As a child, Murphy is a loner with mood swings and an explosive temper. He grows up in Texas, around Farmersville, Greenville, and Celeste, where he attends elementary school. His father drifts in and out of the family’s life and eventually deserts them. He drops out of school in fifth grade and gets a job picking cotton for a dollar a day to help support his family. After his mother dies of endocarditis and pneumonia in 1941, he works at a radio repair shop and at a combination general store, garage and gas station in Greenville.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Murphy’s older sister helps him to falsify documentation about his birthdate in order to meet the minimum-age requirement for enlisting in the military. Turned down by the Navy and the Marine Corps, he enlists in the Army. He first sees action in the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. Then, in 1944, he participates in the Battle of Anzio, the liberation of Rome, and Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France. He fights at Montélimar and leads his men on a successful assault at the L’Omet quarry near Cleurie in northeastern France in October.
Murphy receives every military combat award for valor available from the U.S. Army, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism. He receives the Medal of Honor for valor that he demonstrates at the age of 19 for single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour at the Colmar Pocket in France in January 1945, then leading a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition.
After the war, Murphy embarks on a 21-year acting career. He plays himself in the 1955 autobiographical film To Hell and Back, based on his 1949 memoirs of the same name, but most of his roles are in westerns. He makes guest appearances on celebrity television shows and stars in the series Whispering Smith. He is a fairly accomplished songwriter. He breeds American Quarter Horses in California and Arizona and becomes a regular participant in horse racing.
Suffering from what would today be described as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Murphy sleeps with a loaded handgun under his pillow. He looks for solace in addictive sleeping pills. In his last few years, he is plagued by money problems but refuses offers to appear in alcohol and cigarette commercials because he does not want to set a bad example.
Audie Murphy is killed on May 28, 1971 when the private plane in which he is a passenger crashes into Brush Mountain, near Catawba, Virginia, twenty miles west of Roanoke in conditions of rain, clouds, fog and zero visibility. The pilot and four other passengers are also killed. On June 7, 1971, he is buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. In attendance are United States Ambassador to the United Nations George H.W. Bush, Chief of Staff of the United States Army William Westmoreland, and many of the 3rd Infantry Division. His gravesite is the cemetery’s second most-visited gravesite, after that of President John F. Kennedy.
(Pictured: Audie Murphy as Tom Smith in the television series Whispering Smith, 1961)