Viking Kara Cruise: Audie Murphy war memorial created by grateful French village

Audie Murphy became the most decorated U.S. soldier in World War II.
Audie Murphy became the most decorated U.S. soldier in World War II.

“I never liked being called ‘the most decorated soldier.’ There were so many guys who should have gotten medals and never did – guys who were killed.”       Audie Murphy

ABOARD THE VIKING KARA – While folks at home were preparing for Christmas 1944, Audie Murphy and many other Americans were off in foreign places fighting for their country. World War II was raging and 19-year-old Murphy was about to make an unbelievably heroic stand in a far-flung field in France.

On our Viking Kara cruise, we were given the opportunity to hear the story of this young soldier at the very site where he saved so many lives. Daily shore excursions are included in Viking cruise fares and are top notch. Optional tours also are offered and cost a bit extra.

Since the Viking Kara can snuggle in so close to the shore, many of the tours are walking treks with a guide. Some include a comfortable trip in a big luxury bus with a guide to a more distant destination. A considerate Viking touch that I really like is the QuietVox headsets with earphones in each cabin for passengers to take on tours so that everyone can hear what the local guides are saying.

The Audie Murphy Memorial was erected by the people of Holtzwihr on Jan. 29, 2000.
The Audie Murphy Memorial was erected by the people of Holtzwihr on Jan. 29, 2000.

At this time of year, the Christmas markets, in particular, are a hubbub of music, shoppers and other happy noises that would drown out almost any tour guide. With the QuietVox, we could hear every word and still enjoy all the noisy merriment around us.

AUDIE MURPHY MEMORIAL

Only 17 of us signed up for the afternoon World War II tour. The rest, I imagine, were shopping in the city or taking a nap. Our morning had begun quite early and been busy with a shore excursions.

But no way was I going to miss seeing such an historic spot. My father served in World War II. Although he never ever spoke about his Army experience in war-torn Europe, Dad did make sure that we went to our local Ohio drive-in whenever an Audie Murphy movie was playing. Dad had great respect for the war hero turned actor.

As we rode far out in the French countryside, guide Malcolm Waddell told us Murphy’s   story and said that the tiny village near the Colmar region reveres the soldier to this day. “They know Audie Murphy and the Americans helped save their village,” Waddell explained.

The memorial was erected by the people of Holtzwihr on Jan. 29, 2000. Located on the exact spot where Murphy waged his one-man stand against the Nazi enemy, the memorial is set in the wood line on a country road far off the beaten path. “It’s a reminder to all that the freedom we enjoy came at a great cost to others,” Waddell said.

The memorial commemorates the heroic stand of 19-year-old Audie Murphy.4.
The memorial commemorates the heroic stand of 19-year-old Audie Murphy.4.

AUDIE MURPHY’S LIFE

Born June 20, 1925, in Hunt County, Texas, Audie Leon Murphy had a tough childhood. His father abandoned the family and his mother died when he was a teen. “Audie left school in the fifth grade to earn money picking cotton to help support his brothers and sisters,” Waddell said. “He also got very good using a hunting rifle to put food on the table.”

Murphy lied about his age to enlist in the Army. He fought in the Allied invasion of Sicily and Anzio and was part of the liberation of Rome and invasion of southern France. It was on Jan. 26, 1945, at about 2 p.m. when 2nd Lt. Murphy was commanding Company B. His troop was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. Ordering his men to withdraw to prepared positions in the woods, Murphy was directing artillery fire when he saw one of the Nazi tanks take a direct hit, setting it on fire.

As enemy tanks advanced, Murphy climbed on the burning Nazi tank and directed its guns at the oncoming enemy. For an hour, the Germans tried their best to gun down the lone soldier who killed or wounded about 50 of them. Shot in the leg himself and in danger of having the tank explode under him, Murphy continued firing until he ran out of ammunition.

Guide Malcolm Waddell created the World War II tour offered by Viking Cruises
Guide Malcolm Waddell created the World War II tour offered by Viking Cruises

Then he made his way to his company, ignored his wound and led his soldiers on a counter attack which forced the Germans to withdraw. Though he was only 21 years old when the war ended, Audie had killed 240 German soldiers, been wounded three times and earned 33 awards and medals – every military combat award for valor available from the Army as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism. He was the most decorated U.S. soldier in World War II.

After the war, Murphy appeared in more than 40 films, including his own autobiographical 1955 film “To Hell and Back.” He died in a plane crash in Virginia on May 28, 1971, at age 45 and was interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

As we headed back to our cruise, the sky seemed ablaze with a deep-red sunset, almost like a salute from Mother Nature to a man who had risked his life for this beautiful place. I’m sure my father would have been pleased that I was able to pay my respects at the battleground where the man he admired served so valiantly.

Photos and video by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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