Fugitive from the law of averages

Imagine portraying yourself in a movie about your most traumatic experiences. Also, 7 other things worth your time—and trivia!

He’d been turned down before by the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps for being too young.

But, now, a few days after his 17th birthday, armed with a newly doctored birth certificate that suggested he was a year older, the son of a Texas sharecropper walked into a recruiting office and enlisted as a private.

Not long ago, I wrote in this newsletter about one of the most decorated soldiers in US history, Maurice “Footsie” Britt. Readers responded, and I knew I had to remember to write today’s story when the opportunity presented itself.

So now we give you Audie Murphy, who was introduced to America 76 years ago today, when his boyish face took up the full cover of the July 16, 1945, edition of LIFE magazine.

Of all the soldiers’ stories to come out of World War II, Murphy, who was awarded all of the US Army’s medals for valor, was the best-known for a very long time.

Maybe that’s because LIFE described him simply as “most-decorated” right on its cover. That led to his collaboration on a best-selling memoir and, in one of the most unbelievable turns, actually playing himself in the movie version.

Contemporary NYT review:

Despite a script that appears to follow the blueprint of many standard World War II screen sagas, To Hell and Back … has the twin virtues of truth and Audie Murphy. … Mr. Murphy, who still seems to be the shy, serious tenderfoot rather than a titan among G.I. heroes, lends stature, credibility and dignity to an autobiography that would be routine and hackneyed without him.

A while back, I dug deep into the stories of Britt, Murphy, and a third World War II combat hero named Matt Urban. An editor thought there might be something to write about how supporters of each man once competed over who among them was actually the “most decorated soldier of the war.”

The article didn’t really come together, but I remember being struck by how young Murphy had been; how quickly and radically his life changed as a result of the war; and finally, how much of his later life involved having to revisit the painful, traumatic experiences he went through, over and over and over.

Just a quick chronology:

  • June 20, 1925: Born in Texas, son of poor sharecroppers, the 7th of 12 children.

  • 1936, age 11: Drops out of school after 5th grade, starts picking cotton for $1/day.

  • 1941, age 16: His mother dies; the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor; he tries to enlist but is turned down because of his age.

  • 1942, age 17: Armed with his doctored birth certificate, joins the Army 10 days after his 17th birthday.

  • 1943-45, ages 18-19: Involved in dozens of battles and conflicts, winds up being awarded the Medal of Honor and every other US medal, along with a battlefield commission—and ultimately, that cover photo with LIFE.

At this point, he was still just barely 20 years old, but his life changed again quite quickly. Actor James Cagney saw the magazine and recruited Murphy to California.

Although the two didn’t end up getting along, Murphy befriended others in Hollywood. He went on to a 21-year acting career that lasted from 1948 to 1969.

The experience of playing himself in To Hell and Back—which was not his first movie, but certainly his most famous—must have been wrenching.

To be honest, it’s not really that great a movie, which almost makes things even harder. But imagine coming through war, watching friends die and having to take other lives in combat, only to be asked to play yourself in the Hollywood version.

Here, for example—someone took the time to count the number of German soldiers Murphy kills in the movie: 64, and that supposedly undercounts what he had to do in real life.

Murphy was also known for speaking frankly about the degree to which he suffered from “battle fatigue,” which would now most likely be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Plagued by insomnia and depression,” as his son later wrote, he became addicted to the prescription drug Placidyl, and decided to break his dependency by locking himself in a motel room and enduring withdrawal symptoms for a week.

Always an advocate for the needs of veterans, he broke the taboo about discussing war-related mental problems after this experience. … He publicly called for the United States government to give more consideration and study to the emotional impact war has on veterans and to extend healthcare benefits to address PTSD and other mental health problems of returning war vets.

After all of this, Murphy lost a lot of the fortune he earned, including during a $260,000 investment in Algerian oil that failed as a result of the Six Day War between Israel and the group of Arab nations.

Reportedly, he was asked to do TV commercials pushing cigarettes and alcohol to get out of debt, but he refused on the grounds that he didn’t want to set a bad example for kids.

Murphy died in a plane crash in 1971 at age 45, leaving behind a wife and two children.

Given his impoverished origins, his intense combat experience, and his adventurous but chaotic life afterward, Murphy reportedly referred to himself as a “fugitive from the law of averages.”

Even though he died young, I think he got away all right. Of all the words I could pick to describe him, “average” might be the last.

Leave a comment

Friday Trivia! I’ve been enjoying this. The first reader to reply via email with the correct answers to all three (just hit reply, or email bill@understandably.com) gets a shout-out in Monday’s edition—plus, if you want it, the chance to chat with Bill and the team, and maybe pitch an idea for a possible future main story.

Answers to all three questions can be found in this week’s newsletters. Ready?

  • Who was the airline executive credited with leading the creation of the first sustained, computer-assisted frequent flyer program?

  • An Apple TV show got 20 Primetime Emmy Award nominations this week, making it the most-nominated freshman comedy series in history. What show was it?

  • What’s the technical name for the phenomenon of seeing faces in everyday objects?

7 other things worth your time

Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Public domain | US Library of Congress. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.