By: Teresa Mull

Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII, perished in a plane crash on this day in 1971. Murphy is remembered for being a physically diminutive man with a colossal spirit and a marksman’s deadeye.

Murphy was the seventh of twelve children born to a poor farming family in rural Texas. He did his part as a teenager to support his family after their father abandoned them, honing his skills as a sharpshooter by hunting squirrels and rabbits to put food on the table.

Murphy first tried to enlist in the Marines, and then the Air Force, but was mocked by both branches for his 5’5”, 110-lb frame and boyish looks. The Army accepted him eventually (at age 17 – after his sister helped him alter his birth records), with the intention of giving him a kitchen job.

Undeterred, and despite fainting during a basic training exercise, Murphy become a combat soldier, just as he had intended. He went on to earn 33 medals and decorations, among them: the Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, the French Forrager, and the Belgian Croix de Guerre 1940 with Palm.

Love for His Rifle
The tales of Murphy’s valor on the battlefield are almost unbelievable – so much so that the director of the biopic based on his autobiography, To Hell and Back, subdued certain scenes, because he was worried audiences wouldn’t believe they weren’t exaggerated.

Murphy’s life was filled with firearms, from his childhood hunts in the fields of Texas, to his years as a soldier, to his later life, when he went to Hollywood and starred in shoot-em-ups, including: The Gun Runners, Gunsmoke, The Guns of Fort Petticoat, Gunpoint, and 40 Guns to Apache Pass. Murphy’s Colt Bisley Revolver – gifted to him from Gary Cooper – is on display at the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.

Audie Murphy showing his 13-year-old sister Nadine a German rifle he brought back as a trophy. To get it, Audie tracked a German sniper and dropped him with one bullet between the eyes. Photo Credit: Kristen Still, Assistant Director at The Audie Murphy/American Cotton Museum

Tom Brokaw, writing in the forward of To Hell and Back, tells the following story about Murphy:

Not long before his untimely death in an airplane accident, I was working in California when Audie Murphy came back into the news. A woman friend had sent her dog to a trainer, and she wasn’t happy with the results. As I recall, she asked Audie to intervene. He visited the dog trainer, who then complained to the police that Murphy had shot at him.

The local police brought Murphy in for questioning. By then his acting career was in decline, and, unfortunately, his World War II heroism was pushed into the background by concerns of the widening war in Vietnam.

Nonetheless, when Murphy was released without charges, a large number of reporters were outside the police station. Murphy agreed to take a few questions. One of the reporters asked, “Audie, did you shoot at that guy?”

Audie Murphy, the most decorated combat veteran of World War II, stared at his interrogator for a moment, and then said in that familiar Texas voice, “If I had, do you think I would have missed?”

The following anecdotes were generously shared with Gunpowder Magazine by The Audie Murphy/American Cotton Museum in Greenville, Texas:

From the beginning, an infantryman is taught that his best friend is his rifle, and Audie could often be found cleaning and polishing it long after other platoon members had gone to supper. He could field strip his rifle — taking it apart and putting it back together –blindfolded and with great speed.

“One night after supper when Murph was stripping his Springfield ’03 blindfolded, I slipped a part of an M-1 in with the disassembled Springfield parts . . . as soon as he touched the strange gun part he jerked off the blindfold to see what was wrong.”
-Walter Black, a friend of Audie’s in Basic Training

Because of Audie’s size and appearance, his company commanders at both Camps Wolters and Meade tried to spare him the rigors of the combat infantryman by trying to send him to Cook and Baker’s School, but Audie protested so long and loudly that the idea was dropped. Later, at Fort Meade, his company commander tried to talk him into permanently working at the Post Exchange, but Audie would have none of it–he had joined the Army to fight, not to sell shoes and socks.

While at Fort Meade, one of the many soldier traps just outside the fort was a shooting gallery. The most difficult target was a playing card with five red, quarter-inch dots on it, one in each corner and one in the center. The object was to shoot out the dots with five shots from a .22 rifle at thirty feet and win $25 in cash, which was almost a month’s pay for a private. Audie accomplished the feat, but the proprietor refused to pay off to the baby-faced private. Audie was angry and reported the incident to the company commander, who visited the gallery that evening and demanded that the proprietor pay Audie or the gallery would be placed “off limits.” Audie was paid, but the owner never let him shoot there again.

Teresa Mull is editor of Gunpowder Magazine. Contact her at [email protected].

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article erroneously stated that Murphy took part in "boot camp," whereas "basic training" is the more accurate term.