On January 26, 1945, 2nd Lieutenant Audie L. Murphy was commanding company B of the 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, near the French village of Holtzwihr when six German tanks and several hundred infantrymen attacked his company. Murphy ordered his men to fall back to defensive positions in nearby woods while he covered their withdrawal and called down artillery to slow the German advance. German fire hit an American tank destroyer nearby and set it on fire. Witnesses later recalled how he “climbed on the burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment, and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy.” From Murphy’s exposed position on top of the burning tank destroyer, he killed over 20 German soldiers and repelled their attack. For more than an hour, Murphy continued to fire the machine gun, despite being wounded in the leg. He then led his company in a counterattack that killed or wounded 50 more German soldiers.
On April 23, 1945, at the age of only 19, Murphy received the Medal of Honor for his actions. Though Murphy’s heroism on January 26 was extraordinary, it was not the first time Murphy had distinguished himself. He had previously received over 20 awards for valor, including the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Star medals, and two Bronze Star medals for valor in Italy and France. After receiving the Medal of Honor, Murphy was widely celebrated as the most decorated American soldier in World War II and was featured on the cover of Life magazine.
After the war, Murphy’s national celebrity status brought him to the attention of Hollywood. He went on to have a prolific country music songwriting and acting career, starring in 44 feature films, including the movie adaptation of his autobiography, To Hell and Back. Despite Murphy’s stardom and success, the soft-spoken veteran was never comfortable being the center of attention.
Murphy died on May 28, 1971 at the age of 45 in a plane crash near Roanoke, Virginia. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
Tyler Bamford was the Sherry and Alan Leventhal Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum from 2019-2021. He obtained his PhD in history from Temple University and his BA in history from Lafayette College.