject McClure’s first and second attempts at rendering Murphy’s memories. The writer would grow frustrated with his collaborator and demand that Murphy tell him exactly what had happened. Sometimes the broken young man would do just that.

After a year, they had a remarkable book, commonly known as “To Hell and Back.” But if you look at the dust jacket of the first edition, you’ll notice that the book is actually titled “Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back,” which seems to infer a certain ambiguity of authorship. It’s not exactly “by” Murphy, and McClure’s name appears nowhere in the edition.

And while it is narrated in first-person, Murphy often seems to recede from the scene, giving it over to his fellow soldiers. In one instance, a song Murphy wrote (he would later on achieve some degree of success as a songwriter) is attributed to another soldier.

It begins in Sicily, with Murphy feeling disappointed that because of scheduling problems, his company had come ashore sometime after the initial assault and met only token resistance from Italian troops:

There was some big stuff smashing about; and from various points came the rattle of small arms. But we soon got used to it.

Used to it!

But it doesn’t take long for the horror to begin. The first death, of one of Murphy’s fellow soldiers, occurs on page two:

The second shell is different. Something terrible and immediate about its whistle makes my scalp start prickling. I grab my helmet and flip over on my stomach. The explosion is thunderous. Steel fragments whine, and the ground seems to jump up and hit me in the face.

Silence again. I raise my head. The sour fumes of powder have caused an epidemic of coughing.

“Hey, boss. The cahgo–”

The voice snaps. We all see it. The redheaded soldier has tumbled from the rock. Blood trickles from his mouth and nose.

It takes eight more pages before Murphy records his first kill:

… I am ahead of the company with a group of scouts. We flush a couple of Italian officers. They should have surrendered. Instead, they mount two magnificent white horses and gallop madly away. My act is instinctive. Dropping to one knee, I fire twice. The men tumble from the horses, roll over and lie still.

It is difficult to know who to credit for the book’s stately cadences and matter-of-fact tone. The humility is likely Murphy’s — nowhere in the memoir are his medals mentioned, and while the book is full of carnage and gallantry, it seems uncommonly centered on the mundane daily terrors of life in a combat zone.

Aside from the reconstructed conversations among the soldiers, which sometimes seem stilted and broad (a problem not helped by the attempt to replicate regional accents), the book rings with the authority of a reluctant eyewitness.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Norman Mailer’s WWII novel “The Naked and the Dead,” but “To Hell and Back” feels more direct and somehow more honest, though it’s filtered through McClure’s Hollywood sensibility as much as “The Naked and the Dead” is filtered through Mailer’s writerly aspirations.

There is sometimes poetry in the Murphy/McClure collaboration, as when he recounts a childhood dream:

… I was on a faraway battlefield, where bugles blew, banners streamed and men charged gallantly across flaming hills; where the temperature always stood at eighty and our side was always victorious; where the dying were but impersonal shadows and the wounded never cried …

“To Hell and Back” is less than 300 pages long; an easy read. A lot easier than “The Naked and the Dead.” But it’s never mentioned as one of the best books to come out of World War II, probably because it was obscured by the 1955 film version, in which Murphy starred as himself.

Murphy, despite his self-deprecating assessment of his own acting ability, had done all right as an actor, especially in 1951’s “The Red Badge of Courage” and western roles like 1954’s “Destry” and 1952’s “Duel at Silver Creek,” directed by Don Siegel. Still, he was reluctant to star as himself, in part because he was afraid he’d be seen as cashing in on his war experience.

Audie Murphy poses for a publicity photo. He is wearing the Medal of Honor.

He might also have been rightly afraid his story would be Hollywoodized, especially after McClure lost out on a chance to adapt the book for the screen to the journeyman Gil Doud, who was better known for his work in radio. While Doud worked with Murphy in much the same way McClure did, the movie seems, at least to modern audiences, a standard war film, though it is somewhat darker than most war films of the period: At the end, Murphy is the only member of his original unit remaining.

After the movie came out, Murphy gave an interview in which he reflected on the “strange jerking back and forth between make-believe and reality” the filming evoked in him, “between fighting for your life and the discovery that it’s only a game and you have to do a retake because a tourist’s dog ran across the field in the middle of the battle.”

He recounted an incident where he re-enacted the death of one of his close friends in battle. In real life, his friend stood up too tall as they advanced up a hill and was hit by a burst of enemy machine gun fire. He fell back into Murphy’s arms, gave a thin smile and said “I goofed, Murphy” as he died.

“When we shot the scene,” Murphy remembered, “we changed the part where Brandon died in my arms. That was the way it had really happened, but it looked too corny, they said. I guess it did.”

Probably because of the novelty of a war hero portraying himself on screen, contemporary reviews were almost uniformly positive. “Credibility burns in his mild face and gentle gestures as he moves through scenes of battle raptly, like a man reliving them with wonder and something of reverence,” Time magazine wrote.

A better judgment might have been offered by The New Yorker’s John McCarten, who wrote: “I am told that he is a modest man, and he behaves modestly here. However, the events described in the picture have a factitious air about them. Maybe the spontaneity of actual heroism just can’t be duplicated in the movies.”

The film ends with Murphy being presented the Medal of Honor, with his fallen comrades represented at the ceremony by ghostly apparitions. I prefer the last page of the book where, when Murphy hears that the war is finally over, he promises himself he will “find the kind of girl of whom I once dreamed. I will learn to look at life through uncynical eyes, to have faith, to know love. I will learn to work in peace as in war.”

But Murphy’s story didn’t have a happy ending. He remarried and had two children, and had his songs recorded by the likes of Dean Martin and Harry Nilsson, but his nightmares led him to an addiction to sleeping pills. He never overcame his limitations as an actor, and the B-westerns he seemed to fit in were soon squeezed by TV series on one side and edgier, more violent spaghetti westerns on the other. A movie he envisioned making with McClure, “The Way Back,” a sequel to his war memoir, never got financing.

By 1960, Murphy, who might have been one of the inspirations for Quentin Tarantino’s character Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), was reduced to playing a western detective on TV in the largely forgotten series “Whispering Smith.”

Interviewed in 1962, he spoke of his post-war experience: “War robs you mentally and physically, it drains you. Things don’t thrill you anymore. it’s a struggle every day to find something interesting to do.”

A few years later, he retired from acting, developed a gambling problem, made bad investments, went broke and declared bankruptcy in 1968. He stood trial for attempted murder — his defense was basically that if he’d wanted to kill the man he would have

done it. The jury shook his hand after they acquitted him.

A year later, in 1971, he was dead. A plane he chartered crashed while on the way to check out a potential investment opportunity in a factory that made pre-fab homes. He was 45 years old.

When people think about American soldiers in WWII, a great number of them instantly recall John Wayne. People send me angry letters when I point out that Wayne, who was 34 years old the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, never spent a day in the armed forces, that he took measures to avoid service during the war.

They wishfully conceive of their hero carrying out secret missions for Wild Bill Donovan’s O.S.S., or that he was ordered by FDR to make movies to keep up morale.

I have no brief against Wayne; he was an actor, not a hero, and he did what many if not most people would have done in his situation.

But I think of Audie Murphy, who came puny and starved out of east Texas, an authentic hero who’s forgotten in this time when authenticity allegedly means so much. And that great, forgotten book he once sort of wrote.

pmartin@adgnewsroom.com

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