Yesterday I reviewed the movie. Today I’m reviewing the book. This is (nearly) the 70th anniversary of the events that earned Army Lieutenant Audie Murphy the Congressional Medal of Honor. The book is an autobiography depicting his time in the war.
To Hell and Back is Audie Murphy‘s 1949 World War II memoir, detailing the events that led him to receive the Medal of Honor and also to become one of the most decorated foot soldiers of the war. Although only Murphy’s name appears on the book cover, it was in fact a collaboration with writer David “Spec” McClure. After securing a publishing contract in 1947, Murphy and McClure worked on the book through 1948 in Murphy’s Hollywood apartment. Murphy did write some of the prose himself, but most of it was “as told to” style with the writing left to McClure. They traveled to France in 1948 where Murphy was presented the French Legion of Honor and the Crois de Guerre with Palm from the French government. While in France, Murphy received permission to visit the battle sites. The two men retraced 1,500 miles of battlefield as Murphy related details of the events to McClure.
It’s apparent when reading the book that Murphy recalls more than was possible. Particularly, detailed conversations are likely reconstructed, based on Murphy’s recollections. However, the narrative is surely the most accurate account of Murphy’s two years in combat.
Years ago I had a paperback of the original. That’s long gone, and this is a review based on the Kindle edition. Tom Brokaw, journalist and author of The Greatest Generation has written a forward. The story begins with what is probably the first death Murphy witnessed, the day he landed on Sicily:
The second shell is different. Something terrible and immediate about its whistle makes my scalp start prickling. I grab my helmet and flip over on my stomach. The explosion is thunderous. Steel fragments whine, and the ground seems to jump up and hit me in the face.
Silence again. I raise my head. The sour fumes of powder have caused an epidemic of coughing.
“Hey, boss. The cahgo–”
The voice snaps. We all see it. The redheaded soldier has tumbled from the rock. Blood trickles from his mouth and nose.
Murphy, Audie (2002-05-01). To Hell and Back (p. 2). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
This was to be the first of many deaths Murphy would witness. Many were close friends of his. Many more were the enemy. Soon after, Murphy killed his first man:
The following day I am ahead of the company with a group of scouts. We flush a couple of Italian officers . They should have surrendered. Instead they mount two magnificent white horses and gallop madly away. My act is instinctive. Dropping to one knee, I fire twice. The men tumble from the horses, roll over and lie still.
Murphy, Audie (2002-05-01). To Hell and Back (p. 10). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
Murphy grew up in northeast Texas in a sharecropper household. He was one of twelve children whose father abandoned the family when he was twelve. Hunting with a rifle for food in the woods turned Murphy into a crack shot. It was a skill that was to make the difference between life and death during his months in combat.
He shipped over from the United States in 1943 to North Africa, where he joined up with the 3rd Infantry, already in the field. He saw his first action in Sicily, and his battlefield exploits culminated in action in the Colmar Pocket in France, 70 years ago. His actions on 26 January 1945 earned him the Medal of Honor, and in between his exploits became legendary. He served with the 3rd in Sicily, in the invasion of the mainland at Salerno and again at Anzio. Following that he went with the 3rd to invade southern France in August 1945. Along the way his battle skills improved, he exhibited the survival skills of situational awareness and readiness to take action. On multiple occasions he faced the enemy and survived by shooting first.
The movie, based on the book, came out in 1955 and displays a Hollywood version of reality. Major combat actions in the movie don’t show up in the book. At least one incident is both in the book and in the movie, but the country of location has changed! The movie shows Murphy, still an enlisted man, leading a probe across the Volturno River. Nothing like that is in the book. What is in the book is the grim desperation of Murphy and his men holding the front while preparations are made to attack across the river:
I awake like an animal, instantly visualizing the picture. Novak beats me to the tunnel. Nobody is on watch. We drop to our knees and gaze through the slit.
The burst of fire has knocked Antonio down. I shout, “Come back, you crazy fool. Come back,” and seize the BAR to cover him.
He scrambles from the ground, still clutching his canteen. Pure terror stands on his face. He takes a step and his right lower leg bends double. The bone thrusts through the flesh; and he tries to walk on the stump. I cannot locate the enemy gunner, but he either has ammunition to waste or is bored with the lack of targets. His second burst is long and unhurried. The lead eats through Antonio’s mid-parts, like a saw chewing through wood. The kraut is a butcher.
Little Mike screams, “Gah damn sonsabeeches,” and starts around the sandbag wall. I drop the gun and grab him. He kicks me flat. I recover and seize him again. He beats me with his fist; and I throw a hard punch to his stomach. He doubles up. I get a headlock on him and yell for Brandon and Kerrigan.
Murphy, Audie (2002-05-01). To Hell and Back (pp. 32-33). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
This is the story of a succession of friends who will never return. While still in Italy Corporal Johnson was killed:
We have not long to look before a heavy artillery barrage is turned on us. The shells hit the trees, explode; the woodland shrieks with steel fragments.
I dive into a foxhole. This is a job for our big guns. We can do nothing until the fire lifts.
I am sitting with my helmeted head between my knees when a body tumbles into the pit. It is Horse-Face. His face is ash gray; his smile is feeble.
“So they’ve got you scared at last?” I say.
“Got a drink of water?”
I hand him my canteen, but it slips through his fingers.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” I ask.
“Think I strained my back.”
He slumps forward. I rip off his shirt. It is a small, ugly wound just under his left shoulder blade; and it does not bleed much.
Murphy, Audie (2002-05-01). To Hell and Back (p. 155). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
But a shell fragment had nicked Johnson’s heart. He was dead before Murphy could get back with a medic.
Action on the day the 3rd Division arrived in southern France earned Murphy the Distinguished Service Cross.
Heaving two hand grenades, we rise suddenly and empty our carbines into the gun emplacement. Our action is followed by utter silence. Then the Germans yell, “Kamerad!”
Brandon peers over the edge of the hole. “They’re waving a handkerchief,” he says. “I’ll go get ’em.”
“Keep down,” I urge. “You can’t trust them.”
“Murph,” says he, “you’re getting to be a plumb cynic. They’ve had enough.”
He climbs from the hole nonchalantly and stands upright. That is all the enemy is waiting for. I hear the slash of machine-gun fire. As Brandon topples back into the pit, he softly mutters, “Murph.” Stunned, I lie for a moment with the two dead Germans beneath me and my comrade on top.
Carefully I ease myself from under Brandon. An abrupt movement may cause his wounds to hemorrhage. I grab his wrist , but there is no beat to his pulse. I start yelling like an insane man for the medics, but I might as well be shouting at the moon. I am all alone; and the hill is rattling with fire.
For the first time in the war, I refuse to accept facts. While Brandon grows cold beneath my hand, I keep telling myself, “He is not dead. He can’t be dead, because if he is dead, the war is all wrong; and Brandon has died in vain.”
Then I get the curious notion that he needs fresh air. I lift the body from the hole and stretch it beneath the cork tree . Why I am not shot during the process I shall never understand. Instinctively I spin about to find a machine gun being trained upon me from a position a few yards to my right. I leap back into the hole, jerk the pin from a grenade, and throw it.
At its blast, I scramble from the pit with my carbine. But the grenade has done its work well. One of the two Germans manning the gun has his chest torn open; the other has been killed by a fragment that pierced an eye.
I pick up their gun and methodically check it for damage. It is in perfect condition. Holding it like a BAR for firing from the hip, I start up the hill.
I remember the experience as I do a nightmare. A demon seems to have entered my body. My brain is coldly alert and logical. I do not think of the danger to myself. My whole being is concentrated on killing. Later the men pinned down in the vineyard tell me that I shout pleas and curses at them, because they do not come up and join me.
When I find the gun crew that betrayed Brandon, the men are concentrating on targets downhill. They do not see me, and I have time to take careful aim before pulling the trigger. As the lacerated bodies flop and squirm, I rake them again; and I do not stop firing while there is a quiver left in them.
In a little while, all resistance on the hill has been wiped out. The company moves up, and we halt on the crest to reorganize.
The voices of the men seem to come to me through a thick wall. My hands begin to tremble; and I feel suddenly weak. Sinking to the ground, I wait until the company moves off through the trees. Then I go back down the hill and find Brandon.
Murphy, Audie (2002-05-01). To Hell and Back (pp. 176-178). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
There were many other times when Murphy’s quickness made the difference. In one action in the northeast of France he faced and killed a sniper at close range.
Keeping under cover of the brush, I skirt the clearing and move toward the boulder. An acute sense of loneliness comes over me. I and my enemy, it seems, are the last two men on earth. I pause; and fear makes my body grow limp. I look at the hills and sky. A shaft of sunlight pierces the clouds, making the wet leaves of the trees glisten goldenly. Life becomes infinitely desirable.
The hill now becomes infested with a thousand eyes peering through telescopic sights, with cross-hairs on the center of my head. Terror grows. I crash my fist to my forehead. The fantasy passes. I inch forward.
At the boulder I stop. My straining ear can catch no sound. I get to my feet and with my left hand against the rock for support step into the open. It happens like a flash of lightning. There is a rustle. My eyes snap forward. The branches of a bush move. I drop to one knee. We see each other simultaneously.
His face is as black as a rotting corpse; and his cold eyes are filled with evil. As he frantically reaches for the safety on his rifle, I fire twice. He crashes backwards. I throw two hand grenades to take care of any companions lurking in the area. Then I wilt.
When Owl and Barker reach the scene, I am mopping the cold sweat off my forehead.
The sniper is sprawled on the ground just beyond the old machine-gun position. The two bullet holes are in the center of the forehead; and one of the grenades has torn off an arm.
Murphy, Audie (2002-05-01). To Hell and Back (pp. 214-215). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
Days later Murphy’s quick draw reflexes saved his life once more:
We leave the trail and push directly through the woods. Except for sporadic mortar fire, the enemy is quiet, too quiet to suit me.
Paderwicz is dead before his body thuds against the ground. The sniper’s bullet got him just above the left eye. I leap behind a tree. Crack! It is like being struck with a ball bat. The ricocheting bullet digs a channel through my hip and knocks me flat.
The sniper throws his camouflage cape back to get a better view and drills my helmet. That is the last mistake he ever makes. My head is not in the helmet.
I raise my carbine and with my right hand fire pistol-fashion. The bullet spatters between the German’s eyes. It was his brain or nothing. He would not have missed the second time.
I try to get up, but cannot. My right leg seems paralyzed.
Murphy, Audie (2002-05-01). To Hell and Back (p. 224). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
Over 26 years earlier Corporal (later Sergeant) Alvin York gained international recognition in almost single action against scores of German soldiers in France. Murphy recapitulated the feat as he held off a German counter attack in the Colmar Pocket.
Two tank destroyers that had been sent forward to back up his platoon were quickly disabled when the enemy attack started. One, hit by tank fire, began to burn. Murphy sent his troops back to a secure position while he remained on the field telephone to direct artillery. As American shells began to fall among the attacking Germans, he started using his sharpshooting skills to take down individual soldiers advancing through the shell fire. He interrupted his sniping from time to time to call in changes to the artillery.
When all seemed hopeless, Murphy was about to withdraw. Then he noticed the machine gun mounted on top of the burning TD. He climbed up and took charge of the gun, all the while continuing to call in changes. When he was asked, “How close are they to your position?” he famously responded “Just hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one of the bastards.”
The gun has thrown the krauts into confusion. Evidently they cannot locate its position. Later I am told that the burning tank destroyer, loaded with gasoline and ammunition, was expected to blow up any minute. That was why the enemy tanks gave it a wide berth and the infantrymen could not conceive of a man’s using it for cover.
I do not know about that. For the time being my imagination is gone; and my numbed brain is intent only on destroying. I am conscious only that the smoke and the turret afford a good screen, and that, for the first time in three days, my feet are warm.
Now the Germans try a new tactic. A gust of wind whips the smoke aside; and I see an enemy sergeant in the roadside ditch not thirty yards from my position. He peers cautiously about, then turns his head and motions his squad forward. As I spin my gun barrel upon him, a billow of smoke comes betweeen us.
For a minute or so I wait. The tree branches overhead stir stiffly in the gust, the smoke column folds to one side. The twelve Germans, huddled like partridges in the ditch, are discussing something, perhaps my possible location. I press the trigger and slowly traverse the barrel. The twelve bodies slump in a stack position. I give them another methodically thorough burst, and pick up the phone.
“Correct fire, battalion. 50 over.”
“Are you all right, lieutenant?”
“I’m all right, sergeant. What are your postwar plans?”
The barrage lands within fifty yards of the tank destroyer . The shouting, screaming Germans caught in it are silent now. The enemy tanks, reluctant to advance further without infantry support, lumber back toward Holtzwihr.
I snatch the telephone receiver. “Sergeant. Sergeant Bowes . Correct fire: 50 over; and keep firing for effect. This is my last change.”
“50 over? That’s your own position.”
“I don’t give a damn. 50 over.”
Murphy, Audie (2002-05-01). To Hell and Back (pp. 241-242). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
Murphy finished out the war near Munich in Germany. On leave, he learned of the German surrender while on a train to the French Riviera.
The book does not describe the various awards he received nor their presentation.