By Audie Murphy
On a hill just inland from the invasion beaches of Sicily, a soldier sits on a rock. His helmet is off; and the hot sunshine glints through his coppery hair. With the sleeve of his shirt he wipes the sweat from his face; then with chin in palm he leans forward in thought.
The company is taking a break. We sprawl upon the slope, loosen the straps of our gear, and gaze at the blue sky. It is my first day of combat; and so far the action of the unit has been undramatic and disappointingly slow.
Just trust the army to get things fouled up. If the landing schedule had not gone snafu, we would have come ashore with the assault waves. That was what I wanted. I had primed myself for the big moment. Then the timing got snarled in the predawn confusion; and we came in late, chugging ashore like a bunch of clucks in a ferryboat.
The assault troops had already taken the beach. The battle had moved inland. So for several hours we have tramped over fields and hills without direct contact with the enemy.
It is true that the landing was not exactly an excursion. There was some big stuff smashing about; and from various points came the rattle of small arms. But we soon got used to that.
Used to it!
A shell crashes on a nearby hill; the earth quivers; and the black smoke boils. A man, imitating Jack Benny’s Rochester, shouts, “Hey, boss. A cahgo of crap just landed on Pigtail Ridge.” A ripple of laughter follows the announcement. “Hey, boss. Change that name to No-Tail Ridge. The tail go with the cahgo.”
The second shell is different. Something terrible and immediate about its whistle makes my scalp start prickling. I grab my helmet and flip over on my stomach. The explosion is thunderous. Steel fragments whine, and the ground seems to jump up and hit me in the face.
Silence again. I raise my head. The sour fumes of powder have caused an epidemic of coughing.
“Hey, boss. The cahgo-”
The voice snaps. We all see it. The redheaded soldier hasmtumbled from the rock. Blood trickles from his mouth and nose.
Beltsky, a veteran of the fighting in North Africa, is the first to reach him. One glance from his professional eye is sufficient.
Turning to a man, he says, “Get his ammo. He wont be needing it. You will.”
“Who me? I got plenty of ammo.”
“Get the ammo. Don’t argue.”
Snuffy Jones does not like the idea at all. A frown crawls over his sallow face; and beneath a receding chin, his Adam’s apple bobs nervously. With shaky fingers he removes the ammunition from the cartridge belt. One would think he was trying to neutralize a booby trap.
“Who is he?” asks Brandon.
“He was a guy named Griffin,” Kerrigan answers. “I got likkered up with him once in Africa. Told me he was married and had a couple kids.”
“That’s rough.” Brandon’s eyes are suddenly deep and thoughtful.
“He could have stayed out, I guess. But he volunteered. Had to get into the big show.”
Novak, the Pole, has been listening with mouth agape. Now his lips curl savagely. “The sonsabeeches!” he growls to nobody in particular.
Unfolding a gas cape, Beltsky covers the body with it.
“That’ll do him a lot of good now,” says Brandon.
“It’s to keep the flies from blowing him,” explains Horse-Face Johnson soberly. “Flies go to work on ‘em right away. Fellow from the last war told me they swell up like balloons. Used ‘em for pillows out in No-Man’s Land. Soft enough but they wouldn’t keep quiet. They was always losing wind in the dead of the night. Such sighing and whistling you never heard.”
“For chrisake, shut up,” says Kerrigan.
Johnson’s blue eyes twinkle sardonically. His long, lean face stretches into a grin. And his laugh is like the soft whinny of of a horse.
“Don’t let it get you down, son. Used to be skittish myself till I worked as an undertaker’s assistant out in Minnesota. Took my baths in embalming fluid. Slept in coffins during the slack hours. Grave error. Damned nigh got buried one day when I got mistook for the late departed.”
“It’s the dying truth, son.”
“Then why didn’t you get hooked up with a body-snatching outfit? You look like a natural for the buzzard detail.”
“Why, you know, son, the army wouldn’t be guilty of giving a man a job he knowed anything about. Got tired of the racket anyhow. Couldn’t argue with the late departeds. Whatever I said they was always dead right.”
“Oh, for chrisake,” mutters Kerrigan pleadingly.
“Okay, men,” says Beltsky. “You’ve seen how it happens. Maybe you know now this game is played for keeps. Everybody on your feet. All right there, what’s the matter with you?”
“Me?” drawls Snuffy. Tm gittin’ up. Just give me time. Snapped-to once so fast that I mislocated my backbone.”
“Would you like to be carried on a stretcher?”
“Okay. Okay. Let’s move across Sicily.”
“He was just sitting there on the rock,” says Steiner, his face filled with awe. “I was looking at him just a minute before.”
“So what?” snaps Antonio irritably. “He shouldn’ta been makin’ like a pigeon. He oughta kept his head down.” He taps himself on the chest. “You didn’t see me givin’ out wit the coos, did you?”
“How could he know it was coming?”
“Aw nuts! You could hear it comin a mile.”
As we plod over the hills in sweat-soaked clothes, the uneasiness passes from my stomach to my mind. So it happens as easily as that. You sit on a quiet slope with chin in hand. In the distance a gun slams; and the next minute you are dead.
Maybe my notions about war were all cockeyed. How do you pit skill against skill if you cannot even see the enemy? Where is the glamour in blistered feet and a growling stomach? And where is the expected adventure? Well, whatever comes, it was my own idea. I had asked for it. I had always wanted to be a soldier.
The years roll back; and in my mind, I see a pair of hands. Calloused and streaked with dirt, they looked like claws; and they shook as they cupped around the match flame. He puffed on the cigarette. And as I waited, all ears, he bent over in a fit of coughing.
“It’s that gas,” he explained. “Nearly eighteen years, and it’s still hangin’ on.”
“But you knowed where they were,” I said.
From the shade of the tree, he gazed over the cotton fields.
“Of course, I knowed where they was,” he said. “Any ijiot would have. It was still early mornin’; and when they crawled through the field, they shook the dew off the wheat. So every blessed one of ‘em left a dark streak behind. That give their positions away.”
“So what did you do?”
“What would you done? I lined up my sights on the machine gun and waited.”
“A machine gun?”
“Yeah. It’s the devil’s own weepon. When they got to the edge of the patch, I could see ‘em plain. There was nothin’ to it. I just pulled the trigger and let ‘em have it.”
Fascinated, I glanced at the hands again, picking out the trigger finger. “You killed em?”
“I didn’t do ‘em any good.”
“Did they shoot at you?”
“Now what do you think? This was war. But I kept my head down and got along all right until that night they thowed over the gas. We didn’t get the alarm until I’d already breathed a lungful.”
“What was they like?”
“The Germans? I never took time to ast ‘em. They was shootin’ at us; so we shot at them.”
“But you whipped em.”
“We whopped ‘em all right, but it wasn’t easy. They was hard fighters. Don’t ever kid yourself about that.”
“Some day I aim to be a soldier.”
“A sojer?” he said disgustedly. “What fer?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you want to fight, start fightin’ these weeds.” He coughed again, spat out a gob of phlegm, and muttered, “A sojer.” He was still shaking his head when he gripped the plow handles and said, “Giddap,” to the mules.
Steiner is a soldier, but you would never see his kind on the recruiting posters. Short and pudgy, he has the round, innocent face of a baby and a voice as gentle as a child’s. He cannot get the knack of the army, though he tries hard. His gear is forever fouled up. It drips from his body like junk. Now he stumbles and falls. It is the third time he has tripped today; and Olsen, a huge, blond sergeant, is fresh out of patience.
“What’s a-matter? What’s a-matter?” he snarls. “Pick up your dogs.”
“It’s the legging strings. They keep coming unlaced.”
“For chrisake, paste ‘em on if you ain’t got enough sense to lace em. Aw right, come on. Snap to it.”
“Whyn’t you let him alone?” says Antonio. “De kid can’t help it.”
“Keep your big nose outa this.”
“Okay. Break it up,” says Beltsky. “You’ll soon have a belly full of fighting.”
No, it was not the least bit like the dream I had as a child. That afternoon in Texas I had followed the veteran of World War I into the field. The sun beat down and the rows of cotton seemed endless. But I soon forgot both the heat and the labor.
The weeds became the enemy, and my hoe, a mysterious weapon. I was on a faraway battlefield, where bugles blew, banners streamed, and men charged gallantly across flaming hills; where the temperature always stood at eighty and our side was always victorious; where the dying were but impersonal shadows and the wounded never cried; where enemy bullets always miraculously missed me, and my trusty rifle forever hit home.
I was only twelve years old; and the dream was my one escape from a grimly realistic world.
We were share-crop farmers. And to say that the family was poor would be an understatement. Poverty dogged our every step. Year after year the babies had come until there were nine of us children living, and two dead. Getting food for our stomachs and clothes for our backs was an ever-present problem. As soon as we grew old enough to handle a plow, an ax, or a hoe, we were thrown into the struggle for existence.
My mother, a sad-eyed, silent woman, toiled eternally. As a baby, I sat strapped like a papoose in a yard swing while she fought the weeds in a nearby field.
Our situation is not to be blamed on the social structure. If my father had exercised more foresight, undoubtedly his family would have fared much better. He was not lazy, but he had a genius for not considering the future.
One day he gave up. He simply walked out of our lives, and we never heard from him again.
My mother, attempting to keep her brood together, worked harder than ever. But illness overtook her. Gradually she grew weaker and sadder. And when I was sixteen she died.
Except for a married sister, who was unable to support us, there was no family nucleus left. The three youngest children were placed in an orphanage. The rest of us scattered, going our individual ways. Boarding out, I worked for a while in a filling station; then I became a flunky in a radio repair shop.
God knows where my pride came from, but I had it. And it was constantly getting me into trouble. My temper was explosive. And my moods, typically Irish, swung from the heights to the depths. At school, I had fought a great deal. Perhaps I was trying to level with my fists what I assumed fate had put above me.
I was never so happy as when alone. In solitude, my dreams made sense. Nobody was there to dispute or destroy them.
After the death of my mother, I was more than ever determined to enter military service. When the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, I was half-wild with frustration. Here was a war itself; and I was too young to enlist. I was sure that it would all be over in a few months and I would be robbed of the great adventure that had haunted my imagination.
On my eighteenth birthday, I hurried to a marine corps recruiting station. This branch seemed the toughest of the lot; and I was looking for trouble. Unfortunately, the corps was looking for men, men italicized. A sergeant glanced over my skinny physique. My weight did not measure up to Leatherneck standards.
Leaving the office in a blaze of unreasonable anger, I tried the paratroops. This was a new branch of service, lacking the legendary color of the marines, but it sounded rough. There was another point in its favor: paratroopers wore such handsome boots.
That office was more sympathetic. The recruiting sergeant did not turn me down cold. He suggested that I load up on bananas and milk before weighing in. My pride was taking an awful beating. The sergeant was the first on a long list of uniformed authorities that I requested to go to the devil.
The infantry finally accepted me. I was not overjoyed. The infantry was too commonplace for my ambition. The months would teach me the spirit of this unglamorous, greathearted fighting machine. But at that time I had other plans. After my basic training, I would get a transfer. I would become a glider pilot.
Thus, with a pocket full of holes, a head full of dreams, and an ignorance beyond my years, I boarded a bus for the induction center. Previously I had never been over a hundred miles from home.
Nor had I reckoned with realistic army training. During my first session of close-order drill, I, the late candidate for the marines and the paratroops, passed out cold. I quickly picked up the nickname of “Baby.” My commanding officer tried to shove me into a cook and baker’s school, where the going would be less rough.
That was the supreme humiliation. To reach for the stars and end up stirring a pot of C-rations. I would not do it. I swore that I would take the guardhouse first. My stubborn attitude paid off. I was allowed to keep my combat classification; and the army was spared the disaster of having another fourth class cook in its ranks.
But I still had to get overseas; and my youthful appearance continued to cause much shaking of heads. At Fort Meade, where we had our final phase of training in America, I was almost transferred to the camp’s permanent cadre. An officer, kindly attempting to save me from combat, got me a position as a clerk in the post exchange.
Fuming, I stuck to my guns; and in early 1943, I landed in North Africa as a replacement for an infantry company. The war in this sector was about over. Instead of combat, we were given another long, monotonous period of training.
Finally the great news came. We were to go into action in the Tunis area. We oiled our guns, double-checked our gear; and prayed or cursed according to our natures. But before we could move out, the order was canceled. The Germans in the area had surrendered.
I took no part in the general sigh of relief. Perhaps now I would react differently.
At this moment, the fluttering roll of an enemy machine gun is causing my flesh to creep. “The devil’s own weapon,” the veteran had said. “And, of course, I knowed where they was.”
Does the enemy know where we are. He could. Easily. We are stretched in an open field; and the cover is something less than adequate. Before us lies a railroad track along which the machine-gun crew has dug in.
The gun has suddenly become quiet. I hear the labored breathing of our men; see Beltsky’s worried face; feel my heart churning against the ribs. “What would you have done?” the veteran had said. “I lined up my sights and waited.” He had no corner on that little game. It too could be the enemy’s.
The order comes down the line.
“Spread out. We’re going over the track.”
Olsen’s mouth sags; and the fear in his eyes is sickening. My jaws clamp; my heart slows down. I have seen the face of a coward and found it loathsome.
The secondary order is passed along in hoarse whispers.
“When you get the signal, make a run for it. Stop for nothing until you find cover on the other side of the track.”
Beltsky studies his wrist watch. His hand goes up in a wave. We scramble to our feet and take off.
From the corner of my eye, I see two men in the center platoon reel backward and fall. Then I hear the crackle of rifles; the blast of a grenade. I leap the track. Johnson passes me. “Son,” he calls, “get the lead out of your shoes. Them krauts have started a shooting war.”
I find a gully, drop into it, and sprawl out. A body thuds on top of me. It is Novak.
“By gah, you excuse,” he says. “I see nahthin when I jump.”
“You were coming too fast to take in the scenery.”
He has an odd, crooked smile; his nose is bent; and a mop of oily black hair tumbles over his forehead. Carefully breaking a cigarette in two, he hands me a half.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Nah? You gotta smoke to stay happy. You try it.”
“No, thanks. Did they get the machine gun?”
“They get it.” His eyes burn fiercely. “But the sonsabeeches knocked over two of our men.”
“I saw them.”
“When they tear up Poland, that is bad enough. But when they shoot our men, it is too much. From now on, Mike Novak is not to be soft, no chicken heart. He uses his gun.”
The following day I am ahead of the company with a group of scouts. We flush a couple of Italian officers. They should have surrendered. Instead they mount two magnificent white horses and gallop madly away. My act is instinctive. Dropping to one knee, I fire twice. The men tumble from the horses, roll over and lie still.
“Now why did you do that?” asks a lieutenant.
“What should I have done? Stood here with egg on my face, waving them goodbye?”
“You shouldn’t have fired.”
“That’s our job, isn’t it? They would have killed us if they’d had the chance. That’s their job. Or have I been wrongly informed?”
“To hell with it. I guess you did the right thing.”
I later discover that such mental confusion is common among new men. In the training areas we talked toughly, thought toughly; and finally we believed we really were tough. 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.
I have. If there were any doubt in my mind, it began to vanish in the shell explosion that killed Griffin; and it disappeared altogether when I saw the two men crumple by the railroad track.
Now I have shed my first blood. I feel no qualms; no pride; no remorse. There is only a weary indifference that will follow me throughout the war.
Again my youth catches up with me. My company commander, looking at my thin frame and cursed baby face, decides that the front is no place for me. He has me transferred to headquarters to serve as a runner. I should be grateful, but I am not. I am constantly sneaking off with patrols and scouting parties.
The company commander finally calls me on the carpet.
“I hear you can’t stay away from the front, Murphy.”
“What’s wrong with you? You want to get killed?”
“I tried to do you a favor. Most men would have appreciated it.”
“Now I’m going to do myself a favor. I’m putting you back in the lines; and you’ll stay there until you’re so sick of action you’ll want to vomit.”
“And, incidentally,” he grins, “you’ve been made a corporal. You may have to take over a squad. Now get up there and give ‘em hell.”
I did not only want to vomit, I did. Not long after I returned to the front, the enemy defenses began to collapse; and speed on our part became urgent. The march toward Palermo became virtually a foot race. We had to average from twenty-five to thirty miles a day over rugged terrain.
Dust lay over the highways like a smoke screen; not a cloud appeared in the sky. Often we could not stop even to eat. We gulped our rations as we walked.
My brain swam; and my internal organs rumbled. Finally I could take it no longer. I fell out of the ranks, lay down on the roadside, and heaved until I thought I would lose my stomach.
A major paused in his jeep. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Are you sick, soldier?”
“Nosir. I’m just spilling my guts for the hell of it.”
“Maybe you’d better report to the medics.”
But I did not. I rose to my feet and staggered up the road, cursing the war in detail.
The next day I black out completely. When I regain consciousness, I hear voices; but they seem to be coming through a thick wall I open my eyes, and the bright sunshine dazzles me. This is odd weather indeed. Despite the sweat rolling from my face, I am shivering.
A face bends over me. “Something wrong with you, soldier?” a voice asks.
“No. I’m perfectly all right. Where am I?”
“At an aid station. How do you feel?”
“I feel like hell. I’m cold.”
“You look like hell. Must be malaria.”
It is. Darkness blots out my mind again; and I awake in a field hospital.
A week later I am marked fit for duty. As we pass through Palermo on the way to the front, the streets swarm with our men. The natives gape, and supply trucks speed through the town. Lines of soldiers, with their weapons slung on their shoulders, stand before brothels, patiently awaiting their turn. Individual dignity has been transformed to fit the nature of war.
The regiment reaches the west bank of the Furiano river on its drive toward Messina in the final phase of the Sicilian campaign. Across a narrow strip of water from Messina lies the Italian mainland itself.
The Furiano area, including the stream bed itself, is heavily mined. The eastern terrain slopes down to the river; and on the west bank is a series of hills rolling toward rugged Mount Fratello, which dominates the area. The enemy is entrenched and determined.
On our approach to the stream, we are caught in a concentration of artillery and mortar fire. The earth shudders; and the screaming of shells intermingles with the screaming of men. We fall back, reorganize, and again storm forward. For a second time the barrage hits us. Again we withdraw.
Olsen is the first to crack up. He throws his arms around the company commander, crying hysterically, “I can’t take any more.” The harassed captain tries to calm him, but Olsen will not stop bawling. So he is sent to the rear, and we watch him go with hatred in our eyes.
“If I ever throw a whingding like that, shoot me,” says Kerrigan.
“Gladly,” I reply. “In North Africa, I thought he was one tough boy.”
“Yeah. He threw his weight around plenty.”
“He seemed to be everything the War Department was looking for. He was my idea of a real soldier. Then one night that little Italian, Corrego, came in drunk; and Olsen beat him up.”
“He should have been shot right then.”
“It was against regulations.”
“At least, we should’ve mauled hell out of him.”
“Yeah. I’ll never judge a man by his appearance again.”
“Nor women either,” says Kerrigan, thoughtfully scratching his groin. “I thought that dame in Palermo was perfectly okay until I woke up with the mechanized dandruff.”
“Maybe you got them from a latrine.”
“No. Army regulations say that only officers can catch the bugs there. I’ve been fighting them with gasoline and my skin is blistered. I ought to have introduced Johnson to that girl.”
“Sure. That’s what you get for holding out on a pal.”
“Think I’ll plant a few of the bugs in his breeches anyhow.
He drawed a blank in Palermo and won’t know where in hell they came from.”
“Why make it a few?”
“That’ll be enough. They spread faster than a rumor.”
Part of the regiment crosses the river under the cover of a smoke screen. I remain behind to help guard a machine-gun emplacement. The assignment suits me. I now see that the fighting will not run out. There will be plenty of war for everybody. While the battle grows in violence, I lie in a vineyard, eating grapes and watching the fight.
Our men are pinned down on a slope. They cannot advance; and they cannot retreat, because the Germans have laid a curtain of fire between them and the river. Our company commander is among those killed before they can withdraw during the night.
A co-ordinated attack consisting of a surprise landing at the enemy’s rear, thrusts its way around Mount Fratello, and a direct assault on the hills themselves finally reduces the German defenses.
I contributed little to the battle; gained much. I acquired a healthy respect for the Germans as fighters; an insight into the fury of mass combat; and a bad case of diarrhea. I had eaten too many grapes.
Excerpted from To Hell and Back by Audie Murphy.
Copyright © 1949 by Audie Murphy, © 1977 by Pamela Murphy
Foreword copyright © 2002 by Tom Brokaw
Published by Henry Holt
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
AUDIE MURPHY was the most decorated American soldier during World War II and the author of To Hell and Back. He went on to a long film career, starring in The Red Badge of Courage, The Quiet American, and his own To Hell and Back. He was killed in a plane crash in 1971 at age forty-six.Tags: Audie Murphy, WWII