Born in Texas on June 20, 1925, Audie Murphy eventually became the most decorated U.S. soldier in World War II. Though he was only 21 years old at the end of the war, he had killed 240 German soldiers, had been wounded three times, and had earned 33 awards and medals. After the war, he appeared in more than 40 films. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder throughout his life.
Born in Kingston, Hunt County, Texas, on June 20, 1925, Audie Murphy was raised in a sharecropper’s dilapidated house. Murphy’s father, Emit, fell short on his parental responsibilities, continuing to father children, 12 in all, despite that fact that he had no plan for how to feed them. Picking up the slack, Murphy helped feed his mother and siblings by hunting rabbits and other small animals around their property.
In 1940, Murphy’s father deserted the family for good, and his mother passed away a year later. Moved to do something to honor his mother’s life, Murphy enlisted in the military 10 days after his 18th birthday. In February 1943, he left for North Africa, where he received extensive training.
A few months later, Murphy’s division moved to invade Sicily. His actions on the ground impressed his superior officers and they quickly promoted him to corporal. While fighting in the wet mountains of Italy, Murphy contracted malaria. Despite such setbacks, he continually distinguished himself in battle.
In August 1944, Murphy’s division moved to southern France as part of Operation Dragoon. It was there that his best friend, Lattie Tipton, was lured into the open and killed by a German soldier pretending to surrender. Enraged by this act, Murphy charged and killed the Germans that had just killed his friend. He then commandeered the German’s machine gun and grenades and attacked several more nearby positions, killing all of the German soldiers there. Murphy was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.
Over the course of World War II, Murphy witnessed the deaths of hundreds of fellow and enemy soldiers. Endowed with great courage in the face of these horrors, he was awarded 33 U.S. military medals, including three Purple Hearts and one Medal of Honor.
In June 1945, Murphy returned home from Europe a hero and was greeted with parades and elaborate banquets. LIFE magazine honored the brave, baby-faced soldier by putting him on the cover of its July 16, 1945 issue. That photograph inspired actor James Cagney to call Murphy and invite him to Hollywood to begin an acting career. Despite his celebrity, however, Murphy struggled for years to gain recognition.
In 1949, Murphy published his autobiography, To Hell and Back. The book quickly became a national bestseller, and in 1955, after much inner debate, he decided to portray himself in the film version of his book. The movie was a hit and held Universal Studio’s record as its highest-grossing motion picture until 1975. Murphy would go on to make 44 feature films in all. In addition to acting, he became a successful country music songwriter, and many of his songs were recorded by well-known artists, including Dean Martin, Jerry Wallace and Harry Nilsson.
During his rise to fame, Murphy met and married 21-year old actress Wanda Hendrix in 1949. Their marriage appeared rocky from the start and they announced their plans to divorce in 1950. He married again in 1951, this time to Pamela Archer, with whom he had two children. Plagued by insomnia and nightmares, a condition that would eventually become known as post-traumatic stress disorder, Murphy suffered from a powerful addiction to sleeping pills.
In his later years, Audie Murphy squandered his fortune on gambling and bad investments, and was in financial ruin when he died in a plane crash on May 28, 1971. Murphy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on June 7, 1971, and was given full military honors.