FRECKLES AND BOYISH GOOD LOOKS belied the core of steel inside Audie Murphy. After surviving grinding poverty in rural Depression Texas, he took on an even tougher &fight—World War II—and again prevailed. For scores of courageous actions that saved countless fellow GIs (and killed some 240 Nazis), Murphy eventually amassed 37 medals, including the Purple Heart, the Bronze and Silver stars, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Despite his successful movie career, today the nation’s most decorated soldier is gone and almost forgotten, a casualty of a cultural climate that regards “war hero” as a contradiction in terms and Veterans Day as an excuse for sleeping in.

He was born Audie Leon Murphy on June 20, 1924, in a Hunt County sharecropper’s shack, one of twelve children. He dropped out of school after the fifth grade.

Murphy enlisted in the Army just after his eighteenth birthday. He was only five foot five and weighed 112 pounds.

He shipped out to North Africa in 1943 and later saw action in Italy, France, and Germany. He was wounded three times and was steadily promoted, making second lieutenant on the battlefield.

On January 26, 1945, near a French village just west of the Rhine, Murphy performed the stunning act of bravery that won him the Congressional Medal of Honor. His company outnumbered by German troops and tanks, Murphy hopped atop a burning tank destroyer, manned the machine gun, and opened fire, single-handedly driving back the enemy. He escaped unscathed (as did his sense of humor; queried via field telephone about the proximity of the Germans, he quipped, “Just hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one of the bastards”).

After the war Murphy embarked on a twenty-year movie career. Because he was a natural with a gun, most of his 44 films were westerns. His biggest hit, however, was To Hell and Back (1955), based on his 1949 autobiography.

Although Murphy achieved financial success and fame, he never fully recovered from the war. A compulsive womanizer and gambler, he often seduced friends’ wives and dropped five-figure sums on horse races. “With me, it’s been a fight for a long, long time to keep from being bored to death,” he once explained. “That’s what two years of combat did to me.”

On May 28, 1971, Murphy died in a plane crash in Virginia. He was 46 years old. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.