on October 30, 2002
It was interesting to read this account of Audie Murphy's travails in World War II (Murphy was one of the most highly decorated soldiers of that war) having read Ambrose's eulogy Band of Brothers .
Murphy received (every major medal, some more than once, that the army has to offer). He joined the army at age 17 to support six siblings after his mother died (his father had left the family earlier), and he doesn't talk about how the war haunted the rest of his life.
He portrays a brutal, harsh struggle to survive, where the only thing that matters is keeping oneself and one's friends alive. There are moments of great poignancy, others of humor. Once, hungry, dirty and wet, mired in their foxholes, they notice they are under a tree with ripe cherries. Not daring to stick a head up, let alone climb out of the foxhole, Murphy's buddy gets the idea of shooting down the branches with his machine gun, and soon they are delighted to have cherry branches falling on them, making the day just a little brighter.
Not once does Murphy mention his numerous awards, Clearly, Murphy believed that luck played as much a part in his survival as anything he did. He was however, the kind of person who tried to control his destiny, doing what was necessary and taking the initiative in order to get through the day. A little piece of Murphy died every time a friend was killed, and soon almost all of his friends were gone. He was delighted if they received a wound that would return them to the rear, away from battle. He sympathized and worried for the lieutenant who had been badly injured and returned voluntarily to the front only to lose his nerve under the intense shelling. It must have been horribly traumatic to develop such close bonds and to have them ripped apart.
At the risk of sounding a little chauvinistic, I quote from the last lines of his book:
" When I was a child, I was told that men were branded by war. Has the brand been put on me? Have the years of blood and ruin stripped me of all decency? Of all belief? Not of all belief. I believe in the force of a hand grenade, the power of artillery, the accuracy of a Garand. I believe in hitting before you get hit, and that dead men do not look noble.
"But I also believe in men like Brandon and Novak and Swope and Kerrigan; and all the men who stood up against the enemy, taking their beatings without whimper and their triumphs without boasting. The men who went and would go again to hell and back to preserve what our country thinks right and decent.
"My country. America! That is it. We have been so intent on death that we have forgotten life. And now suddenly life faces us. I swear to myself that I will measure up to it. I may be branded by war, but I will not be defeated by it.
"Gradually it becomes clear. I will go back. I will find the kind of girl of whom I once dreamed. I will learn to look at life through uncynical eyes, to have faith, to know love. I will learn to work in peace as in war. And finally - finally, like countless others, I will learn to live again."
on January 1, 2000
I read this book for the first time as a Sophomore in high school and am compelled to rank it as one of the top five books I've ever picked up (Sakai's "Samurai!" and Galland's "The First and the Last" being the only others that I'd dare compare to it).
Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of World War II, was awarded every medal for valor his country could give (The Congressional Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, The Bronze Star Medal, The Bronze Star Medal with a Bronze Service Arrowhead, the Legion of Merit, two Silver Stars, the Purple Heart...the list goes on and on), yet he tells his story in such an unassuming manner that it is hard to believe it is written by a war hero. Audie seems more content to discuss his friends and their impact on the war and on his life than to talk about himself. In his eyes, they are the heroes, and his book does a fine job of paying homage to the footsoldier of World War II.
His book is also a marvelously frank and vivid account of combat through the eyes an "everyman." A poor farm boy from Texas, Murphy is perhaps in many ways the typical hero: one who, when faced with a challenge, rises to a level beyond that which could reasonably be expected under different circumstances. Despite being rejected by the Marines and the Navy for military service ("You're too small, kid"), Audie refused to give up his quest to serve his country. Faced with the horror of war (and the deaths of close comrades), Murphy continuously and relentlessly rose to meet the challenges presented him when those of lesser mettle would surely have cowered. All the more remarkable is that Audie accomplished all this before the age of twenty!
No review could ever do this book justice. It is wonderful, sincere, sad, and true. Rest assured, you will not be disappointed. HIGHLY recommended.
Audie Murphy's To Hell and Back is one of the quintessential front-line soldier accounts of the Second World War. The book is not a memoir or autobiography, since Murphy wrote little of it himself and describes little of his life before or after his combat experiences. Nor does Murphy even mention any of awards, including the Medal of Honor, or the fact that he served the entire war in B Company, 1-15th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division. The book focuses entirely on the period July 1943 to March 1945, with most of the emphasis on the Anzio, Southern France and Vosges campaigns. On the negative side, Murphy's account is extremely self-effacing and at times is more focused on his squad members, whose GI Joe conversations appear fake and silly. Nevertheless, Murphy's comrades appear as real human beings and the reader will regret the death of each. To Hell and Back is not particularly well written - it is in fact a rather pedestrian account that wanders at times - but what it lacks in style it delivers in frank reality. Murphy's wartime account is often brutal - sometimes humorous - but it makes other more recent homogenized efforts like Band of Brothers seem contrived in comparison.
Currently, the myth has been propagated that only highly trained specialists in peak physical and mental condition should engage in close infantry combat. Audi Murphy, the scrawny, orphaned teenager from Texas who was rejected by the marines and paratroopers, stands to discredit that myth. In combat, Murphy found his niche in life. With a carbine in his hands, Murphy became a real killer. Quick reflexes, common sense and a certain amount of luck gave him the edge and allowed him to survive all his original squad mates. A great deal has been written and speculated about Murphy's psychology and motivations; there is no doubt that he sought out combat even when he could have avoided it. Was he a war-lover or have a death wish? No. Murphy fought because he was good at it. As the main character in the French film Capitaine Conan noted, "millions were in the war but only a few thousand actually fought it." Murphy was one of those soldiers who was never content just to survive the war but rather, he was strongly motivated to play an active role. While Murphy never cracked under the strain of nearly two years of combat, there is little doubt that the war marked him indelibly. By Anzio, Murphy had become imbued with a tough, no-nonsense set of values. At the end of To Hell and Back, Murphy writes, "when I was a child, I was told that men were branded by war. Has the brand been put on me? Have the years of blood and ruin stripped me of all decency? Of all belief? Not of all belief. I believe in the force of a hand grenade, the power of artillery, the accuracy of a Garand. I believe in hitting before you get hit, and that dead men do not look noble."
Unfortunately, the weakest aspect of To Hell and Back is the author's failure to paint a complete portrait of himself. Important issues, like how did a combat-wise Sergeant Murphy deal with his inexperienced lieutenants in Anzio or France are virtually ignored. The fact that Murphy rose from squad leader, to platoon sergeant, to platoon leader to company commander in the same company is never addressed, but would have been very interesting. How did Murphy handle the transition from enlisted, to NCO to commissioned officer surrounded by his peers? To Hell and Back is enhanced by the fact that it was written only shortly after the war when memories were still sharp, but the rush to publish a "blood and guts" account undermines the value of Murphy's story. The brief introduction by Tom Brokaw also appears a blatant attempt to market a dead hero, as if his name was brand-name merchandise. Brokaw says nothing of value in this introduction, and it should have been written by somebody who actually knew the man, rather than some publicity-hog talking head from NBC who never met him or served in the military.
Hopefully, the reprint of To Hell and Back will help to keep alive the notion that America can produce fine soldiers from places other than West Point. Murphy's book should also be compared with other war memoirs from other authors and other wars. Recently, I read the Persian Gulf War memoir entitled The Eyes of Orion, and was struck by the authors' near-obsession with post-war graduate school plans while remaining virtually oblivious to their potential for battlefield death. Murphy said, "until the last shot is fired, I will go on living from day to day, making no postwar plans." Compared with the pretentious, homogenized, backbiting Band of Brothers, Murphy's book seems incredibly modest and civil. Although Murphy's unit suffered heavy casualties and was often short of food in the front-line, the author never complained about his superiors or the US Army. Murphy's unselfish and uncritical reflection of his wartime service should stand as an example of others who serve and write.
on May 5, 2002
The cover of this new edition of "To Hell And Back" shows a very young soldier with an incredible display of decorations, behind the cover are the exploits of how the most decorated combat soldier of WWII earned those medals, although you would never know that from the text of this book. Nowhere in this book does Audie Murphy mention that he was ever decorated, the deeds speak for themselves. Because of several bios of Audie Murphy it is known that while Audie wrote, or told to a writer, the combat stories in this book are is own, Audie's ghost writer connected his first hand accounts with pages of banter from Audie's fictionalized platoon buddies. When Audie Murphy tells his story it rings true. Only a combat veteran would write that when he stood alone, blazing away with a 50 cal. machine gun on top of a burning vehicle against six tanks and infantry that "...for the first time in three days, my feet were warm." This book follows Audie from his first day, as a green soldier on the beaches of Sicily and follows him through combat in Italy, France, and Germany. When Audie landed in France, in August of '44 he had been awarded two Bronze Stars, from August to January '45 he would earn the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, three Purple Hearts, and the Medal of Honor. Germany made two errors in WWII, one was attacking Russia, the other was on the first day that Audie Murphy landed in France they killed his best friend, after they pretended to surrender. The last paragraph of this book is as powerful as anything that you will read in war fiction. This is a great book, I'm glad that the legend of Audie Murphy is available to new generations.
on March 30, 2010
Sixty-one years ago, a young American who'd fought in the war published an unpretentious book, "To Hell and Back." It was the story of his experience in World War II as a combat infantryman. Nowhere in the book does the author mention that he was the most decorated US soldier in the Second World War, or that he'd won the Congressional Medal of Honor, along with 21 other medals. He barely notes that he rose from buck private to lieutenant (though he never says if he became a First Lieutenant, though it's hard to imagine that he didn't).
On V-E Day, the author - Audie Murphy - was not yet 21, though he'd seen almost nonstop combat from the first wave of the Sicilian invasion to the end of the war outside of Munich two years later. An orphan who grew up on a hardscrabble Texas panhandle farm during the dust bowl depression, he'd volunteered for the Marines as soon as he'd turned 18. "Too small," said the recruiter to the scrawny, baby-faced young man. So he volunteered for the Airborne, and was again rejected. "Too small, Murphy." And he was small, but he wanted to fight - to fight for his country, and perhaps, to fight to prove that he wasn't really too small after all.
Having failed to enlist in the two "fightingest" units of the American military, Murphy joined the Infantry. He arrived in North Africa right before the end, but the Germans and Italians surrendered the day he was going into the line to see combat for the first time, forcing him to wait for Sicily two months later.
There isn't an ounce of braggadocio in Audie Murphy's chronicle of war, and though he was scarcely educated, even by the standards of the day, he wrote his unpretentious memoirs in the most literate and evocative style I've encountered. All of those fabled "writers" who went off to war, seeking to learn some deep inner truth and share it with the world, how they must have envied Murphy's honest, moving words.
Within minutes of landing on Sicily, his unit took their first fatality, courtesy of German artillery - and from the start, Murphy began learning the lessons that kept him alive. He realized that the dead man had let his guard down, and in two years of hard fighting, Murphy never did.
In combat, Murphy soon had to fight two opposing forces - the need and want to be close to the men who shared life and death with him, and the need to remain distant from men who were doomed to die or be disfigured or dismembered. Not one of the men Murphy landed with in Sicily were still in combat with him when his war ended in the occupation of Munich. He lost so much - but he did not lose his soul. He indeed went to Hell and Back, but the important thing is, he did come back.
As a soldier, Murphy was a hard man. He knew that a wounded German was a dangerous German, and if they would not surrender, he had no qualms about shooting them as often as he needed to until the risk went away. He could never forget that his best friend was gut-shot and murdered as he stood to take the surrender of eight German soldiers - men whose fanaticism was such that they'd betray that most basic of trusts, the one that allowed men to surrender to others who'd just tried to kill them - and whom they'd just tried to kill. An instinctive shot, he seldom had to shoot them very often. But he was not a war criminal, or a murderer in any sense of the word. Germans who surrendered to him were treated honorably and well, and the wounded he took prisoner got the same rough-but-gentle medical care as did his own men.
Yet he was also a gentle man. For those of his comrades who - after all the heroism and courage they could give - cracked under artillery fire, or after the sight of one more friend eviscerated by a German mortar shell, Murphy was solicitous, understanding and caring. One man, who couldn't bear to be thought a coward, kept cracking, and being evacuated, then coming back. To save his friend, Murphy called the Colonel and read him the riot act about sending this man back. Lieutenants did not read Colonels the riot act, but to save a friend who'd given more than he'd had to give, Murphy would fight bureaucracy as sternly and as effectively as he'd fight the Germans.
In combat, Murphy earned 22 medals, including the Medal of Honor. Yet the reader is left to guess which distinctive action won him that highest medal. My bet is the time he mounted the rear deck of a burning and abandoned American Tank Destroyer - a kind of thin-skinned tank with no roof on the turret, but with a bigger main gun than could be carried by a more heavily armored tank. On the turret's top was mounted a .50 caliber heavy machine gun, and standing with smoke swirling around him, and open flames warming his feet for the first time all winter, Murphy single-handedly stopped a German counter-attack. They could never find him to shoot him, for the simple reason that no sane man would stand on the back of a burning TD, one packed with heavy artillery shells and filled with hundreds of gallons of high-test gasoline, all seconds away from fireballing.
But there were at least a half-dozen other incidents that could have won him that most honored of medals, and the reader is left to guess, and to wonder, because Audie Murphy never gives a hint.
In the bitter winter of 1944, while facing down fanatical Germans in the Vosges Mountains on the border between Germany, France and Switzerland, Murphy was shot - apparently the only serious wound he received. He says he was shot in the hip, though his comrades joked that he'd gotten shot in the ass. It took him three days to move from front line to aid station to field hospital, and by that time his wound had infected and turned gangrenous. Doctors had to pump him full of antibiotics and carve away the dead, necrotic flesh as the gangrene ate it, for two full months. This living hell was dismissed in a short paragraph, a few evocative but uncomplaining sentences. All we do know is that, as soon as he could, two months from being shot, he was back in the line, freezing off what the Germans had failed to shoot off.
There were no easy battles for Murphy. Some consider Sicily a cake-walk, but Murphy lost his first friend within minutes of going ashore. Nobody considered Salerno, or the Gustav line, or Anzio a cake-walk, but many considered the invasion of the South of France to be a walk in the park. I should have known better - in 1973, right out of college, I worked with a man who'd won the Congressional Medal of Honor in the South of France when, as a sergeant, and after all of the unit's officers had been killed, he held together a company of Americans who'd been cut off and surrounded - and held them together as he'd held off the Germans for a week before relief came. This wasn't Murphy, this was a man I'd known.
So I knew - or should have - that the late-summer 1944 invasion of the Riviera on the South of France wasn't easy, or safe. It was in France that Murphy paid the highest price in lost friends - those few who were left from the men who'd left North Africa for Sicily 13 months before - of the entire war. It was made more poignant because there were so few left, and because even the replacements of the replacements of the replacements were now so few in number.
At the time that Murphy's unit breached the Siegfried Line and entered Germany, Murphy had been taken out of combat and assigned as a courier, running messages between the Division's rear-echelon headquarters. He was safe, secure, and ... and he ordered his driver to take him as close to the line as possible. Then dismounting, he walked through the Dragon's Teeth and bunkers until he found what was left of his own company, cowering in a ditch, as demoralized as he'd ever seen them. Standing on top of the trench, in full view of any Germans who'd cared to look, he cajoled and prodded and kicked and cajoled again, and got the remnant of that battle-shocked company out of their safe trench and on the march. Then he led them through the rest of the Siegfried Line and into Germany. Once they'd accomplished their assigned task - only because of his leadership - he left them and marched back, unprotected, unafraid and unharmed, through the Siegfried Line, back to his jeep, and back to headquarters. They'd never missed him.
Soon enough, he was back with his beloved company, leading them as part of the tidal wave that swept through Germany in the last 8 weeks of war. Finally, he was given a furlough, and was on a train heading for the French Riviera when V-E Day was announced. And it was in France that he forced himself to abandon cynicism and embrace the return of life - and to complete the journey he took, the journey to Hell and Back.
It would take a wonderful book to do justice to this hero's war, and I encourage you to read it, one of the best and most evocative war books I've read in more than fifty years of reading war books. I grew up in that generation just after the war; I remember a legless friend of my father's coming over to use our backyard swimming pool for exercise. I can still see him - though the last time I saw him was the summer after the first grade - unbuckling his artificial legs, apparently unselfconsciously, crab-walking across the patio and plunging into the water. I can still remember my uncle, whose ship had been Stuka'd in the Med - the scars of shrapnel and fire still mark his face to this day. My father never told me of the four Kamikazes which had attacked his ship (or the one that hit - then bounced off - before exploding). Men of that generation, those who didn't write books, didn't talk much about the war. But as a kid, I saw the evidence of war carved into the bodies and faces of men I'd grown up around. I have a sense of what they went through.
But Murphy leaves no doubt. He saw no glory, no heroism worth banners and bugles, though a grateful nation showered him with awards he never even mentioned. He did his duty, led his men, fought his battles, defeated his foes and did his part to win the war and protect the country he so clearly loved. His book tells this story, and it is worthwhile.
After the war, the unquestionably handsome Audie Murphy became a Hollywood film star - even playing himself in the movie adaptation of his memoir. Surely, that must have been surreal. And tragically, after surviving all that the Germans had thrown at him, Audie Murphy was killed in a plane crash in 1971. He was just 46.
That fact brought to mind another soldier - a paratrooper named Carter - who also began his war in Sicily, also fought in Italy and France and Germany - and who died of cancer, of all things, just a year or two after the war ended. Before he died - before, I presume, he knew that he would die, Carter wrote an unforgettable book, "Those Devils in Baggy Pants." That was a story of paratroopers, of men Audie Murphy was too scrawny to join. Each man gave his all, and it was enough to defeat Germany, but not enough to live in peace for generations after the war ended. They were all heroes, but none more consistently and effectively heroic than Audie Murphy, who fought for his country, gave his all more times than I could count, and indeed, went to Hell and Back.
This book is a classic of infantry warfare. It should be noted that Murphy wrote less than 10 percent of the book himself. In fact, the bulk of the book was written buy a fellow veteran and Hollywood screenwriter (and full-time alcoholic) David "Spec" McClure. Their collaborative process in writing the book is interesting. McClure would use Murphy's medal citations and Donald Taggart's classic "History of the Third Infantry Division in World War II," for solid reference, then he would interview Murphy, that is, provided if he was so inclined to speak. If the session was fruitful, much was done. If it wasn't, it went slow. Murphy would then read over what was done and either he would approve it or send it back. Sometimes, McClure would get so annoyed when Audie would send a passage back he'd yell at Murphy, "Well what DID happen?" then Murphy would tell him. It took them a year, but they finally completed it. The result was a bestseller and a future movie adaptation.
One thing about this book for a more contemporary reader: this book is packed with a lot of dialogue much of which borders on the hokey. Still, that doesn't lessen the impact of Murphy's story. Also he never mentions his medals. His tone at times screams of modesty. Sometimes, you don't even know he's there, he lets his friends and comrades-in-arms do most of the talking (in here, their names are fictionalized). The book's dedication to two of his buddies who were killed in action should come off as no surprise.
I'm glad to see this classic being reprinted. Let's hope it never goes out of print.
on June 1, 1999
There is something compelling about the movie version To Hell And Back which I first viewed as a boy in the 1950s. Perhaps it was the fact that the star was the hero himself "replaying" some of his own wartime experiences. Over the years, the movie has appeared repeatedly on television, and almost routinely on the History Channel. I've watched it many times. The movie, however, pales by comparison to Murphy's actual Medal of Honor citation. Now that I finally have read his book, the citation itself seems to offer only a fraction of the story behind his guts,determination, and eventually the horrible memories he endured until his untimely death in a plane crash. It makes me shutter to think of myself as a combat veteran from Vietnam compared to what men like Audie Murphy had to endure for the duration of their tours in World War II. But, it also makes me realize that war for frontline troops has changed little from one generation to the next. This ought to be REQUIRED READING for everyone who send others to war!
on November 4, 1998
I grew up with this movie, but what the movie didn't tell you is why teenage Audie Murphy won the Congressional Medal of Honor. At the time of his battle, Murphy had been walking around for 24 hours, carrying artillery shrapnel wounds. He refused medical aid because he was the only officer remaining in a company of men which had less than 15 men remaining. He called artillery fire on top of his position to drive off a German assault which surely would have wiped out what remained of his men. He mounted a burning tank destroyer to drive off the German infantry still advancing towards his men. Murphy's book reminds us that wars are fought by ordinary people often closer to being children, as opposed to battle hardened warriors. It reminds us that courage is not limited to those over 20, and that the real Hell and the highest price of war is paid by the young.
on January 21, 2007
This story of a military hero who became a movie star begins in Texas where 5 yr old Leon (Audie) lives in a shack, plants, weeds and picks cotton. After Pearl harbor at 112 pounds, he was rejected by the marines and paratroops before enlisting in the infantry. In basic training at Camp Wolters in June, 1942 he passed out in close-order drill and his cmdr tried to shove him into cook's school. At Fort Meade an officer tried to make him a clerk. He then went to Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany spending over 400 days in the front lines, receiving 21 medals for capturing, wounding and killing 240 enemy. Published in 1949 before he was a movie star, Murphy said "The main reason I wanted the book to be written was to remind a forgetful public of a lot of boys who never made it home." Don Graham's biography "No Name On The Bullet" reports that of the original 235-man roster of Company B, only 2 remained at the end, Audie and a supply sergeant. Only a few had transferred, all the rest were wounded or killed. By 1955 Murphy was the most popular western actor in America. I have over 40 of his films on DVD and VHS. Recommended viewing: To Hell and Back, Red Badge of Courage, Night Passage (with Jimmy Stewart), The Texican, The Unforgiven (with Burt Lancaster), and No Name on the Bullet. Watching these movies is not like watching a hero or movie star, Murphy embodies all of the 18 yr old guys that never came home from Tarawa, Normandy, Viet Nam and Iraq to have a career, family and enjoy old age. A tribute to guys like Private Joe Sieja, Lattie Tipton, Jim Fife and John J. Fredericks.
"To Hell and Back," by Audie Murphy, is a gripping memoir of ground combat in Europe during World War II. The back cover notes that infantryman Murphy "was the most decorated American soldier during World War II"; among the many decorations he received was the Medal of Honor. The 2002 Owl Books edition features a brief foreword by Tom Brokaw, who declares, "In all of the research I've done on World War II combat veterans I cannot recall another story that involves so much up close and personal fighting."
The book's many vivid and detailed scenes of combat are impressive. Murphy offers lots of information about military gear and tactics: camouflage, the mechanics of a river crossing, the way a mortar shell explodes, how one calls in artillery support, etc. It's like a textbook of combat knowledge is blended into the text, making the book a compelling resource for military professionals. The battle scenes are not romanticized or glamorized; rather, they are presented in a matter-of-fact, disciplined style that I found powerfully effective.
Murphy details the many hardships and risks that WW2 infantry troops faced in the European campaign. These ranged from the annoying to the deadly: fleas, water deprivation, malaria, trenchfoot, frostbite, sniper fire, landmines, separation from family, and combat-induced mental disorder. Murphy is explicit in his portrayal of the horror of war. He shows bodies ravaged by injuries, lives snuffed out, minds broken. He does not spare the reader from "the smell of singed hair and burnt flesh." At times the book's grim tone and harsh representation of brutality has an almost antiwar flavor reminiscent of Dalton Trumbo's unforgettable novel "Johnny Got His Gun."
Murphy writes with respect and affection for the troops who shared the burden of war with him. The book is full of soldier conversations, including playful insults and humor. Murphy includes not only accounts of these troops in combat, but also anecdotes of soldiers during interludes of rest and play. Another interesting aspect of the book is how it shows Murphy moving up the ranks and functioning as a leader in combat. This is a powerful book that reads more like a novel than a memoir. It's a truly impressive example of World War II literature.