It was on this day, May 28, 1971, decorated war hero/actor Audie Leon Murphy (born June 20, 1924) died in a plane crash one of six people. Through LIFE magazine’s July 16, 1945 issue (“Most Decorated Soldier”/cover photo), he became one the most famous soldiers of World War II and widely regarded as the most decorated American soldier of the war. After the war he became a celebrated movie star for over two decades, appearing in 44 films. He later had some success as a country music composer.
Born the the sixth of twelve children, (two died before the attained adulthood) to poor Texas sharecroppers–his father abandoned the family in 1936—Audie dropped out in the fifth grade to help support his family. His mother died when he was seventeen.
Long having dreamed of joining the military, Audie tried to enlist after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The services rejected him because he was underage. With his sister Corinne’s help, he falsified his age to appear to be old enough, tried again and was accepted this time. Murphy placed his three youngest siblings in an orphanage to ensure their care (He reclaimed them after World War II.)
After undergoing basic military training, he was sent to Europe, where he fought in nine major campaigns over three years and rose from the rank of private to a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant.
During twenty-seven months in action in the European Theatre he received the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest award for valor, along with 32 additional U.S. and foreign awards (medals, ribbons, citations, badges…) including five awards from France and one from Belgium.
During one battle he leaped on top of a burning tank–which was loaded with fuel and ammunition and could have exploded at any second–and used its machine gun to hold off waves of attacking German troops, killing dozens of them and saving his unit from certain destruction and the entire line from being overrun.
Murphy was credited with destroying six tanks in addition to killing over 240 German soldiers and wounding and capturing many others. His principal U.S. decorations included the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars with Valor device, and three Purple Hearts. Murphy participated in campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany, as denoted by his European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one silver battle star (denoting five campaigns), four bronze battle stars, plus a bronze arrowhead representing his two amphibious assault landings at Sicily and southern France. During the French Campaign, Murphy was awarded two Presidential Citations, one from the 3rd Inf, Division, and one from the 15th Inf. Regiment during the Holtzwihr action.
The French government awarded Murphy its Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He also received two Croix de guerre medals from France and the Croix de guerre 1940 Palm from Belgium. Murphy was also awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge. In total he spent 29 months overseas and just under two years in combat with the 3rd Infantry Division, all before he turned 21.
After his service ended, having seen Murphy’s photo on the cover of the July 16 edition of Life Magazine and sensing star potential, actor James Cagney invited Murphy to Hollywood in September 1945. Despite Cagney’s expectations, the next few years in California were difficult for Murphy. He became disillusioned by the lack of work, was frequently broke, and slept on the floor of a gymnasium owned by his friend Terry Hunt. He eventually received token acting parts in the 1948 films Beyond Glory and Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven. His third movie, Bad Boy, gave him his first leading role.
In 1951 he starred in an adaptation of Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, which earned critical success. Murphy’s successful movie career included To Hell and Back (1955), based on his book of the same title (1949).
On May 18, 1971, Murphy was aboard a private plane on his way to a business meeting when it ran into thick fog near Roanoke, VA, and crashed into the side of a mountain, killing all six aboard. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. According to cemetery records, the only grave site visited by more people than Murphy’s is that of assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
1931 – Carroll Baker (actress: The Carpetbaggers, Giant, Baby Doll, Harlow, Kindergarten Cop)
1947 – Sondra Locke (actress: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Bronco Billy, Every Which Way But Loose, The Gauntlet, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Willard, Sudden Impact; director: Ratboy, Impulse)
1968 – Kylie Minogue (actress: Bio-Dome, Street Fighter, Moulin Rouge )