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May 29th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Body of war hero found on Memorial Day

This Week in Texas History:
A column

The three-day search for a missing private plane in the mountains of Virginia ended on May 31, 1971 with the discovery of the wreckage containing the bodies of the pilot and five passengers.

Among the crash victims was Audie Murphy, Texas-born war hero and movie star.

For a teen-aged autograph seeker, he once scribbled, “Audie L. Murphy — a fugitive from the law of averages.”  Twenty-five years later, fate caught up with the sharecropper’s son whose battlefield exploits won a chest full of medals and worldwide fame.

Murphy with a few of his medals.

Murphy with a few of his medals.

The birth of their seventh child in 1924 was a mixed blessing at best for the dirt poor Murphys of rural Hunt County.  An undependable provider, Pat Murphy was easily distracted from his domestic duties and just like clockwork vanished for weeks at a time.

Shelter was a clapboard house with paper-thin walls and later a remodeled boxcar. During the Depression, the Murphys survived on the charity of area churches.

Audie did not see the inside of a classroom until he was nine years old, but even so his small size shielded him for the taunts of the younger kids.  His formal education was interrupted in the fifth grade, when the youngster was forced to contribute a paycheck.  Once again his father had disappeared, this time for good.

Audie’s mother died at 49 in the spring of 1941, an early grave her reward for a harsh hand-to-mouth existence.  The three younger children were packed off to an orphanage leaving grief-stricken Audie on his own.

The eager enlistee was turned down the following year by the Marines and Army paratroopers.  With his baby face and pint-size stature — five feet five inches and 110 pounds — Audie looked closer to 13 than his actual 17 years.  But another birthday satisfied the local Army recruiter, and in June 1942 the excited volunteer boarded the bus for basic training.

After a brief taste of action in North Africa, the infantryman took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily and the Italian mainland in mid-1943.  During the next year and a half, the diminutive dogface wrote an amazing new chapter in the annals of American heroism.

While U.S. forces systematically purged Italy of Germans, Audie displayed extraordinary courage and daring.  His single-handed destruction of an enemy tank in March 1944 merited the Bronze Star, the first of a record collection of combat citations.

A remarkable marksman, Audie won countless sniper duels.  Teaming up with a buddy fluent in German, he slipped behind enemy lines in the dead of night to snare enemy soldiers for interrogation.

But the Texan’s dramatic destiny lay in the blood-drenched meadows of southern France.  Five months of constant fighting earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, a pair of Silver Stars and a horde of lesser medals as well as two wounds.  These deeds, however, only served as a dress rehearsal for an unforgettable solo performance on Jan. 26, 1945.

That morning Audie, who had risen in rank from private to first lieutenant, assumed command of his original company.  Hours later the unit faced annihilation from a column of German armor.  Ordering his men into a nearby forest, Lt. Murphy remained at his hazardous post and relayed coordinates over a field telephone to a distant artillery battery.

When the barrage failed to halt the German advance, Audie grabbed a machine-gun atop a burning tank destroyer.  Firing nonstop for an hour, he repulsed wave after wave of attackers.  Sustaining at least 50 casualties from the one-man army, the incredulous Germans retreated leaving Audie without so much as a scratch.

Eleven days after receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor and the French Legion of Merit, an awed Audie was greeted at San Antonio by 250,000 cheering Texans.  The shy 21 year old with the juvenile good looks was suddenly a national hero, the most decorated soldier in American history.

A surprise invitation from actor James Cagney offered a welcomed break from the hectic schedule of parades and banquets.  The stay at the film legend’s California estate concluded with the guest choosing Hollywood over a military career or veterinary studies.

Although critics applauded Audie for impressive performances in The Red Badge of Courage  and  To Hell and Back, the film version of his best-selling autobiography, mediocre westerns became his bread and butter.  Between 1949 and 1967, the hardworking actor appeared in 44 motion pictures, all but a dozen sagebrush sagas.  He also gave television a try in 1961, but his series Whispering Smith lasted just one season.

For Audie the rosy life of a movie star concealed a bushel of thorns.  Painful souvenirs of his European experience were insomnia and chronic stomach problems.  A fourth-grade education ill prepared him for business, and he declared bankruptcy in 1968.

The twin-engine private plane carrying the actor and five others plowed into a fog-shrouded Virginia mountain on May 28, 1971 killing all on-board.  In a melancholy coincidence, confirmation of Audie Murphy’s tragic death came on Memorial Day.

Interested in collections of Bartee Haile’s columns?  Visit the “General Store” at or request a list from P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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