Tuesday, March 30, 2010

To Hell and Back - One Hell of a Great Book, by One Hell of A Great Hero

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.