Thursday, November 11, 2004
Veterans remember hero
Actor Audie Murphy was killed in 1971 when an airplane flew into the side of Brush Mountain.
The plane dipped low out of the fog, skimming just above the trees.
Larry Chambers, a reporter with the Galax Gazette, knew that something was wrong.
"The plane was flying like it was on a yo-yo string," he said that day.
People in and around Galax called police that drizzly May morning in 1971, saying they'd heard an airplane in trouble. The manager of Twin Counties Airport outside of Hillsville heard it, too. He tried to radio the plane, but got no answer.
When the plane flew low enough for people on the ground to see it, they tried to signal the pilot, tried to point the way to Twin Counties. Galax police said it looked like the pilot tried to land on a stretch of four-lane highway.
Eventually, the aircraft circled the city, climbed back into the clouds and headed west.
That was the last contact anyone had with the charter flight out of Atlanta until a few minutes before noon, when pilot Herman Butler radioed Roanoke's Woodrum Airport, saying he planned to land in Roanoke.
The control tower reported a ceiling of 1,000 feet with three miles of visibility.
Approaching from the northwest, Butler and his five passengers were flying more than 2,700 feet above sea level, deep in the clouds. A light rain was falling. Butler couldn't have seen that he was flying into the side of Brush Mountain.
The plane tore the top off a tall oak tree and bore into the mountainside, snapping limbs and trunks, churning up dirt and boulders. The wings sheared off. Debris spread through the forest. The cabin caught fire. Three people were trapped inside.
"I don't know if even their mothers could identify them," a state trooper said.
The three people thrown from the plane died, too.
Medical examiner Walter Gable said he was certain "death was instantaneous."
One of the victims was 46-year-old Audie Murphy, World War II hero and small-time movie star.
The search for the missing plane wouldn't begin for three days.
Audie Leon Murphy was born into a family of Texas sharecroppers in 1924. Murphy's father abandoned his wife and 11 children when Murphy was a boy. Murphy was 16 when his mother died. He was a radio repairman when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
"I ran into the mail carrier on the way back from squirrel hunting and he told me about it," Murphy told The Associated Press years later. "I thought, 'They can't do that,' and 'Where's Pearl Harbor?'"
Murphy tried to enlist in the Marines. They rejected him. So did the paratroopers. He was 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed less than 115 pounds. The Army allowed him to enlist.
The other men in his unit nicknamed the 18-year-old "Baby."
Murphy served in North Africa and Italy, earning medals and promotions. Then he came to the forest outside the French village of Holtzwihr.
Then a lieutenant, Murphy commanded a company of infantry attacked by German infantry supported by six tanks. Ordering his troops to withdraw to the woods, Murphy stayed at his command post, directing artillery fire at the advancing troops.
When a tank destroyer assigned to his unit was hit and caught fire, its crew joined their comrades in the woods. Murphy climbed onto the burning vehicle and began to fire its .50-caliber machine gun.
He held the position for an hour.
According to Murphy's Medal of Honor citation: "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. ... 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."
Murphy won 27 other medals, including three from France and one from Belgium.
Lost in the mountains
Murphy left Atlanta at 9 a.m. on May 28, 1971, to visit Modular Properties, a Martinsville company in which he was thinking about investing. Besides Murphy and Butler, the plane carried Jack Littleton, another potential investor; Kim Doby, a friend of Littleton's; Claude Crosby, Modular Properties' president; and Raymond Prater, Modular's attorney.
The plane was an Aero Commander 600E, a seven-seat aircraft with a range of up to 1,600 miles, cruising at well over 200 mph. Butler had only six hours' experience in the plane, and he wasn't qualified to fly in bad weather. The National Transportation Safety Board said Butler flew that day in conditions "beyond his operational capabilities."
Butler filed no flight plan. None was required. Safety officials didn't know that the plane was missing until The Associated Press called on May 30.
The search began at 6 a.m. on May 31. The wreckage was spotted from the air at 2:45 p.m. It took ground crews nearly two hours to reach it. Murphy's body was identified by his war wounds.
Life after wartime
After seeing Murphy's photo on the cover of a 1945 Life magazine, actor James Cagney invited him to Hollywood, where the young war hero made more than 40 movies, mostly Westerns.
He married actress Wanda Hendrix in 1949. The marriage lasted about a year.
"I was in no shape to get married," he said years later. "I had nightmares about war. Men running and shooting and hollering and then my gun would fall apart when I tried to pull the trigger."
By 1950, Murphy had given his medals away to children.
"I've been fed up with that 'most decorated' business for a long time," he told an interviewer. "I gave away my medals because I felt they never entirely belonged to me. ... There are too many guys who should have gotten medals and never did."
In 1951, Murphy married Pamela Archer, an airline stewardess. That marriage lasted until Murphy died.
Murphy played himself in "To Hell and Back," the film version of his autobiography. He also starred in a 1958 adaptation of Graham Greene's novel "The Quiet American." It was filmed, in part, in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, then part of French Indo-China, while the Viet Minh tried to drive the French from Vietnam.
Murphy got a .45-caliber pistol and 500 rounds of ammunition.
"The Commies were only 16 miles from Saigon at the time and you never knew what was going to happen," he told The Associated Press in 1963. "I figured if they were going to get me, I'd give them a good fight first."
During and after his movie career, Murphy raised and raced horses, won and lost fortunes gambling and wrote dozens of songs recorded by singers as varied as Dean Martin, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride and Porter Waggoner. He also suffered through bad business deals, drug addiction, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bankruptcy and a trial for attempted murder. He was acquitted.
After the crash
Murphy asked in his will that his funeral be a "simple, plain, ordinary burial" that excluded "any and all public officials and military personnel."
An honor guard and a military band led the horse-drawn caisson that carried Murphy's casket through Arlington National Cemetery. Six soldiers served as pallbearers. Soldiers fired a three-volley salute. A soldier played taps. Another handed the folded flag that had covered Murphy's casket to his widow.
Gen. John O'Daniel, commander of Murphy's infantry division, was there. So was Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland.
Murphy's body lies beside Capt. Alan David Gardner, killed in Vietnam a year earlier.
Christiansburg's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5311 wanted to put a marker near where Murphy died. But the plane crashed in the Jefferson National Forest. That meant government red tape. Post commander William Craft led the fight. Three years and one day after Murphy died, the VFW won. More than 100 people came to the dedication ceremony on Veterans Day 1974.
Eric Adams first saw the monument several years ago on a hike with his father.
"There was just a stone there and nothing else," said Adams, now a junior at Appalachian State University.
For his Eagle Scout project, Adams put a bench at the site and another where the Appalachian Trail crosses the old fire road that leads to the monument.
Most people who visit the monument are simply looking for a short hike, said Barbara Walker, a ranger at the New River District Ranger Station near Blacksburg. "It seems like the folks who are most interested specifically because it's Audie Murphy are from that generation."
Scott Weaver, a World War II veteran born the same year as Murphy, fits that description.
"Something that we didn't do and I don't think anybody ever thought of it," said Weaver, the VFW post's quartermaster. "There were five other people in the plane."
There's no memorial on the mountain for them.