To Hell and Back: The Classic Memoir of World War II by America’s Most Decorated Soldier – Audie Murphy

Last updated on February 14, 2020

audieWhen this book came up as a recommendation, I thought back to the movie ‘Platoon‘ (Orion Pictures, 1986) by Oliver Stone.  There is a scene before the final battle in which Bunny (Kevin Dillon) and Junior (Reggie Johnson) have been instructed by Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) to get back in their fox holes.  Junior is at his breaking point but Bunny is getting warmed up and says to him “don’t you worry my man, you’re hanging with Audie Murphy now“.  I had heard of Audie Murphy before mainly through my father, who was quite familiar with his story and the 1955 film of the same name. This is the story behind the film of the most decorated soldier to return from World War II.

The book opens with a foreword famed NBC journalist Tom Brokaw before moving to Murphy’s story which begins in Kingston, Texas where we quickly learn that his father has walked out on the family.  He is one of twelve children born to Emmett Berry Murphy and Josie Bell Killian. At the age sixteen, his mother dies and the young teenager is forced to grow up literally overnight.  At the age of eighteen, he reports to the Marine Corps recruiting station but is initially refused enlistment because of his weight and age. Murphy is determined to sign up and eventually succeeds in his quest.  His thirst for action is soon quenched as he finds himself on the front lines in the Mediterranean Theater off the shores of Morocco.  As the story progresses, we are quickly thrown into the mix of the action as Murphy and his platoon are actively engaged in fierce combat.  Soliders enter and exit the story quickly, some having been felled by a sharpshooter’s bullet and others having fell victim to  shells and rockets.  The scenes are graphic and death lingers over them like a storm cloud that breaks without any hint of warning.

The Marines needed killers and Murphy eagerly signed for the task.  Yet the savagery of war is not lost on him and this quote sheds light on the humanity that resides in all soldiers: “But it is not easy to shed the idea that human life is sacred . The lieutenant has not yet accepted the fact that we have been put into the field to deal out death“.  To say that  war is hell is an understatment. Murphy understood the darkness of it all but make no mistake he believed in the job he was assigned to do and he takes pride in being a leatherneck.  He is a killer but one who sees the dysfunction of war and realizes that death is everywhere at all times. Bravery is his speciality but not idiocy.  Further, he was not invincible to the dangers of infantry including malaria which catches him in its grip on more than one occasion.  His time in the infirmary where he meets the nurse known only as “Helen” is a needed relief from the constant descriptions of the last moments of fellow Marines.

The European Theater is undoubtedly where the story picks up pace and as they march across Italy, Murphy fills the book with recreation of battle scenes and hilarious anecdotes through the likes of fellow soldiers such as Novak, Swope and Kerrigan, whom Murphy calls the “Irishman”.  He and Kerrigan develop a lasting friendship built upon the time they spend facing death and dishing it out to German forces.  At the book’s closing, Murphy remarks “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 “.  Between the soldiers is a sense of humor that some readers may find to be somewhat macabre.  But in war, the rules of reality and morality are changed in ways some of us cannot comprehend. 

The book is less than three hundred pages but it is by far one of the best memoirs of war I have read.  It is dark, humorous and enlightening at the same time.  War creates a separate world in which soldiers navigate while trying to hold onto their morals and sanity.  Both are sometimes sacrificed and no one who leaves alive,  leaves the same.  There are many books on World War II but to see the war from the grunt’s point of view is a separate experience and Murphy delivered the goods.   Highly recommended.

ASIN: B008VDJGDA

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