On a frigid January afternoon in 1945, Company B, 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, was attacked on the outskirts of Holtzwihr, France, by six tanks and an estimated 250 German infantrymen, who were determined to wrest the Bois de Riedwihr from the Americans. Certain that his decimated company could not withstand the German onslaught, 1st Lt. Audie L. Murphy ordered his men to fall back to safety deep in the forest. After expending all his carbine ammunition at the enemy, Murphy himself prepared to fall back. Suddenly, he spotted a .50-caliber machine gun on the turret of a burning tank destroyer. Knowing that his position had to be held at all costs, Murphy climbed on top and began firing the machine gun at the oncoming Germans.
He would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroics.
Native Texan Murphy, destined to become a postwar film star, made his courageous stand during the Colmar offensive, which eventually drove the Germans from their last foothold on French soil. The 3rd Infantry Division’s role in the offensive was to advance near the Bois de Riedwihr, a large forest in the northern sector of the Colmar Pocket that stretched between the heavily fortified villages of Riedwihr and Holtzwihr. Lieutenant Colonel Keith Ware, executive officer of the 15th Regiment, later recalled how imperative it was to secure the forest, explaining, ‘Its possession was of cardinal importance, as the woods dominated the German stronghold of Holtzwihr, the reduction of which was essential to the prompt accomplishment of the 3rd Division’s offensive tasks.
On Jan. 23, the 30th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, captured the woods and reached the outskirts of Holtzwihr and Riedwihr, where the Americans encountered 10 enemy tanks and tank destroyers accompanied by at least 100 infantrymen. The result was disastrous. Without cover and unable to dig foxholes in the frozen earth, the American unit was cut to pieces. Shattered, understrength and badly disorganized, the 30th was forced to withdraw from the Bois de Riedwihr.
The 15th Regiment was ordered to retake that same ground the next day. The subsequent fighting was so furious that the regiment’s Company B, among others, was decimated. With the exception of Lieutenant Murphy, all the officers were killed, and 102 of the company’s 120 enlisted men were either killed or wounded before they even reached their assigned position. By midnight on Jan. 25, Company B had penetrated 600 yards into the woods and was in position north of Holtzwihr.
Within the hour fresh supplies reached the weary survivors of Company B. After the men were resupplied, they were ordered to move up to the south end of the woods, facing the village of Holtzwihr, and hold the line until relief came. Advancing through snowy darkness in the early morning hours, the men reached their assigned position before dawn. Once there, the weary GIs began a futile attempt to dig foxholes in the frozen ground.
Murphy later recalled his men’s frustration:
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“This night seemed unusually long and the snow colder than I ever dreamed it could be. The sound of picks on frozen ground beat against my eardrum like mad. The 18 men left in Company B had been digging in that goddamned snow covered granite and the only benefit received from it was the exercise, which kept them from becoming stiff and immobile with the cold. And even when one stopped digging it was necessary to walk about to keep your feet from freezing.”
Murphy, who had taken over the depleted company during the night, feared a dawn attack and was concerned that his men could not stand up to an assault.
“Strange, but it seems dawn breaking means more than any other time of the day or night, to an infantryman,” he said of that suspense-filled evening. “It is an accepted time to attack or be attacked. Mercifully, as the overcast dawn broke, two M10 tank destroyers from Lt. Col. Walter E. Tardy’s 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion arrived just in time to support Company B’s position.”
But to the relief of Murphy and his men, the Germans did not attack at daybreak.
Murphy took advantage of the unexpected lull to begin forming his lines, using one tank destroyer and five armored vehicles from the 3rd Reconnaissance Troop to protect his right flank. Company A connected loosely with his left flank. The second tank destroyer selected a position approximately 40 yards ahead of the lines. Murphy then set up his command post in a drainage ditch 10 yards in front of the rear tank destroyer. He maintained contact with battalion headquarters, a mile to the rear, by a field phone.
Company B was stretched across a butt-end of a large `U’ whose sides were formed by two great fingers of trees that led toward Holtzwihr, Murphy recalled. The heavily fortified village was now in plain view over the rolling, snow-covered fields. The two tank destroyers sat astraddle a narrow dirt road that ran deep into the woods. Murphy knew German armor would have to advance along the roadway. Early in the afternoon, he phoned back to 1st Battalion headquarters for last-minute instructions. He was informed that the 2nd Battalion, 30th Regiment, had not yet arrived to reinforce his company. Hold your position were his orders.
At 2 p.m. on Jan. 26, 1945, German armor and infantry moved out from Holtzwihr, preceded by an artillery barrage.
“From my forward shallow emplacement I saw the counterattack forming with six tanks and about 250 foot soldiers garbed in white suits,” Murphy recalled, “so it would’ve been impossible to spot them sooner or any farther away than a mile. I alerted the men and ran for the field phone and called the artillery officer at battalion headquarters and arranged for 2nd Battalion to fire. I no sooner gave the order to fire than all hell broke loose. The Germans had started their preliminary barrage. Pfc. Donald Eckman remembered: You could see the pennants on the antenna of the German tanks….That got our attention right away….We also saw a huge sea of white infantry coming toward us.”
The infantry belonged to the German 2nd Mountain Division, which had been transferred to the Colmar region from Norway. The men had been trained for operations in mountainous terrain. Individual companies of this division were brought down from Norway and fed into the lines as soon as they arrived. By committing this elite division to action at Holtzwihr, the German commanders demonstrated how vital they believed it was to hold a bridgehead west of the Rhine.
The German tactical objective was to gain control of the road that led from Holtzwihr through Murphy’s position and into the woods beyond the regimental headquarters. If successful, the enemy attack would clearly threaten the 3rd Division’s entire position. Murphy recognized the importance of holding the road at all costs.
“Once the enemy came within range, Tardy’s tank destroyers opened fire. Unfortunately, their 90mm shells bounced harmlessly off the steel sides of the oncoming German armor. I saw the enemy tanks get direct hits,” said Murphy, “but the rounds proved ineffective against the heavily armored German tanks. Advancing and firing viciously, they knocked out a Company B machine-gun crew. Then the rear tank destroyer was hit by an 88mm shell that pierced its thin armor and killed the commander and gunner. The surviving crew members scurried out and retreated into the woods.”
Undaunted, the crew in the lead tank destroyer, after surviving several close calls, mounted an attack on its own. Staff Sgt. Joseph Tardiff and Corporal Robert Hines simultaneously blazed away with .50- and .30-caliber machine guns, cutting down the oncoming enemy infantrymen. Suddenly, however, the crew lost control of the tank destroyer when they tried to maneuver into a better firing position. The vehicle slid off the road and into a drainage ditch, leaving its main gun at a useless angle that prevented it from being trained on the enemy. Stuck fast in the ditch, the tank destroyer became a sitting duck for German fire. The crew climbed out and hastily retreated to the forest.
With both American tank destroyers out of action and large enemy infantry and armored forces moving on his position, Murphy realized that the remnants of his company could hold out no longer. He ordered his men to fall back to safety deep in the forest while he stayed behind, directing artillery fire. Pfc. Irving Kelly was reluctant to leave Murphy.
“I remember being mad as hell when Murph told us to go back,” Kelly recalled. “We wanted to stay and fight by his side. I remember vividly that Sgt. Harold Corl and myself were the last two to leave. Due to a technical problem with forward observer 1st Lt. Walter Weispfenning’s radio, Murphy remained at his post, directing artillery fire over the field telephone. It was not a heroic act, said Murphy. I figured if one man could do the job, why risk the lives of others.”
Murphy :ordered fire directly on top of the advancing Germans, communicating target instructions to 1st Battalion headquarters while at the same time shooting at the enemy infantry with his carbine,” Kelly said.
“I loved that artillery,” Murphy recalled. “I could see Kraut soldiers disappear in clouds of smoke and snow, hear them scream and shout, yet they came on and on as though nothing would stop them. The Germans had advanced to within 50 yards of Murphy when a nervous lieutenant from battalion headquarters inquired about the enemy’s position. Murphy replied, If you just hold the phone a minute, I’ll let you talk to one of the bastards.
After exhausting his carbine ammunition, Murphy was preparing to fall back when the .50-caliber machine gun on the turret of the burning tank destroyer caught his eye.”
Soon the fire would reach the vehicle’s fuel and ammunition, but Murphy knew the gun was his only chance to stop the Germans. He climbed aboard the tank destroyer and began spraying the big .50-caliber at the enemy. Pfc. Anthony V. Abramski later reported, I saw Lt. Murphy climb on top of the burning tank destroyer while bursts of machine pistol fire from the advancing infantry battered against the hull and tread.
Murphy knew that the .50-caliber would have no effect on the tanks, so he concentrated his fire on the advancing infantry.
“I would not waste my ammunition on something that direct hits by 90mm shells could not slow down, he said. I concentrated on the foot soldiers, believing that the tanks would not advance very far without them. Private Charles Owen, one of the 18 men left in Company B, watched in awe as Murphy raked the oncoming enemy. Boy, he was effective on that .50-caliber, said Owen. I don’t know whether he’d ever had .50-caliber training or not. But the Germans were deathly afraid of .50-calibers; they had armor-piercing capabilities.”
Another observer, Sgt. Elmer Brawley, who witnessed the engagement from the fringe of the woods, added, The German infantrymen got within 10 yards of Lieutenant Murphy, who killed them in the draws, in the meadows, in the woods–wherever he saw them. Murphy’s deadly fire on the supporting infantry eventually forced the tanks to return to an area in front of the woods. These tanks added their murderous fire to that of the Kraut artillery and small-arms fire that showered the lieutenant’s position, Brawley said.
The billowing smoke from the tank destroyer, combined with the constant roar of battle, prevented the Germans from detecting where the machine-gun fire was coming from. According to Murphy, With all the crackle of firearms and big shells exploding all around, they probably didn’t even hear my machine-gun fire, much less guess its point of origin. Although the smoke provided some concealment, it also interfered with Murphy’s visibility, which allowed some enemy soldiers to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. He wrote: When I first saw them, they had stopped in the drainage ditch directly in front of me and were frantically discussing something. I pressed the trigger and slowly traversed the barrel–the bodies slumped in a stack position.
Suddenly, two 88 m.m. shells slammed into the tank destroyer. The concussion and shock of the explosion threw Murphy violently against the turret, nearly knocking him to the ground. Murphy was enveloped in clouds of smoke and spurts of flame, Weispfenning recalled. Miraculously, Murphy managed to maintain his composure and continued to fire the machine gun. The only time he stopped firing was when he had to reload or relay firing instructions to artillery. Years later, displaying his characteristic dry wit, Murphy remarked: I remember getting the hell shook out of me, but that was nothing new. I also remember for the first time in three days my feet were warm.
Amazingly, his luck continued to hold when the gray clouds broke long enough for American fighter-bombers to assemble above the raging battlefield. After hearing the glorious sound of the approaching planes, Murphy had the artillery mark the German positions with smoke shells so the pilots could start strafing. The enemy attack, although slowed, still pressed forward, however. Once again, the infantry threatened to overrun the strongpoint, now held down by a single American. In a daring move, Murphy continued to call for artillery fire, even though it was falling uncomfortably close to him by that time. I figured that I could luck it out of that barrage if the Krauts could, he said.
With the renewed barrage, the Germans finally realized that someone had them zeroed in with artillery. However, they still could not locate the source of the machine-gun fire that was cutting their ranks to pieces.
“A small group of Germans managed to infiltrate the woods as far back as the 1st Battalion headquarters, but the majority of the enemy infantry began to fall back toward Holtzwihr.,” said Murphy. “Without the protection and support of the foot soldiers, the German armor wisely left the field. I can understand why the Kraut infantry missed me, deadpanned Murphy. But I can never forgive the German tank men for their poor marksmanship. It was real sloppy.”
Just as the Germans began to fall back, Murphy’s field telephone went dead. Exhausted and bleeding profusely, Murphy climbed off the burning tank destroyer and limped back into the forest. I turned from the Germans and never looked back, he recalled. I was too weak from fear and exhaustion to care anymore. Shortly after reaching the woods, Murphy heard the tank destroyer blow up, blasting off the turret on which he had been standing.
Although steel and rock fragments riddled the field map that he had carried during the battle, Murphy had been incredibly lucky. His trousers were soaked with blood from an old wound, suffered the previous October, that had been reopened in the course of his frenzied ordeal. Murph was a daredevil; he took chances that others just wouldn’t take, recalled Brad Croeker, a Company B private. He was too daring for most of us. His middle name was lucky. Bill Weinberg added: I think he was just willing to stick his neck out. But it was a matter of being careful, too. He took more chances than others, but he did it in a calculated way.
When Murphy got back to his company, he helped organize a counterattack. In sworn testimony, Sgt. Brawley stated: Lieutenant Murphy, refusing to be evacuated, led us in a strong attack against the enemy, dislodging the Germans from the whole area. Murphy continued advancing until the men of Company B had reoccupied their original positions.
Frozen and exhausted, the GIs spent the rest of the afternoon holding their ground.
“That night we lay among our dead comrades who fell that afternoon, Murphy said.
Croeker recalled: “We were right beside the Colmar Canal. After that bloody day was over, we went down to the canal to get a drink….The bodies were so thick, you had to push them aside to get a drink of water.”
Strengthened by replacements, the 3rd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, captured Holtzwihr on Jan. 27. The Germans, disheartened by their lack of progress against the Americans, pulled most of their men and materiel out of the area. Except for small pockets of enemy resistance, the areas east of the Ill River and north of the Colmar Canal were clear of enemy forces by Jan. 28.
On June 2, 1945, Lt. Gen. Alexander Patch, commanding general of the Seventh Army, presented Lieutenant Murphy with the Medal of Honor. The official citation reads in part: “For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position….His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he 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.”
Charles Owen recalled years later: “He saved our lives. If he hadn’t done what he did, the Germans would have annihilated us. We were already beat down pretty bad and about out of ammunition.”
For Murphy, the Medal of Honor was the crowning achievement of an illustrious combat career. By the end of the war, he had received every medal for valor that his country had to offer, including two Bronze Stars, the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, three Purple Hearts and the Legion of Merit–making him the most decorated American soldier during World War II.
After the war, Murphy returned to Texas, but the reluctant hero was invited to Hollywood in September 1945 by actor James Cagney, who had seen his photo on the cover of Life magazine. Murphy made more than 40 films, including To Hell and Back, The Red Badge of Courage and many Westerns. On May 28, 1971, a private plane crashed outside Roanoke, Va., killing the five people aboard, including passenger Murphy, 46.
This article was written by Daniel R. Champagne and originally appeared in the May 2002 issue of World War II.