How Audie Murphy Went From Fending Off 200 Nazis By Himself To Becoming A Hollywood Star

Published August 28, 2021
Updated August 31, 2021

He earned every honor from the United States military plus five from abroad at 19. But that's not all — Audie Murphy also became a Hollywood sensation.

Audie Murphy returned to his humble home from World War 2 with every honor the United States had to give. Then he was welcomed into Hollywood with open arms and starred or appeared in 44 films. But the young man’s rags-to-riches story had a tragic ending.

The Last Stand At Colmar Pocket

Audie Murphy

Wikimedia CommonsAudie Murphy was awarded ever military honor the United States had for his actions during World War 2.

On a cold January afternoon in 1945, in the battle-worn French landscape near Holtzwihr, Second Lieutenant 19-year-old Audie Murphy did the unthinkable. Colmar Pocket, an area in the French Vosges mountains, had been held by the Germans since the year before.

Under great fire from the Germans, Murphy ordered the surviving members of his Company B to retreat to the forest when he spied a .50 caliber machine gun on top of the ruin of a burning tank destroyer. Murphy climbed aboard and opened fire against the oncoming German force that greatly outnumbered him.

Though two 88mm shells hit the destroyer and wounded his legs, Murphy maintained his position and mowed down advancing German foot soldiers. It is estimated his singlehandedly took down more than 40 men.

The Germans began to retreat. Wounded, Murphy jumped from the destroyer and reorganized his remaining men in a counterattack, which ultimately forced the Germans from the area and allowed the Americans to retake their position. Murphy’s brave act helped to end Germany’s last-ditch attempt to hold onto France.

Audie Murphy’s Early Life And Enlistment

To Hell And Back

Universal/Getty ImagesAudie Murphy with a group of other soldiers in a scene from the film version of his memoir, To Hell And Back in 1955.

Murphy was born on June 20, 1924, in Texas. He grew up poor during the Depression. His parents were sharecroppers though his father was often absent. As one of eleven children, Murphy did his part to support the family as early and became a cotton picker before even finishing five years of schooling. Often, Murphy would hunt for the family’s dinner. Murphy quickly learned to become a crack shot.

At age 11, his father deserted the family and Murphy took over. When his mother died in 1942, Murphy as the oldest son was left to look after the younger children. But at only 17, he couldn’t look after the children, and they were sent to an orphanage. With little opportunity, Audie Murphy joined the army.

At only five foot, five inches and weighing just 110 pounds, Murphy did not look like a promising candidate for a soldier and the fact that he was underage did not help. Despite being turned down by the Navy and the Marines, he was accepted to the Army after his sister falsified his age in an affidavit.

The Red Badge of Courage

Wikimedia CommonsMurphy in the film The Red Badge of Courage, 1951.

Following basic training, Murphy was off to North Africa in 1943. In Morocco, Murphy was assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.

Murphy distinguished himself in battle and rose through the ranks quickly. After North Africa, he took part in various landings and assaults in Italy and France and fought on the front lines until February 1945.

For his efforts at Colmar Pocket, Murphy was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award any serviceman could receive, but it would be only one of 33 medals awarded to him by the U.S. and foreign Allied forces during the Second World War. He would later say that medals were unimportant to him, but Murphy remains one of America’s most decorated war heroes — and by today’s standards, all before he could even legally drink.

“Murph was a daredevil; he took chances that others just wouldn’t take. He was too daring for most of us,” recalled Brad Croeker, a Company B private. “His middle name was Lucky.”

But he would become more than a hero. Beyond the war, Audie Murphy came to represent virtues of humility, honesty, and courage that translated into a successful career on celluloid as one of Hollywood’s most popular actors in the post-war era. But despite his onscreen heroics, which included playing himself, he was troubled by his wartime past and likely suffered from PTSD.

There are really three parts to Audie Murphy’s life, then: his hard, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Texas which prepared him for the battlefield, the war that shaped him into a hero, and the movie business which ultimately destroyed him.

Murphy Becomes A Star

Audie Murphy Headshot

Wikimedia CommonsMurphy was catapulted into stardom the instant he returned home.

With his boyish good looks, Audie Murphy returned from the war to become the poster boy for all American G.I.s.

His photograph, which had appeared on the cover of Life magazine in July of 1945, caught the eye of actor James Cagney, who managed to persuade the former soldier to try his hand at acting despite the latter’s insistence that he had “no talent.”

Audie Murphy’s first movie role was a bit part in 1948’s Beyond Glory. The following year he published his memoir, To Hell and Back, and would appear in the film adaptation playing himself in 1955. Murphy would appear in some 44 films alongside some of the biggest stars of the day.

Murphy At Home

Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesAudie Murphy poses with his rifle in Perris, California.

He was voted the most popular western actor in America in 1955 by motion picture exhibitors and went on to serve in the Texas National Guard until 1966.

Meanwhile, Murphy met and married 21-year-old actress Wanda Hendrix but their marriage dissolved in a year. He married again in 1951 to Pamela Archer with whom he had two children.

Downward Spiral And Death

Pamela Archer

Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesAudie Murphy and wife Pamela Archer attend the Colgate TV event at Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles in 1955.

Despite his unbelievable story, like so many other soldiers, Murphy could never fully rid himself of the horrors he had witnessed in combat. He suffered nightmares and was plagued by insomnia, constantly haunted by the thought of “the boys who never came back.”

Although nowadays Murphy would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the condition was never clearly identified or treated in the veterans of WWII and he ultimately became addicted to the pills he took to help him sleep.

Audie Murphy gambled away his fortune on a slew of bad investments. America’s most famous war hero and his glamorous life came crashing down, literally, when he lost his life in a plane crash in 1971. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors.

After this look at war hero Audie Murphy, read about Ira Hayes, the Native American war hero who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Then, check out the incredible stories of Erich Hartmann, Germany’s deadliest flying ace of all time, and Wladyslaw Szpilman, the man featured in The Pianist.

Gina Dimuro
Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.