Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012


He was short, skinny and underage - hardly suitable material for a soldier in the Second World War.
Short and skinny - but ruthless
The American army certainly didn’t think much of Audie Murphy when he tried to enroll in December 1941. They rejected him on the grounds of his youth - he was just 17 - and his slight frame.
Murphy tried to enlist again in the following year. Again, he was rejected - by the Marines, the Army Paratroopers and the Navy. After further  persistence, Murphy was finally enrolled in the United States Army and sent for training in Texas.
The army soon realized they had made a mistake in accepting him. During one training session he was so exhausted that he fainted. His company commander considered him unsuitable for combat and attempted to have him moved to an army cookery school.
A lot of medals
All who had mocked Murphy would soon be forced to eat their words. He was to prove one of the most efficient and ruthless killing machines of the Second World War, serving in Morocco, Italy, Southern France and Alsace. He inspired his men as much as he terrified the Germans, displaying no fear even when caught in sustained machinegun fire.
The first inkling of his bravery came in September 1943, when he and his men faced a German attack. The enemy soon wished they'd chosen a different target: all were either killed or captured and Murphy was promoted to a sergeant for his role in the bloody skirmish.
To Hell and Back: the movie, with Audie
He next fought at the Volturo River and at the Anzio Beachhead. He was steadily honing his skills as a fearless genius in small unit action, leading men into situations of great danger against an overwhelmingly superior force.
After taking part in Operation Dragoon in Southern France, he and his men were transferred to Alsace, where fighting between the Allies and crack Germans soldiers was fierce and intense.
Soon after arriving, Murphy's best friend was killed by a German soldier hiding in a machine gun nest. Murphy was infuriated and single-handedly wiped out the entire German crew hiding in the nest.
He then used the captured German machine gun to destroy the nearby enemy positions. His conduct was so brave - and foolhardy - that he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Fame: back in America
During seven weeks of intense fighting, Murphy's division suffered 4,500 casualties. Murphy himself received two silver stars for further heroic actions and was elevated to platoon leader.
By January, 1945, he had been promoted to company commander and his troops were hiding in the words near Holtzwihr, a place of vital strategic significance for the Allied advance.
On 26 January, his men went into action against the enemy. It was bitterly cold (14 °F or −10 °C) with two feet of snow on the ground.
The men fought with courage but were decimated in a ferocious firefight and reduced to an effective strength of 19 out of 128.
Murphy realized the remnants of his company couldn’t hold out any longer and ordered them to retreat into the forest. He would meanwhile remain in position in order to direct American artillery fire coming from the rear.
Fighting conditions were like this
‘I loved that artillery’, Murphy later recalled. ‘I could see Kraut soldiers disappear in clouds of smoke and snow, hear them scream and shout, yet they came on and on as though nothing would stop them.’
The Germans had by now advanced to within fifty yards of Murphy’s hiding place. When battalion headquarters inquired as to the enemy position, Murphy replied: ‘If you just hold the phone a minute, I'll let you talk to one of the bastards.’
He continued to spray the advancing troops with bullets until his carbine ran out of ammunition. He was preparing to fall back when he noticed a machine gun on the turret of a nearby tank destroyer.
Recently found in the woods: items from the battle
Murphy knew the gun gave him a real chance to stop the Germans. He clambered aboard and began firing, managing to cut down an entire squad of German infantry who had crawled into a nearby ditch.
At one point he noticed a group of Germans discussing tactics. ‘I pressed the trigger and slowly traversed the barrel - the bodies slumped in a stack position,’ he said.
Murphy only stopped fighting his when telephone line to headquarters was cut by enemy artillery. He was also badly wounded in the leg.
More woodland discoveries
Despite the pain, he would continue to lead his men for the next two days until the area around the Holtzwihr and the Colmar Canal was cleared of Germans. It was an exceptional feat of war.
On June 2, 1945, he was presented with the Medal of Honor, America’s highest honour. It was the peak of his military career - a career that ended with 32 additional medals, ribbons, citations and badges.
Life cut short.
Murphy would later become a Hollywood star, acting in the film of his own experiences, To Hell and Back.
His life was tragically cut short when he died in a plane crash in 1971. He was just 46.
When asked after the war why he had single-handedly taken on a company of German infantry, he replied simply: ‘They were killing my friends.’
UK paperback
I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit


  1. The carved lettering on his Arlington gravestone has since been blacked in order to make it easier to read. Our guide told us that, after the Kennedy graves, his is the most requested marker by visitors to the cemetery. An ordinary soldier's grave for an anything-but-ordinary soldier, its only distinction is a tiny American flag in the ground beside the stone, which is insufficient to hold all his battle honours. Thanks for the post, sir.

  2. Many thanks for your comment and it's good to know his grave is being well looked after.
    As you say, he was an anything-but-ordinary soldier.
    Best, Giles