WAYNE MORRIS (1914-59)
While he was making Flight Angels (1939), Wayne Morris decided to take flying lessons. Consequently, in the summer of 1941, he enlisted in the US Navy Reserve. In February, 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor, he married former Olympic swimmer Patricia O’Rourke whose uncle commanded Air Group 15 aboard the carrier USS Essex. After a year as a flight instructor, Morris became an operational F6F Hellcat pilot flying off the Essex in the Pacific against the Japanese for the remainder of the war. Ironically, he was initially considered by the Navy to be ‘too big’ to fly fighters and was turned down several times. In desperation, he went to his uncle-in-law, Commander David McCampbell, and implored him for the chance to fly fighters. The commander intervened and Morris flew with the VF-15 (Fighter Squadron 15), the famed ‘McCampbell Heroes’.
Lt. Wayne Morris and wife Patsy O’Rourke 1943
Morris’s squadron saw action on Wake Island, Iwo Jima and Okinawa and in both Philippines Sea battles. In all, he flew 57 missions and shot down seven Japanese aircraft. Three of his own planes were so badly shot up they had to be dumped over the side into the Pacific. He was also credited with sinking a gunboat, two destroyers, and participating in the sinking of a submarine. For his astonishing bravery over a long period of time, Morris was awarded no fewer than four DFC’s and two Air Medals. And he survived the war when many of his comrades did not.
Wayne in his Hellcat 1943
Although toasted at numerous cocktail parties on his return to Hollywood, his acting career never reached the heights it might have, had it not been interrupted by the Second World War, and he spent the next decade or so in low-budget westerns, usually in ‘good pal’ roles. His four-year absence from movie screens had seen other, younger actors emerge and overtake him as leading men. Even so, Stanley Kubrick took a chance and cast Morris, against character, as a weakling in his classic anti-war feature Paths of Glory (1957). His terrific performance seemed to herald the start of a renewed career as a character actor. But it was not to be. In 1959, he was watching naval air manoeuvers aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Francisco Bay when he suffered a massive heart attack. Rushed to Oakland Naval Hospital, he was pronounced dead soon after arrival, at the age of forty-five.
Wayne as the weakling in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957)
Morris was an unassuming hero, one embarrassed by his fame, in particular his screen career. ‘Every time they showed a picture aboard the Essex’, he shuddered, ‘I was scared to death it would be one of mine. That’s something I could never have lived down.’ Of his wartime experiences, he had this to say: ‘As to what a fellow thinks when he’s scared, I guess it’s the same with anyone. You get fleeting glimpses in your mind of your home, your wife, the baby you want to see. You see so clearly all the mistakes you made. You want another chance to correct those mistakes. You wonder how you could have attached so much importance to ridiculous, meaningless things in your life. But before you get to thinking too much, you’re off into action and everything else is forgotten.’ Wayne Morris was a bona fide World War Two hero of the highest caliber.
AUDIE MURPHY (1924-71)
Audie Murphy enlisted in the Army in 1942 when he was eighteen. After being initially turned down by Army, Navy and Marines because he was underweight and under-age, he was eventually accepted after his sister falsified his date of birth on his application form. He served in North Africa with distinction, in Sicily, and on the Italian mainland, rising to the rank of sergeant in the process. Both Murphy and actor James Arness served in the 3rd Infantry Division, Audie in the 15th Regiment; Jim in the 7th. By the time he landed in southern France, Audie had already been the recipient of a Bronze Star and Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster. By war’s end he would be America’s most highly decorated soldier whose other medals included a DSC, two Silver Stars, three Purple Hearts, the French Legion of Honour, the French Croix de Guerre and the Belgian Croix de Guerre. In France he won the Medal of Honor, and he received most of these decorations before he turned twenty!
Audie during WW2
Murphy distinguished himself numerous times in the bitter fighting. An exceptional soldier, he was eventually promoted to first lieutenant in February 1945. In the Colmar Pocket, Alsace, on January 14, ’45, he won the Medal of Honor in quite extraordinary circumstances. Ordering his men to retreat to the woods, he clambered aboard a burning M 10 tank destroyer and commenced firing its .50 caliber machine gun at the advancing German infantry. For an hour he stood on a virtual powder keg, exchanging fire with the enemy, killing at least 50 (some sources say 240), and sustaining wounds himself. Eventually, he ceased firing when he ran out of ammunition. Then he regrouped his men and, in spite of his wounds, helped them repel the enemy advance. It was nothing short of incredible. Ten years later, when he portrayed himself in his biopic To Hell and Back, he had scarcely altered in appearance. He was still the baby-faced Audie of a decade before.
Re-enacting his Medal of Honor feat in To Hell and Back (1955)
Psychologically, Audie Murphy paid a hefty price for his wartime exploits, suffering for years from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Back then it was known as ‘battle fatigue’. He was known to have a hair-trigger temper, would wake up screaming at night and would always go to bed with a loaded M1911 .45 semi-automatic pistol nearby. Being both small and a movie star, he was often bullied by men eager to impress their partners. The injuries he inflicted on a man in one bar fight saw Audie charged with attempted murder. He was acquitted.
Marriage to Wanda Hendrix 1949
His first marriage was to pretty actress Wanda Hendrix in 1949. It was both turbulent and brief, lasting just fourteen months. His increasing bouts of insomnia and depression saw Murphy become addicted to the powerful sleeping pill Placidyl, an addiction he eventually overcame. He drank and gambled extensively until, by 1968, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. Thirty-five years after his death his widow, Pamela Archer, was still working to pay off his debts. She died in 2010 at the age of ninety.
Arlington National Cemetery
Audie made 44 movies overall, yet he died broke and in debt at forty-seven in a 1971 plane crash. He was aboard a private plane when it encountered foggy conditions and crashed into a mountainside in Virginia, killing all six of its occupants. His tombstone is the second-most visited grave in Arlington National Cemetery. Only that of assassinated US President John F. Kennedy has more visitors. ‘I never liked being called the ‘most decorated soldier’, Audie once said. ‘There were so many guys who should have gotten medals and never did – guys who were killed.’