A Hero’s Story — Triumph and Tragedy - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
A Hero’s Story — Triumph and Tragedy

The-Price-Valor-Americas-Decorated/dp/1621573176">The Price of Valor: The Life of Audie Murphy, America’s Most Decorated Hero of World War II
By David A. Smith
(Regnery History, 241 pages, $27.99)

In time for the 70th anniversary of VE Day Friday (and how many recent grads know this stands for Victory in Europe day?), Regnery Publishing has issued The Price of Valor, by David A. Smith, an examination of and a tribute to Audie Murphy, who contributed greatly to securing that European victory against a totalitarian regime almost too hideous to imagine.

Murphy was a small, and for most of his life, a baby-faced man. He never got north of 5’5″. He was from a poor background in rural, Depression-era Texas. After he enlisted in the Army at 17 and finished basic training, officers in the infantry outfits he was assigned to kept trying to send him to the motor pool, or make him a cook, so unpromising a warrior did young Murphy appear to be. But Murphy kept insisting he wanted to stay in the infantry. He wanted to fight, not peel potatoes or change truck tires.

And fight he did. Oh, how he fought. By the time of the first VE Day in 1945, Murphy has been credited with personally killing about 240 German soldiers and visiting more mayhem on the Wehrmacht than most infantry companies. The stories of his exploits — charging multiple enemy machine gunners by himself and destroying the enemy — would be unbelievable were it not that the men in his unit saw him do these things. He won all the awards for bravery the nation bestows, including its highest, the Congressional Medal of Honor. A natural leader as well as a brave soldier, he was awarded a battlefield commission and finished his war as a first lieutenant, a month shy of his 20th birthday.

Murphy, ever humble and unassuming, never wanted to be called a hero. He wasn’t even sure he was especially brave. He always said he was just doing what needed to be done and that he understood the uses of surprise and audacity. For Murphy, the real heroes were the men he got to know who never made it back. And he never forgot them. He was embarrassed by all the hoopla surrounding him when he got home. 

Murphy’s life, which ended in a private plane crash in 1971 when he was only 45, had its high points, but more lows than he deserved. He was never a drinker, but became a serious gambler, not so much interested in financial gain, though he was broke for most of his later years, but searching for the excitement he experienced on the battlefield but could never re-create anywhere else. His working life as a Hollywood movie action star, which most would find diverting, never seemed to interest him much.

Murphy was well known after the war ended, as anyone who had been on the cover of Life and had been the subject of countless adulatory news stories would have been. Some of this publicity had been the result of the efforts of Army PR, the rest the natural product of Murphy’s extraordinary military exploits. Some have suggested that Hollywood exploited Murphy. Perhaps a little. His biography may have attracted attention and ticket buyers early on. But he had Hollywood looks, though in a smallish package for a leading man, and had he been a box-office dud he would have been looking for other work in short order.

Murphy got to Hollywood through the efforts of James Cagney, one of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time. Cagney liked Murphy’s looks, invited him to Hollywood, and got him into acting classes. Cagney the producer never found the right role for Murphy in any of Cagney Productions’ flicks. But Paramount gave him a small role in 1948’s Beyond Glory, and Murphy’s movie career began a slow build.

As an actor, Murphy was decidedly mediocre. He was wooden in drama scenes, excelling only in action sequences. His movies are mostly forgettable. Though he appeared in other types of movies, westerns were his niche. He could be believable in a shoot-em-up. As Hollywood moved away from westerns in the sixties, Murphy’s future on the silver screen was in doubt.

Almost certainly Murphy, like countless other combat veterans who saw and did things no one should have to see or do, suffered from what has been variously called shell shock or battle fatigue and is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. For all of his postwar life Murphy was plagued by nightmares about his battle experience, and suffered bouts of depression and paranoia. He always slept with a gun under his pillow and with the light on. David McClure, one of the few friends Murphy made after the war, summed it up this way: “Let us hope that God did forgive him. His battered nervous system never did.”

As author Smith, a history lecturer at Baylor University, says of Murphy, “His story is one of triumph, trauma, and ultimately tragedy.” As were the stories of many brave Americans who, not so decorated as Murphy or not in the public eye as Murphy was because of his film career, returned from the war physically sound but still damaged. Millions of combat veterans returned home to lead successful careers and to raise families with no chronic symptoms from their experiences in battle. They were able to put the war, and their part in it, behind them. 

We can never thank veterans in both categories enough for their service, and for the price they paid for performing it. As the war against a monstrous fascism fades ever further into the past, and as more and more of the warriors who fought in it pass on, anniversaries like the one on Friday are good times to consider our debt to those who fought the good fight.

Murphy’s life was exceptional. He was a most singular warrior, and worked in an industry, movie making, that many consider glamorous. But on another level Murphy’s life embodied the times. America’s war years and postwar boom years. But then times began to change before Murphy, who never changed, moved on. How he would have dealt with what was to follow is anyone’s guess. But it probably would not have been pretty. Murphy’s story, and the part of America’s story that it accompanies, caught here in just 177 pages less notes, index, and filmography, repays the reading time.

Larry Thornberry
Follow Their Stories:
View More
Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
Sign Up to receive Our Latest Updates! Register

Notice to Readers: The American Spectator and Spectator World are marks used by independent publishing companies that are not affiliated in any way. If you are looking for The Spectator World please click on the following link: https://spectatorworld.com/.

Be a Free Market Loving Patriot. Subscribe Today!

Fourth of july sale

Join the Fight for Freedom

One Year for Only $47.99

The offer renews after one year at the regular price of $79.99.