Price of Valor: The Life of Audie Murphy

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Audie Murphy became the poster child for timeless American virtues of innocence, humility, honesty, and steely courage, and yet he would be haunted by nightmares for the rest of his life. Starring beside actors like Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, and Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy would become an enormously popular Hollywood star, all the while suffering from a feeling of emotional numbness that led him to seek thrills and ultimately die tragically and penniless.

The story of Audie Murphy is really the story of the effect of war on the individual soldier and how he must handle “the single most pervasive, traumatic experience of war”: killing and seeing others killed. David A Smith tells a timeless story: one of heroism and tragedy. Audie Murphy’s life story is the “cautionary tale of a hero” that the American public has forgotten.

 

His grave is marked by a standard Arlington Cemetery tombstone of white marble, just like the hundreds of thousands of others. It stands at the end of a row, shaded by the branches of a massive Willow Oak tree, beside the road that passes north of the amphitheater near the Tomb of the Unknowns. Groundskeep-

ers built a flagstone walkway around the tree to accommodate the steady trickle of visitors. Each day, small groups of people drift over, some of them clutching a map from the visitor center, obviously searching for the grave. They pause and a few take off their hats. They speak to each other in hushed tones. Some obviously know more about the record of achievement that is abbreviated on the front of the stone than do others. “The Medal of Honor,” one man says softly to his companion. “They don’t just give those away.”

Seen from afar, among the orderly ranks and files of headstones this one is indistinguishable from all the others. Approaching closer, one may notice a small American flag pushed into the soft ground beside it. Its story of honor and heroism is only hinted at by the letters inscribed on the gravestone.

Audie L. Murphy occupies a distinct place in the roster of famous Americans. During his short, troubled life, he served as an American archetype in at least two ways. First and foremost, he was a soldier and decorated war hero—the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War. His actions in World War II were of the sort from which chroniclers, balladeers, and poets since the days of the ancient Greeks have composed legends. He was the man charging headlong into fortified enemy positions, holding his own against an onslaught of enemy soldiers, defying the odds. Always brave. Always valorous. Always alone.

Second, Audie Murphy was a movie star. He made nearly fifty movies in a career that spanned twenty-three years—ten times as long as the war experience that made him famous—and during his peak of popularity received more fan mail than almost any other actor. The quality of the movies he made varied widely as he took on westerns, war movies, and “serious” contemporary scripts. Some directors with whom he worked coaxed stirring, praiseworthy performances from him that seemed to portend a hopeful career. In other films, critics would pointedly and acidulously note that he seemed lost, detached, or simply going through the motions: an actor distracted, a man unable to engage.

Murphy was not alone in being a movie star who served in the war. Other leading men like Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart did so, although neither was as decorated as Murphy himself would be. Unlike them or, say, baseball player Ted Williams, Audie Murphy was not an established star celebrity who went off to war, but instead a poor boy from Texas who volunteered for the Army in 1942, a year before his eighteenth birthday. He endured some of the toughest sustained infantry combat in the European Theater. Few people beyond his division had heard his name when he became the most decorated soldier of the war and was suddenly hailed as a hero.

In the summer of 1945, his face, impossibly young and fresh, appeared on the cover of Life magazine. Life at the time was the supreme arbiter of all things American, the herald and billboard of the “American Century,” and to appear on its cover was to embody all that the country wanted to think of itself. More than anyone else, Murphy became the very incarnation of the average American who went to war, performed valorous and selfless deeds, and then came home to resume his life—except that in Murphy’s case, he did not return to the poor, small town, rural Texas that he knew but to a life in Hollywood and of celebrity.

 “War makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth,” said journalist Ernie Pyle, who reported the news from the Italian front while Audie Murphy was fighting there. When the war was done, Murphy was a national hero, and to his embarrassment and obvious ill-ease he was treated like a dignitary, given parades, and made to give speeches. Hardly before the shock of being home had worn off, he found himself summoned to Hollywood by one of the biggest stars in the movie business.

There were, of course, other Congressional Medal of Honor winners and many other heroes in the war, but few became permanent celebrities, let alone of the Hollywood sort; and in Audie Murphy the tension between the real-life heroism he performed on the battlefield and the celebrity that was awarded him afterward was almost always evident.

Jack Valenti, a fellow Texan and veteran, journalist, and longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America, wrote that “the important fact, the significance of Audie Murphy’s valor, is that he was a simple, ordinary youngster, with no indications or outcroppings to show the stern courage within him that was shortly to burn as bright as the glint of the sun.”



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