They lie beneath modest headstones in Arlington National Cemetery – World War II’s most decorated combat soldier, who died 50 years ago May 28, and his also-heroic battalion commander, a graduate of Rhode Island State College who grew up in Cranston.
The anniversary, and the approach of Memorial Day, give us the opportunity to honor their service.
Lt. Audie Murphy, who survived his war heroism to become a movie star – only to die at age 45 in a 1971 small-plane crash – was hardly your John Wayne prototype.
In fact, when he tried to enlist in the Marines after Pearl Harbor they turned him down for being underweight and underage. The son of a poor Texas sharecropper and with a fifth-grade education, he was 16, a jot over five-feet-five, and weighed 100 pounds. He ate enough to hit 112, falsified his age by a year, and got the Army to take him in 1942.
It’s said that before the war was over he had killed 241 enemy soldiers. During one exploit in France, he emptied his carbine at attacking Germans and then leaped onto a burning anti-tank vehicle, using its machine gun to return enemy fire for an hour and killing or wounding 50 German troops.
Over the course of the war he was pierced by shrapnel, shot, and treated for gangrene. An enlisted man when he joined up, he won a battlefield commission and was decorated like no other soldier. His more than three dozen awards included the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, and two Bronze Stars.
He became a familiar figure in the movies, mostly in westerns, starred in the Civil War saga “The Red Badge of Courage,” and played himself in the 1955 war epic, “To Hell and Back.”
Despite his popularity on the big screen, Murphy had come away from war nursing deep emotional wounds. Tormented by severe battle trauma, he slept with a pistol under his pillow. His wife once said in an interview, “Audie had the most beautiful smile, but he didn’t smile very much.”
Biographer David A. Smith noted that after Murphy died with five others in a Virginia plane crash, “the coroner’s office identified him by the nine-inch scar from the German sniper’s bullet that sent him to the hospital in 1944.”
To cap the irony, it took three days to find the wreckage in a mountain forest near Roanoke, with the discovery coming on May 31, 1971 – Memorial Day.
It was appropriate that delivering a eulogy at Murphy’s funeral was his admirer and wartime superior, Col. Kenneth B. Potter, a 1929 graduate of the original Cranston High School who in 1933 earned a chemical engineering degree at the future University of Rhode Island.
Potter immediately went on active duty to train as an infantry officer, and later his own courage would bring him the Silver Star and two Distinguished Service Crosses for extraordinary heroism. One came after an action near the end of the War in Europe that he and Murphy were fighting with such gallantry.
On April 14, 1945, Potter, leading a unit that took more than 120 prisoners, dashed through small-arms fire, and captured six German riflemen himself, and then 18 more in hand-to-hand combat, according to the Military Medals Database. He was wounded twice during the war, but was never out of action.
Afterward, Potter worked in military intelligence and later taught math and science at high schools in Virginia.
He died in 1995 and was laid to a hero’s rest in Arlington’s hallowed soil – there joining the famed warrior who many years before had fought so valiantly under his command.
Gerry Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.