Audie Murphy Combat Soldier, Movie Star, Gambler
Audie Murphy became the most decorated combat soldier in American history before he was old enough to vote. By the end of World War II, he was a legend.
The seventh of ten children, Audie was born in Hunt County, Texas, in 1924. His family, sharecroppers, were considered "poor white trash". His father, who seldom worked, walked out on the family when Audie was twelve.
In order to help feed the family, young Audie had to quit school and work in the cotton fields. To put food on the table, he became an expert hunter, highly skilled with a sling shot or a gun (if they "could afford a shell or two").
When he was sixteen, his mother died. His brothers and sisters were sent to relatives or an orphanage. The next year, on December 7th, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.
Audie, 17, rushed to join the Marines. However, at 5'5'' and 130 lbs., he was rejected as "too small". Next, he tried to get into the Paratroopers; but they turned him down for the same reason. Finally, he convinced the Army to accept him.
After basic training, Audie was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division as a Private. By war's end, he was the Commanding Officer, with every promotion earned on the field of battle.
By the time the war ended in 1945, he had received every decoration for valor in combat that our nation awards, including the Congressional Medal of Honor and three Purple Hearts. He returned to the US a national hero; his picture was on the front cover of Life Magazine.
When actor James Cagney read about America's hero, he invited him to Hollywood to make movies. Over the next 20 years, Murphy appeared in more than 40 films, mostly westerns. He also starred in "To Hell and Back", a WWII film in which he played himself.
Audie Murphy was not just an American hero; he was also an American tragedy. Three years of intense combat, credited with killing over 250 enemy soldiers and saving his unit, had taken its toll. He suffered from what was then called "battle fatigue" or post-traumatic stress disorder.
He had a fascination with guns and was always well armed. On more than one occasion he woke at night in a panic, grabbed his pistol and fired off several rounds before coming to his senses. He had a hair-trigger temper and threatened to kill several people who crossed him during his movie career, including Howard Hughes.
But Audie's biggest post-war struggle was with gambling. Never having had money, he had little regard for it. He earned $3 million dollars over his movie career and lost most of it betting horses, sports, shooting craps and playing poker.
During three years of combat, risking his life against tremendous odds numerous times, Audie had won and won big. But, as a gambler, he was D.O.A. Apparently, he used up all his luck in the killing fields.
Audie would often play poker or shoot craps during the long periods of boredom that occur in making a movie. John Huston, an actor and friend with whom Audie played poker, said: "He was a most unlucky gambler. Always unlucky, always. Not unskilled, just unlucky."
But it was at the horse track that the war hero suffered his heaviest financial casualties. A jockey friend said that Audie would "rather go to the races than eat." It was not unusual for Murphy to bet $10,000 a race. He reported to a friend once that he'd won $65,000 at the track that day.
Audie Murphy would bet on anything. Actor Jack Elam and Murphy met "in a bookie's office" run out of an old gas station in Hollywood. They became gambling buddies. "We'd play liar's poker all the time" while waiting around the set, Elam recalled, "We'd play for hundreddollar bills."
According to one biographer, Murphy's friends "hated to see him bury himself. He'd get in so deep then he'd get mad because he couldn't get more money to bet."
Gambling for large sums seemed to be the only way he could get the same rush of excitement, anxiety, fear and, when he won or "survived", the same elation he'd experienced under fire.
In a 1967 interview he said, "I got so that $400 was a minimum bet. Even that was boring. I didn't care whether I won or lost. It was as if I wanted to destroy everything I had built up." A friend said it best, "He just wanted the action."
Asked what America meant to him, the nation's most honored soldier said, "it's a Texas rodeo, a policeman's badge, the sound of laughing children, a political rally, a newspaper..." concluding, "Freedom is what America means to the world. And to me."
In a bit of poignant irony, Audie Murphy died May 28, 1971 - Memorial Day Weekend -- in a private plane crash near Roanoke, VA, at the age of 46. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. His is the most visited gravesite year round, after President John F. Kennedy's memorial.