Audie L. Murphy had come a long way since he had landed in Sicily in 1943 as a Corporal and the runner for B Company, 15th Infantry Regiment. A string of promotions and medals had been accompanied by a number of wounds and incapacitation with Malaria. In October 1944 he had been awarded two Silver Stars and a battlefield commission – but had also been shot in the leg and during subsequent hospital treatment had had muscle removed after gangrene set in. Many men would have taken a long time to recover from such a wound but in January 1945 Murphy rejoined his regiment and soon was back in the thick of the action.
On January 23, the 30th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division had reached the outskirts of the village of Holtzwihr, the wooded area known as the Bois de Riedwihr. They suddenly encountered 10 tanks and accompanying infantry and sustained heavy casualties before they were forced to withdraw.
On the 25th Company B of, 1st Battalion, 15th Regiment was ordered to attack the same ground again. Losing six out of seven officers and 102 out of 120 men killed or wounded they penetrated 600 yards into the woods and held their position overnight. The eighteen surviving men led by Murphy found it impossible to dig foxholes because of the frozen ground – but they were re-inforced by some Tank Destroyers before dawn and later by a Forward Artillery Observer.
Audie Murphy describes the position on the 26th as they waited in the freezing cold for the German counter-attack which must inevitably come. Their orders were to hold the position and wait for re-inforcements:
Checking the other men, I find that our right flank is exposed. Some unit failed to get up on schedule. The morning drags by. A forward artillery observer with a radio joins us. The icy tree branches rattle in the wind. Again I contact headquarters. “What about orders?” “No change. Hold your position.”
At two o’clock in the afternoon, I see the Germans lining up for an attack. Six tanks rumble to the outskirts of Holtzwihr, split into groups of threes, and fan out toward either side of the clearing. Obviously they intend an encircling movement, using the fingers of trees for cover. I yell to my men to get ready. Then wave after wave of white dots, barely discernible against the background of snow, start across the field. They are enemy infantrymen, wearing snowcapes and advancing in a staggered skirmish formation.
One of our tank destroyers starts its engine and maneuvers for a firing position. It slides into a ditch at an angle that leaves the turret guns completely useless. The driver steps on the gas; the tank wallows further into the ditch; the engine dies. The crew bails out and takes off for the rear.
“I’m trying to contact headquarters,” shouts the artillery observer. I had forgotten about him. We cannot afford to have the radio captured. “Get to the rear,” I holler. “I’ll get the artillery by phone.” “I don’t want to leave you.” “Get going. You can’t do any good. Just take care of that radio.”
I grab a map, estimate the enemy’s position, and seize the field telephone. “Battalion,” cheerfully answers a headquarters lieutenant. “This is Murphy. We’re being attacked. Get me the artillery.” “Coming up.”
“I want a round of smoke at co-ordinates 30.5 — 60; and tell those joes to shake the lead out.” “How many krauts?” “Six tanks that I can see, and maybe a couple hundred foot soldiers supporting.” “Good god! How close?” “Close enough. Give me that artillery.”
I hang up the receiver and grab my carbine just as the enemy’s preliminary barrage hits. It is murderous. A single tree burst knocks out our machine-gun squad. The second tank destroyer is hit flush, and three of its crew are killed. The remainder, coughing and half-blinded, climb from the smoking turret and sprint down the road to the rear. At that moment I know that we are lost.
The smoke shell whizzes over, landing beyond the oncoming Germans. 200 right; 200 over. And fire for effect.
Our counterbarrage is on the nose. A line of enemy infantrymen disappear in a cloud of smoke and snow. But others keep coming.
The telephone rings. “How close are they?” “5O over, and keep firing for effect.” That artillery curtain must be kept between us and the enemy. The tanks are now close enough to rake our position with machine-gun fire. Of the hundred and twenty-eight men that began the drive, not over forty remain. And I am the last of seven ofiicers. Trying to stop the armor with our small arms is useless. I yell to the men to start pulling out.
“What about you?” shouts Kohl. “I’m staying up with the phone as long as I can. Get the men back, and keep them grouped. Candler will help you.” “Candler’s dead.”
The telephone rings. “How close are they?” “50 over, and keep blasting. The company’s pulling back.” I raise my eyes and see that the men are hesitating. Clapping down the receiver, I yell, “Get the hell out of here. That’s an order!”
Kohl says something, but his words are lost in a shell burst. He shrugs his shoulders, beckons with his thumb, and the men stumble through the woods, casting worried glances backward. I seize my carbine and start sniping. The advance wave of infantrymen is within two hundred yards of my position.
The telephone rings. “How close are they?” “50 over. Keep it coming.” Dropping the receiver, I grab the carbine and fire until I give out of ammunition. As I turn to run, I notice the burning tank destroyer. On its turret is a perfectly good machine gun and several cases of ammunition. The German tanks have suddenly veered to the left.
The official citation for the Medal of Honor:
Second Lieutenant Audie L. Murphy, 01692509, 15th Infantry, Army of the United States, on 26 January 1945, near Holtzwihr, France, commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry.
Lieutenant 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. Lieutenant Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, Lieutenant Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer which was in danger of blowing up any instant and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy.
He was alone and exposed to the 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 Lieutenant Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which 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 the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way 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 personally killed or wounded about 50.
Lieutenant 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.