The Marines turned him down. They said he was too small. The Army paratroopers said no too. But Audie Murphy was used to setbacks. The son of Texas sharecroppers, he had helped raise his ten siblings after their father deserted them and their mother died. When the U.S. entered World War II, he was determined to fight. The Army finally accepted him in the infantry a few days after his eighteenth birthday.
He fought in the invasion of Sicily, and then in Italy at Salerno, at Anzio, and in the mountains as the Allies pushed to Rome. On January 26, 1945, in eastern France, 250 Germans and six tanks attacked his unit. Ordering his outnumbered men to fall back, Murphy climbed onto a burning tank destroyer and used its machine gun to hold off the enemy. Then, though wounded, he organized a counterattack. For his courage the military awarded him the Medal of Honor.
It wasn’t the only time he threw himself in harm’s way. Before he turned twenty-one, Murphy had become the most decorated American combat soldier of World War II, earning twenty-four medals from the U.S. government, three from France, and one from Belgium.
After the war, Murphy became an actor, making more than forty movies. He starred in To Hell and Back, based on his autobiography, and in The Red Badge of Courage. Still, his life wasn’t easy. For years he battled post-traumatic stress disorder. He died in a plane crash in 1971 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
“The true meaning of America, you ask?” Murphy once said. “It’s in a Texas rodeo, in a policeman’s badge, in the sound of laughing children, in a political rally, in a newspaper. . . . In all these things, and many more, you’ll find America. In all these things, you’ll find freedom. And freedom is what America means to the world.”