THE PRICE OF VALOR: THE LIFE OF AUDIE MURPHY, AMERICA’S MOST DECORATED HERO OF WORLD WAR II
By David A. Smith
Published in 2015 by Regnery History.
Reviewed by Ron Hunka.
When I was growing up in the fifties, almost every boy knew the name “Audie Murphy.” After all, he was a famous movie actor who had appeared in numerous westerns. But more than that he was a legitimate WWII hero in a time when “hero” was a more reserved accolade than it is now. He had won more medals, including the Medal of Honor, than any other American soldier in WWII. The 1955 movie, To Hell and Back, in which he played himself, documented his combat exploits and was a great box office success. But something was missing from Murphy’s personality after the war–nothing seemed to excite him anymore.
In this book, Baylor University senior lecturer, David A. Smith, tells the story of a kid, who grew up in miserable poverty in Hunt County, Texas in run-down houses with no electricity or plumbing. One such place was a converted boxcar. After his mother died, three of his younger siblings had to be sent to an orphanage. Murphy joined the army in WWII at 17 to escape his desperate circumstances.
Smith’s account of Murphy’s life is an interesting, highly readable effort that does justice to a man who bore the psychological burden of having killed an estimated 240 enemy soldiers and witnessed the violent deaths of many Americans.
During the war, Murphy saw action in North Africa, Italy, and France. Again and again, he distinguished himself with uncommon courage and leadership which won battlefield promotions for him through the rank of first lieutenant.
The action for which Murphy eventually won the Medal of Honor took place near the small French town of Holtzwihr on January 20, 1945. When two American tank destroyers proved to be overmatched against German Tiger tanks whose armor resisted their shells, he ordered his men to retreat. But he stayed behind. Firing a machine gun atop one of the disabled tank destroyers and calling in artillery strikes, he beat back the assault of a German company. Showing remarkable cool under fire, in response to an artillery crew question about how close the Germans were, he replied, “Just hold the phone and I will let you talk to one of the bastards.” Men under his command that day credited him with having saved their lives.
After the war ended, Murphy chose to return home to Texas. On June 10, 1945, accompanied by 13 generals and 45 decorated officers and enlisted, he began the long trip to San Antonio where a crowd of about 300,000 persons lined the parade route. He was the last one-off the plane. Scheduled to be the guest of honor at a dinner, he never showed up.
Back home in Hunt County, the locals could not get enough of Audie Murphy. With a gift of $1,700 in war bonds they gave him, he bought his sister a bigger house and got his three siblings out of the orphanage.
Within a week after Murphy came home, the war haunted his dreams. He suffered deeply from what is now known as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. With no appropriate treatment available at the time, he suffered from it the rest of his life. Friends learned that he slept with a revolver beneath his pillow.
On July 21, 1945, Murphy appeared on the cover of Life, the most popular American magazine of the day. Young and handsome, he looked the way Americans wanted their heroes to look. The issue helped make him one of the most recognized faces in the country, and it brought him to attention of the popular actor, James Cagney, who thought he might have a future in the movies. It was Cagney who persuaded Murphy to come to Hollywood.
Although Cagney paid and treated Murphy well, the actor eventually gave up on him, concluding he “couldn’t act’. Now on his own in Hollywood, Murphy was forced to sleep in back of a gym owned by a friend and get by on an army disability check of $87 a month. Eventually, though, he began a movie career of nearly 50 mostly forgettable films–many of them westerns.
One of his good friends said the general public assumed Murphy had easily adjusted back into civilian life, making a fortune in the movies and living happily ever after. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Along the way, Murphy had two marriages. Concomitantly, as he acquired wealth from his movies, he began betting large sums of money, which, of course, he lost. Seemingly, the gambling was an attempt to generate some excitement in his life. In 1969, he lost more than $90,000. He had to borrow money to keep up with his debts.
By the middle 1960s, WWII had been over for about 20 years, and there was a lot less interest in war stories about battlefield heroics. That trend was reflected in the movies being made.
In 1971, the story of the My Lai Massacre broke in the news when American soldiers under the command of Lt. William Calley executed Vietnamese civilians. Murphy acknowledged Calley’s “error.” But admitted that “indoctrinated to a fever pitch in WWII,” he might have made a similarly tragic error in judgment.
In May, on a business trip to discuss his latest project, Audie Murphy, along with several business associates, was killed in a private plane crash in Virginia. He was 45 years old. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
In addition to historical book reviews, Ron Hunka writes about history in general. He has published over a dozen articles on castles and monasteries in the German-speaking world, and he has documented the fraudulent careers of notorious Texans Billie Sol Estes, Frank Sharp, and James Bowie. Other subjects include the Spanish shipwrecks of Padre Island and the financial difficulties of the Republic of Texas.