Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier of the Second World War
, but he is a true American Cultural Icon
because he was also a grade-B movie
He was the son of truly dirt-poor sharecroppers in Texas in the twenties. A grade-school dropout, he was orphaned at age 16. As the eldest son, it fell to him to put food on the table for his family, which he did with his rifle. He was already a crack shot when he was rejected by the marines, with whom he tried to enlist when WWII broke out. He kept trying, and was eventually accepted by the army. He went on to receive every military decoration that the US had to offer, along with five citations from France and Belgium. His Congressional Medal of Honor citation says, in part:
2d Lt. Murphy commanded
Company B, which was attacked by 6 tanks
and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to
prepared positions in a woods, while he remained forward at his
command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by
telephone. Behind him, to his right, 1 of our tank destroyers received a
direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. (...) With
the enemy tanks abreast of his position, 2d Lt. Murphy climbed on the
burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment,
and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone
and exposed to German fire from 3 sides, but his deadly fire killed
dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. (...)
For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate
2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a
squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank.
Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his
fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued the
single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made
his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the
company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw...
That kind of stuff just seemed to be second nature
for the little guy (he was 5'5" or 5'7", depending on the source).
When he left active duty in 1945, he made the cover of Life Magazine, where he was spotted by James Cagney, who coaxed him to try his hand in Hollywood. He had a couple of lean years there, sleeping at the YMCA, but but he got a few parts. Eventually, he signed with Universal Pictures, for whom he made 26 movies over the next 15 years. Twenty-three of them were westerns, and most of them were middling in quality. By far the most successful one was To Hell and Back, the 1955 movie version of his autobiography, in which he played himself. It was Universal's highest-grossing picture until 1975, when it was finally devoured by Jaws. In all, his Hollywood career spanned 25 years and 44 feature films.
He was also a songwriter. His stuff was recorded by Harry Nilsson, Charley Pride, Dean Martin, Porter Waggoner, and Roy Clark, among others.
He was among the first to call for US Government aid to address the emotional consequences of war on veterans. He suffered from what was then called battle fatigue - now known as post-traumatic stress disorder - and became addicted to prescription drugs. (In typical hero fashion, he broke his own addiction by locking himself in a hotel room for a week, while suffering the tortures of withdrawal.)
In 1971, at age 46, he was killed in the crash of a private plane near Roanoke, Virginia. He was, of course, buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetary.
As of AD 2000, his grave remains the second most visited at Arlington, behind that of John F. Kennedy.