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The End of a Soldier's Long March…

The Crash of Audie Murphy's Aero Commander

On Brush Mountain, Virginia

May 28, 1971

 

Audie Leon Murphy was born in 1924, the son of Texas sharecroppers.  He quit school in the eighth grade to help support his mother and eight siblings by hunting small game to supply food for the family, thus becoming an expert marksman. He also took odd jobs wherever he could find them - whether it be on a farm, a filling station, a grocery store, or a radio repair shop.

 

At fifteen he was working in a radio repair shop when his mother died in May of 1941.  Later that year, in agreement with his older sister, Corrinne, Murphy placed his three youngest siblings in an orphanage to ensure their care.

 

When the United States entered World War II, he enlisted as a private - the underage Murphy having adjusted his birth date so he appeared to be 18 and legally allowed to enlist in June of 1942, but the Marine Corps turned him down because the 5 foot, 5 inch Murphy was 15 pounds underweight.  Finding better luck with the Army and its 3rd Infantry Division - 15th Regiment, he served at Casablanca, participated in the invasion of Sicily, stormed ashore at Anzio in Italy, and fought across France into Germany.  

 

Medal of Honor citation for Audie Murphy
Near Holtzwihr, France - January 26, 1945.

Second Lt. Murphy commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods, while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him, to his right, one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. 2d Lt. Murphy continued to direct artillery fire, which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, 2d Lt. Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment, and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate 2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad that was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued his single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way back to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack, which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he killed or wounded about 50. 2d Lt. Murphy's indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction, and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy's objective.
Fellow infantryman Tony V. Abramski, who witnessed the brave actions of Lieutenant Murphy said later that, "The fight that Lieutenant Murphy put was the greatest display of guts and courage I have ever seen. There is only one in a million who would be willing to stand up on a burning vehicle, loaded with explosives around 250 raging Krauts for an hour and do all of that when he was wounded."

For his heroics, Murphy received the Medal of Honor - the United States' highest military decoration,  given only for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty."

By the end of the war, he had earned a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant and was promoted to platoon leader.  On June 2, 1945, he was presented the Medal of Honor and the Legion of Merit in Salzburg, Austria by General Alexander Patch, the Commanding General of the 7th Army.  He also earned the Army's Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, three Purple Hearts and many other awards - including several from foreign nations.

Homecoming...

Murphy's wartime exploits - for which "Life" magazine put him on its cover, identifying him simply as “America’s Most Decorated Soldier” - caught the eye of actor James Cagney - who invited Murphy to Hollywood in September 1945.  After a slow start, Murphy was catapulted him from sharecropper poverty to Hollywood, where he made a series of films.

His first film role was a small part as a West Point cadet in "Beyond Glory" with Alan Ladd and Donna Reed.  Among the best-remembered of the more than 30 pictures he worked on included "The Red Badge of Courage" and one based on his autobiography - To Hell and Back - which was a record profit-maker for Universal-International.  He also parlayed his talents into composing country music with moderate success.  In 1949, Audie Murphy saw Hendrix on the cover of a magazine and asked to meet her. They were married on February 8, 1949, but the marriage was short-lived; they divorced on April 14, 1950.

It is said that he gave most of his 24 medals to youngsters.  By 1961, he was living on an 800-acre ranch north of Hollywood and operating a stable of seven thoroughbred horses with his second wife,  former airline stewardess Pamela Archer, who was an army nurse, and their two sons.

He never claimed to be an actor, and later films - mostly low-budget westerns - did poorly at the box office, but earned him over $3 million over his career. A victim of "Battle Fatigue", now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he once said that he could only sleep with a loaded pistol under his pillow, and that he was haunted by nightmares of his wartime experiences.  He often spoke publicly about the matter, and urged the federal government to study the emotional impact war has on veterans.

"I've been fed up with that 'most decorated' business for a long time," he said. "I gave away my medals because I felt they, never belonged entirely: to me. My whole unit earned them, but I didn't know how to give them to my whole unit."

Murphy endured a series of financial reverses that forced him to declare bankruptcy by 1968.  By then, he was living in a modest San Fernando Valley home with his second wife and teenage sons and worked rarely as an actor.  But by 1971, Murphy was staging a comeback into the world of prosperity and wealth.  He had assumed the directorship of Telestar Leisure Investments, a conglomerate of seventeen firms, and his new motion picture production company, Fipco (First International Planning-Co.), had completed its first film, A Time for Dying, which starred Victor Jory.  Murphy even played a cameo role as Jesse James in the film which he produced. 

Murphy was also working with Dalton Smith, a former Teamster's union member convicted of federal securities violations, in trying to secure Teamster boss James R. Hoffa's release from federal prison for jury tampering.   Murphy had recently learned that a key witness against Hoffa had lied about testimony, and Murphy was out to help the embattled union leader.

 

Tour of Inspection...

 

As director of Telestar, Murphy was tasked with seeking new investment opportunities for the company.  So, when Claude Crosby, president of Modular Management, a subsidiary of Modular Properties, was looking for investors, Murphy accepted the invitation to inspect the production plant where Modular constructed pre-fabricated buildings, such as homes and motels. If it appeared favorable, Murphy would advise Telestar to invest.

 

A twin engine Aero-Commander, newly-registered to Telestar Aviation of Denver, Colorado, with tail number N601JJ, departed DeKalb Peachtree Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, at 9:10 on the morning of May 28, 1971. Audie Murphy and Jack Littleton from Fort Collins, Colorado, were going to Martinsville to inspect the local plant owned by Modular Properties Incorporated.  The day prior, it had flown from Denver to Atlanta to pick up Murphy and his party.

 

Aboard was Murphy was five others: Pilot Herman Butler, a private pilot with over 8,000 hours of flight experience but only 6 in the Aero Commander, and was not rated to fly on instruments; Jack Littleton, representing a group of investors from California and secretary-treasurer of the Lenoir Corp; Raymond Prater, a decorated World War II veteran who had ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1962 and was now an attorney from Chattanooga, Tennessee, representing Modular Management; Claude Crosby, the president of Modular Management; and Kim Dodey of Fort Collins, Colorado, who was a friend of Littleton's and last moment addition to the flight.

A low pressure area was causing bad weather on the projected flight path of the Aero Commander, and as it flew east toward Martinsville, Virginia, it is thought Butler realized he was in over his head, as he made several attempts to land in the vicinity of the community of Galax, including a low-approach near a four-lane highway bypass to the northwest of the town.

A number of residents in the Galax area of mountainous Carroll County, Virginia, about 60 miles west of Martinsville, telephoned the local newspaper that night to report hearing a plane in trouble during a rainstorm.  Larry Chambers, a reporter for the weekly 'Galax Gazette', said he saw a plane "flying like it was a yo-yo string" and that it came down to near treetop level, circled the city once and then headed toward the west.  An airport manager at Hillsville, also in Carroll County, said he heard a plane but could not see it and tried unsuccessfully to raise it by radio.

By 11:49 a.m. after those abortive attempts to land, Butler contacted the Flight Service Station in Roanoke, asking for a weather report and indicating his intent to land at Roanoke. Now apparently lost, and flying through the mountains in the overcast and rain, at 12:08 p.m. the plane impacted into the side of Brush Mountain at the 2700 foot level, about 300 feet from the mountain crest.  All six aboard were killed on impact.

The Eastern Air Search and Rescue Center at Warner-Robins AFB, Georgia, coordinated the search involving 31 airplanes in cooperation with the Civil Air Patrol in Danville, Virginia.  According to Major Paul Rembold, commander of the local CAP, the search was conducted by units from Martinsville, Lynchburg, Roanoke, Danville, Hillsville and Buckingham.

It was the second crash in the Brush Mountain area within 14 hours. The night prior, a single-engine Cessna 177 carrying four persons, including a noted Roanoke veterinarian and his wife, went down killing all aboard.  However, that mishap occurred due to severe pilot inexperience and alcoholic impairment, not the weather.

Because no flight plan had been filed and the adverse weather conditions, the crash site of the Aero Commander was located at 2:30 on the afternoon of Monday, May 31, by a plane piloted by Colonel Hale and Major Slusser of the Virginia Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, on the north side of 3,056-foot Brush Mountain, just below the mountain's summit, in Craig County, which is about fifteen miles south west of New Castle, Virginia, and twenty miles west of Roanoke.  

 

It was reached later in the day by rescue workers, who had to hike four miles up the steep mountain terrain.  There, they discovered that three bodies were found in the plane; three were thrown out of the plane - including Murphy.  Four-wheel drive vehicles were driven into the site to remove the bodies of the six killed aboard.

 

In June of 1972, the National Transportation Safety Board released its conclusion that the probable cause of the accident was the pilot's continued visual flight into adverse weather conditions at an altitude too low to clear mountainous terrain, and his failed attempt to operate the plane beyond his experience & ability level in instrument conditions.

 

Ruffles & Flourishes...

Murphy was buried in a formal military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors on Monday, June 7th, despite having  requested a "simple, plain and ordinary burial" and specifically in his will that the funeral "exclude any and all public officials and military personnel."  His grave is located in Section 46, Site 366-11, and is the second-most visited grave at Arlington, topped only by that of President John F. Kennedy.  Typically, the headstones of Medal of Honor recipients at Arlington are decorated in gold leaf, but Murphy had requested that his stone remain plain and inconspicuous, as would be the case with an ordinary soldier.

President Richard Nixon’s White House issued the statement that Murphy had “not only won the admiration of millions for his own brave exploits, he also came to epitomize the gallantry in action of America’s fighting men.”  In October of 1971, Nixon ordered that the Veterans Administration Hospital, then under construction, at San Antonio, Texas, be designated as the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans’ Hospital.

In December of 1971, the family of Audie Murphy filed a $10 million lawsuit in the plane crash that killed Murphy.  Herbert Hafif, attorney for Murphy's heirs, said the suit, alleging negligence in the operation and maintenance of the plane, was filed against 13 defendants, in November in Los Angeles District Court.  Hafif said defendants in the suit are the estate of the pilot, Herman Butler; estates of Claude Crosby and Jack Littleton, the two businessmen who also died in the crash; Aero Commander Inc.; Lenoir Corp; Comps Aircraft Service Inc.; Modular Properties Co. Inc.; businessmen Dalton Carl Smith and Mike Fitzgerald,  Aero Bankers Inc.; Colorado Aviation Co., Inc.; American Western Plastics Corp.; and Telestar, Inc., the holding company that controlled both firms.  In December of 1975, a jury awarded the Murphy family $2.5 million in damages from its civil lawsuit against the plane's owners - Colorado Aviation of Denver.

Three years after the mishap, on November 10, 1974, a plaque, mounted on the large granite stone, was erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 5311, Christiansburg, Virginia. It is inscribed: “Audie Leon Murphy - June 20, 1924 - May 28, 1971 - Born in Kingston, Texas, died near this site in an airplane crash.  America’s most decorated veteran of World War II. He served in the European Theatre – 15th Infantry Regiment – 3rd Infantry Division and earned 24 decorations, including the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and three Purple Hearts. He was survived by his wife, Pamela, and two sons, Terry Michael and James Shannon.” 

In 1991 - twenty years after the accident - the Appalachian Trail was rerouted to the top of Brush Mountain and past the Audie Murphy Monument.

In May of 2000, Audie Murphy was honored with the release of a commemorative 33-cent U.S. postage stamp bearing his name and image (Scott number 3396).

Today, a portion of the instrument panel from Murphy's ill-fated airplane is on display at the Audie Murphy / American Cotton Museum in Greenville, Texas.

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