The Medal of Honor is the military’s highest and most prestigious decoration and is awarded to a member of the United States Armed Forces who “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
During World War II, no U.S. unit would produce more Medal of Honor recipients than the Army’s Third Infantry Division, and my guest profiles four of those recipients — Maurice Britt, Michael Daly, Keith Ware, and the famous Audie Murphy — in his new book Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II. Today on the show, Alex explains how the prodigiousness of the Third Infantry Division was due to effective leadership, and the sheer fact that they were in combat so long, serving from the very beginning of the war in Europe to its very end. We then get into the stories of Britt, Daly, Ware, and Murphy, unpacking their varied backgrounds, how they earned their Medals of Honor — and many more decorations besides — and what their lives were like after the war. We end our conversation with what Alex has personally taken away from the stories of these brave men.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Third Infantry Division
- Maurice Britt’s Medal of Honor Citation
- Michael Daly’s Medal of Honor Citation
- Keith Ware’s Medal of Honor Citation
- Audie Murphy’s Medal of Honor Citation
- AoM Article: Lessons in Manliness from Byron “Whizzer” White
- General Alexander Patch
- Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back — the book and film
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Hey guys, before we get to the show, quick announcement. We will be having enrollment for the Strenuous Life this week. Head over to strenuouslife.co to learn more. The quick pitch is this, Strenuous Life is an online membership platform that we created to help you put all the things we’ve written about on AOM, talked about on the podcast, into action through badges. We’ve got daily check-ins for physical activity, good deeds. We give you weekly challenges. Check it out. Hope to see you there, strenuouslife.co.
Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. The Medal of Honor is the military’s highest and most prestigious decoration, and is awarded to a member of the United States Armed Forces who “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” During World War II, no US unit would produce more Medal of Honor recipients than the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. And my guest, Alex Kershaw, profiles four of these recipients, Maurice Britt, Michael Daly, Keith Ware, and the famous Audie Murphy, in his new book Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II. Today on the show, Alex explains how the prodigiousness of the 3rd Infantry Division was due to effective leadership and the sheer fact that they were in combat so long, serving from the very beginning of the war in Europe to its very end. We then get into the stories of Britt, Daly, Ware, and Murphy, unpacking their varied backgrounds, how they earned their Medals of Honor, and many more decorations besides, and what their lives were like after the war. We end our conversation with what Alex has personally taken away from the stories of these brave men. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/againstallodds.
Alright. Alex Kershaw, welcome back to the show.
Alex Kershaw: Great to be with you.
Brett McKay: So you got a new book out about World War II, Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II. And in this book, you take a deep dive into the war experience of four Medal of Honor recipients. We got Maurice Britt, Michael Daly, Keith Ware, and then the famous Audie Murphy. What led you to these men’s stories?
Alex Kershaw: I became fascinated by Medal of Honor recipients in World War II, and I actually went and met the… At the time, this was like three years ago, he was the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor from World War II. A guy called Bob Maxwell, who lived out in Oregon. And actually, at the time when I saw him, there were five living recipients from World War II, and there’s now just one. And I interviewed all but one of those five ’cause their stories are amazing, and I just thought, “Hey, while these guys are still alive, I’m gonna try and interview each one I can.” But Bob Maxwell was amazing. And he belonged to the 3rd ID, 3rd Infantry Division, and he told me not only about how he had received the medal but also about his amazing division. And I learned a very important fact, which was that the 3rd Infantry Division received more Medals of Honor than any other US division in World War II. And I thought to myself, “What’s going on here?”
And by more, I mean far more. So the 3rd ID was one of 90 divisions in Europe at the end of the war, 90-odd divisions. And if you compare the 3rd ID, they had… Today, they officially have 40 Medal of Honor recipients from World War II. And the 101st Airborne have two. So the glamour boys, Band of Brothers guys, the guys that won the war single-handedly, they had two. But the 3rd ID that most people have never heard of had 20 times more. So I was like, “What the heck’s going on here?” And it was just a very interesting question, and I discovered that they had… The reason why they had so many medals is because they’d fought longest and lost more men. They started at the very beginning of the European campaign and were there right at the end, so they had a hell of a lot more opportunities than some US divisions to earn medals.
Brett McKay: Well, so let’s talk about their history because, throughout the book, you often refer to them as “the Marne men.” Why did the 3rd Infantry Division guys, why did they refer to themselves as “Marne men”?
Alex Kershaw: That’s from World War I, when that division was credited with stopping a very brutal German advance, actually stopping the Germans from reaching Paris. And the 3rd Infantry Division made a very valiant stand along the banks of the Marne River, and they’re forevermore has been known as the Marne division. The Marne men are the 3rd ID soldiers to this very day.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about… So you mentioned that the reason why there were so many Medal of Honor winners from the 3rd Division was that they were there from the start. So let’s talk about… Kind of give us a big picture overview. What was their first mission, and then how did it progress? How long were they out in the battlefield, when it was all said and done, during World War II?
Alex Kershaw: Well, it was an epic journey. It’s, I think, officially 335 days of actual combat. And it lasted from November 1942 with Operation Torch, when the 3rd ID came in North Africa, not far from Casablanca. And then they fought through Sicily. That was the second amphibious invasion. And then they invaded Italy, southern Italy. That was their third amphibious invasion. They fought all the way up the bloody spine of Italy in the fall of 1943. Were in their fourth amphibious invasion at Anzio, which was January 1944. In May of 1944, when the 3rd ID tried to break out of the iron ring, the German iron ring that surrounded them at Anzio, they lost, on one single day in May of 1944, they lost… I think it’s 932 men. You’ll have to fact-check me. But that’s the largest single loss of men from any one American division in World War II on one day, so that’s a huge amount of men to lose in just one day of action. Anyway, that was their fourth… Anzio was their fourth amphibious operation. And then their fifth and final invasion was the South of France in August of 1944.
And the 3rd ID were therefore involved in more amphibious invasions than any other American Division in the European theater. And then they fought all the way up through France to the German border, very fierce fighting in what was called the Colmar Pocket. And then they fought all the way across the Rhine and then ended up in Nuremberg in April, 1945 and had the great honor of being the US soldiers that liberated Berchtesgaden, which was Adolf Hitler’s Alpine lair. So if you watch Band of Brothers, you know, the last couple of episodes, you see these screamy Eagles drinking at Berchtesgaden. Well, in fact, the first guys there were the 3rd ID guys and they wanted to be there for a very good reason, the very important reason, which was that they’d been there at the very beginning. And they wanted to be there at the very end. At the symbolic end at Hitler’s mountain retreat. And they were.
Brett McKay: No, it’s what I love about this book. ‘Cause I oftentimes, when we watch movies or read books about infantry during World War II, it’s typically like it’s D-Day stuff, which is, you’ve written about that an amazing thing. Sometimes it gets the Italian and the African campaigns get overlooked, but like, that was… That’s how the whole thing started with the Americans come, you know, working with the British and working their way through, North Africa, Italy into France.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah, no. I mean, people think that the European campaign began on June the 6th, 1944 D-Day. European theater included North Africa. So troops sent over in to invade North Africa in November, 1942. They were strictly speaking there in, within the European theater. That was a European theater operation. So November, 1942, you go think about all the long bloody months you go from 1942… November, 1942, all the way to June, 1944. That’s a hell of a long time. And Americans were in very fierce combat long before June the 6th, 1944. I mean, the third idea alone had been involved in four amphibious invasions. The first time that Americans started to kill and die to liberate Europe was actually the 10th of July, 1943 in Sicily. And that’s almost a year before you had the D-Day invasion. So people often forget that there was a hell of a lot of fighting, very important fighting that went on in the European theater long before D-Day. The one and only apparently D-Day of June the 6th, 1944.
Brett McKay: No, there were lots of D-Day throughout…
Alex Kershaw: Yeah.
Brett McKay: World War II.
Alex Kershaw: And there’s a lot of D-Day in the Pacific. I mean, I… It’s really funny because when I wrote my book, the Bedford Boys back in… Wow, I’m making myself sound really old, ’cause I am. Back in 2003, I was… I went to a veteran’s home and this Giza, this guy at the back stood up at the back of the room and he was a Pacific veteran and he said, “What are you going on about all these guys on D-Day? I was in so many D-Days in the Pacific. I can’t remember.” So yeah, that… But the Pacific was all about D-Days, island hopping, et cetera. And you have to remember that the word D-Day… D stands for a day of operation, an important day of operation. So there were, you know… It was just a code term for a day of invasion. And there were many, many in World War II.
Brett McKay: One thing that impressed me about the 3rd Division was how hard they were driven. Like they were booking it. Like they make it to…
Alex Kershaw: Oh yeah.
Brett McKay: Italy, but like they were covering 30, 40 miles a day fully rocked.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah. They had a really fantastic division commander, a guy called Lucian Truscott and, he was a hard, hard living, hard drinking, chain smoking guy who when he arrived in Europe had a copy of War and Peace in his kit bag. Really tough, tough guy, loved his man, loved his division kind of pattern esque figure. You know, he wore a leather flying jacket, which you didn’t see many US division commanders wearing. And he developed a training system before the invasion of Sicily in July, 1943. He wanted his guys to be almost like cavalry. So they wanted them to be able to move really fast on foot, to pivot and swerve and to be very highly mobile, but that required them to be incredibly fit. And he developed a training program whereby they had to perform what was called the Truscott Trot. And that was basically, you know, you’re not walking at speed. You’re almost jogging. And they were doing at least three miles an hour. And in over several days in Sicily, the third ID performed the Truscott Trot and covered record distances in record time in World War II. I mean, they covered like a hundred miles in two or three days on what was basically a forced march, but they weren’t marching. They were basically trotting. So they were famous for that. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Did Patton play a role at the 3rd Division?
Alex Kershaw: Patton was a 3rd army commander. So he wasn’t the army commander for the 3rd ID. That was a guy called Alexander Patch. Patton didn’t have any control throughout the war over the 3rd ID, ’cause he was a different army commander. But the it’s interesting that you mentioned Patton because, the guy that often gets overlooked in World War II, who was a very capable army commander is as I mentioned, Alexander Patch, who was the 7th army commander and commanded the 3rd Division and the 4th, 5th Infantry Division and the 36th Infantry Division and others throughout the campaign to liberate France and then Germany. And sadly I wrote about Patch quite a bit in my books. I think he was a superb commander, very understated, not a publicity hound in the way that Patton was at all. And tragically, he lost… He had only one child, a son and he lost his son in October of 1944. So you had a guy that’s in, you know, Patch’s a guy that’s in command of at least 250,000 men. And he’s doing that barely sleeping under a crushing stress day after day, trying to get this War won. And he discovers that his own son has been killed. And, I quote some of the letters that he sent to his wife, which are really heartbreaking to lose your only son is a big deal.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So let’s talk about… So these guys were from the beginning, 1942, they were fighting all the way through 1944. So let’s talk about some of these menu highlight. The first one is this guy named Maurice Footsie Britt. What was Britt like before the war? And then how did he end up in the 3rd Infantry Division?
Alex Kershaw: He grew up in rural Arkansas, and his dad died when he was, I think, 14 years old, he had to work very, very hard to put himself through high school. He was a brilliant athlete at high school, particularly baseball and football, and then got a scholarship to the University of Arkansas where he played for the Razorbacks and was such a good player that he was recruited by the Detroit Lions. So yeah, I think he had one full season with the Lions before he was called up and called into the 3rd Infantry Division.
Brett McKay: And I was gonna say he played with Byron White, that’s kind of the other… The Supreme Court Justice.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah. Yeah, that’s the future Supreme Court Justice and I think The New England guy, Belichick, his father played with him at the Detroit Lions, you’d have to check that, but… Yeah, but a future Supreme Court Justice was on the same team as Maurice “Footsie” Britt. He was nicknamed Footsie Britt because he had such large feet. But yeah, he was a handsome guy, tough, very athletic, very fit, obviously, and he first saw combat in Italy as a company Commander. He started his ordeal in Italy in September of 1943, and received the Medal of Honor for actions in November of 1943 at Monterotondo, where he was described as performing like one-man army threw countless grenades and fended off a German attack and was just extraordinary. It’s just super-human courage and resilience in a way.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So he not only earned the Medal of Honor, we’ll talk about kind of his actions there, but he was one of the most decorated soldiers next to Audie Murphy, like, Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross, a couple of Purple Hearts, Bronze Star.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah. He actually had the distinction of being the first US soldier to receive every medal for valor that you could get in World War II, so that’s, as you mentioned, Bronze Star, Silver Star, DSC, Medal of Honor, and he completed the set, if you like, when he received the DSC in December of 1944 on the steps of the New York Public Library, it was a big, big media event. So he was the first American to win every medal for valor that you could win in World War II. He was subsequently beaten in the medal count by Audie Murphy, ’cause Murphy also managed to receive all four medals and had the Legion of Honor and other… I think he had three Silver Star… I have to check. But anyway, if you add up the medals at the end of the war, and you give them various points, Audie Murphy became the most decorated, according to my research and my sources, he been the most decorated soldier of World War II. But Maurice Britt was just behind him, he pipped him to the post.
And what was interesting was that the 3rd ID newspaper, which was called Frontline, in the spring of 1945, they discovered that Britt had won all these medals, they knew that, but they discovered that Audie Murphy was not far behind in the medal count, and then there was even a headline, which blared that, “Murphy equals Britt.” And then later on, there’s another story that I came across where they treated the medal count almost like a game, like a sports competition, that these two guys were competing in some way, they weren’t, but it made for a nice story.
Brett McKay: So Britt got his Medal of Honor citation at Monterotondo, what happened there?
Alex Kershaw: Monterotondo is right in the center of Italy, in the Apennines, north of Naples, and that was part of a very bitter mountain campaign that the 3rd ID waged, they were on the line for, I think almost three months of almost continuous combat. And it was at Monterotondo, that Britt as a company Commander in the 30th infantry division, fended off with his company a very important German attack that had they not fended off, a lot more Americans would have been captured, killed or wounded, and they would have perhaps lost their positions on Monterotondo which was an important strategic objective.
Brett McKay: Now as I’m looking at his Medal of Honor citation here and it’s saying ’cause he suffered all these wounds, but despite his wounds, he refused to accept medical attention, and then he personally killed five and wounded an unknown number of Germans, wiped out one enemy machine-gun crew, fired five clips of carbine, and an undetermined amount M1 rifle ammunition, and threw 32 fragmentation grenades. And then in the process… And this is where… He didn’t lose his arm here at this point, correct?
Alex Kershaw: No.
Brett McKay: No. Okay. So basically, he’s like a one-man army here, after this, he goes on to keep… He just keeps going on, where did he lose his arm?
Alex Kershaw: At Anzio, he was at… It was late January of 1944, he came ashore on the first day of the invasion. Anzio is about an hour from Rome on the coast, it was the nearest place that we could land a lot of troops, where we could try and push towards Rome, and in the height of the fighting during the Battle of Anzio, a shell, actually a tank shell came through a window where he was standing and exploded inside a room, and killed several guys and wounded a fair few, and Britt had his arm blown off, had a lot of shrapnel wounds too, but his arm was blown off. And had it not being for a Seargeant who was nearby that took up his belt and applied a tourniquet, Britt probably would have died. So he had… He lost his arm and he never got to play professional football again, obviously, and came back to America and received the Medal of Honor at a special ceremony at the University of Arkansas on the 5th of June 1944. So he became a really iconic figure, certainly in Arkansas, went on lots of war bond drives and whipped up public support for the war effort, et cetera. But paid a high price. He wouldn’t.
He wouldn’t ever say so because he came home and he was alive and he had a very full and happy life in so many ways. But he did… In terms of his wounds, he never… There wasn’t a day of his life that he wasn’t in pain, and when he finally died, it was because of a… He went in for an operation and it was a complication during the operation caused by a World War II wound that actually killed him in the end. So finally, even those wounds he suffered at Anzio did him in, but had a very interesting and very, I’d say very happy life.
Brett McKay: No, I’d say, I mean, out of all the men you highlighted, he seemed to have… He seemed to be pretty well adjusted afterwards. He went unto run a business, he was a politician and yeah, he seemed to have… In this surgery that he did, this happened in 1995 so this was a long… Because this was a wound from World War II. That thing finally caught up with him in 1995, like a long time.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah. Yeah. And he was Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas, much beloved figure, went to as many football games as he could at the University of Arkansas where he’s still revered. And had a successful business career, came back and worked very hard and brought up a really great family. I spoke to his grandson several times and he said, “I never remember about my grandfather being anything but positive and optimistic and happy.” So I think the remarkable thing about the guys that I’ve written about is that even though they suffered a lot of PTSD and went through real trauma and ordeals during the war, unimaginable ordeals, they came back and they somehow were able to put the war to one side, never behind them, and they were… They led productive lives. I mean, of the four I write about, Audie Murphy’s probably the best known. And even though he of all the guys I write about, had the most severe PTSD, he still was a very productive guy. He made over 30 westerns. He was a Hollywood movie star. He wrote country and Western songs, a bestselling autobiography, and had a… Tragically died pretty young at 46, but led a very interesting and very productive life, even though he was deeply tormented by what he’d experienced in World War II.
Brett McKay: One thing you described with Maurice Britt, he described that after he goes back, gets the medal of honor, he gets the distinguished service cross for his actions at Anzio where he loses his arm. Then he described, like you said, he gets put on the War Bonds circuit. And he described being in the heroes cage. And that is something you often don’t think about these guys who display all these heroics. They think, “Oh, they come back, they’re a hero, but then it’s kind of a drag for a bit ’cause you don’t really have any control over your life.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah, no. And you have to remember that none of these men that I write about, and in fact, no recipient of the Medal of Honor is looking to win the Medal of Honor, [chuckle] or rather earn the Medal of Honor. You don’t win the Medal of Honor, it’s given to you by Congress. It’s an act, a governmental act, but, they certainly weren’t looking for glory and they didn’t want to become public superstars or superheroes rather, they were very committed to their cause, they wanted to save lives. They were utterly selfless, and most of the time they were just trying to get a job done. And they realized that unless they did it, nobody else would, or they could do it better. Certainly that was the case with Audie Murphy. So when they came home and they were suddenly paraded everywhere and treated as if they were superhuman, they didn’t feel like superheroes. And a lot of them… You come across cases where Medal of Honor recipients say that, “Receiving the medal makes me… ” Is an incredibly proud moment in their lives.
But as that medal is hung around their neck in The White House, it also… That act reminds them of sometimes the worst time in their life, when they lost other friends, when they were in deep combat. So it’s a burden for some of them. And I don’t… I mean that’s not to say, “Hey, they don’t… ” The Medal of Honour recipients that I interviewed were very, very proud of that ultimate award. But as Bob Maxwell, the oldest living recipient when I interviewed him, told me that it weighed heavy, that medal does weigh heavy. You can’t get drunk in public. You can’t get divorced, you can’t… You gotta lead this virtuous perfect life, and but no one is a 100% virtuous or perfect. But Medal of Honor recipients are held to a higher standard, even though they’re basically just like the rest of us, they are human, except that they have performed extraordinary feats on the battle field.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break before a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So another member of the 3rd Infantry Division, you highlight, who won the Medal of Honor is Michael Daly. And he’s an interesting character because he came from a family with a storied military legacy, and it seemed like he was trying to live up to that throughout his whole time in the military.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah, definitely. His father was Colonel Paul Daly and he was a decorated World War I veteran and actually was a regimental commander during World War II in Europe. So, father and son were both in combat in the summer of 1944, not in the same division, but they were definitely in the same battle. So Michael Daily was at West Point and he dropped out in 1943 aged 19. Really didn’t like West Point at all. Didn’t like the hazing, didn’t like the… What he called the intense regimentation. It’s ironic that you’d go to West Point and not like to take orders all the time, but he didn’t enjoy that one bit. And he, one day, apparently he threw his books in a corner and said,” I’m done.” and joined up as a grunt. It was his first day of combat as a private, it was on June the 6th, 1944 on Omaha Beach with The Big Red One. So he fought from June the 6th with that division all the way across Normandy, received the silver staff in the summer of… For actions in the summer of 1944, wounded in the fall of 1944 near Aachen, right on the German border there. That’s the first German city that Americans started to fight for. And then…
Was seconded to Alexander Patch’s headquarters. Patch was the seventh army commander, we talked about him and Patch was a very good friend of Colonel Paul Daly, Michael Daly’s father. So there were a lot of family connections there and Daly, one day said that I don’t wanna be your driver anymore I don’t want to set out the wall. I don’t wanna be in the headquarters behind the front lines, I want to go back into combat and was granted his wish and ended up in the third ID in the same regiment as three of the guys that I write about out of the four. So Michael Daly, Audie Murphy, and a guy called Keith Ware of the four main characters I chose. Those three were all in the 15th Infantry Regimen and Daily went on the line in late December 1944 in the Colmar Pocket, and then fought all the way through to Nurenberg where he performed acts during urban fighting in Nurenberg in April of 1945, for which he received the medal honor.
I think they were like three or, you know, you never know when you look at the official reports, when you look at recommendations, it’s like, they’re so number based it’s like he killed X amount of men, took out X amount of machine guns threw X amount of grenades. And they’re never perfectly accurate because the nature of combat is so chaotic that it’s hard to actually sort of pin down exactly how many grenades they threw. I mean, Brit joked about later on, that in the citation that said that he’d thrown 32 fragmentation grenades and Brit later on joked, “Well, how did they know that? How did they know that I threw 32? ‘Cause I wasn’t counting.” [laughter] But anyway, Michael Daly it was in Nurenberg and his deal was that at 20 years old, he was a company commander.
He was a company commander in the 15th Infantry Regimen, so that means he’s responsible for around 200 young American lives and he’s just, he is 20 years old, it’s a hell of a responsibility. And his mission was that he was to take as many of those guys home with him as possible if he was lucky and therefore he volunteered or rather just took command and performed some of the most daring acts, if something had to be done that late in the war he decided to do it himself, and that was certainly the case in Nurenberg, where he went ahead of his company and took out I think there were four machine gun in placements, near a park, right at the heart of Nurenberg and that was the 17th of April 1945 and then the next day he was shot through the face really badly.
I mean a bullet, a sniper bullet went from one side of his head to the other and he fell to the ground and then I came across an eyewitness support that described this incredible moment when Daly lying there, coughing up blood, takes out a pencil from his combat jacket pocket and stuck it down his throat and performed a kind of basic tracheotomy, cleared his windpipe. That takes a hat of a lot of self won coolness to be able to do that when you’re bleeding to death, thank God he had a pencil on him. So he was given last rites, very religious guy, Irish Catholic from Connecticut, a well off background, his father was a successful lawyer after fit world war I, so it didn’t lack money when he was growing up.
Unlike the other guys I write about who grew up in really in extreme poverty, in the depths of the depression, given last rites and miraculously someone decided they would operate on him and he survived and came back to the US badly wounded took a long time to recover from his wounds, was a pretty heavy drinker for a while, got into some scraps, pretty directionless looking for a way of finding a sense of real meaning in his life. And finally married and started his own, started a business but he said it wasn’t until he started to volunteer with a local hospital and work with veterans that he found any kind of real deep meaning and purpose to his life and famously, or rather importantly, would tell as many people as he could, that the secret to fulfillment in life is not a big IRA account and three cars and as many foreign holidays and as much money as you can make, it’s about finding a cause greater than yourself.
Service to other people is what actually gives more people a hell of a lot of satisfaction and is very important to having a fulfilling life. And he believed that absolutely, he said that in world war II was the greatest honor of his life to lead young Americans in combat. They had a cause that was far greater than themselves. Every one of those guys that he was with were putting their lives on the line every day. And it was something that he thought was extraordinary and inspiring and he, as I said, struggled to find any kind of purpose that was, that matched liberating Europe in world war II.
Brett McKay: The next guy you highlight is Keith Ware and what’s interesting about him is unlike the other guys, you highlight that they all signed up, Ware was a draftee?
Alex Kershaw: Yeah, he’s actually it’s interesting because he was in California working for a a catalog company as, he was pushing a pen in an office when he was drafted. And I think he was 24 years old so he became when he was drafted and because he had no prior military experience, he’d not been in ROTC, he’d not been in the national guard. He had no prior military experience so it’s believed that he is the only draftee in US military history to rise to the rank of general officer. He actually at the end of his life was commander of the big red one in the first ID in Vietnam where he was killed in 1968 tragically. But yeah, an incredible guy never the sort of person you’d never think, of unremarkable looking not like Maurice Britts some sort of strapping athlete, you know wore spectacles, and yet this draftee went all the way, he went through Sicily, Italy, France, all the way to the end of the war. Actually, he was Audie Murphy’s company commander in Sicily. Murphy belonged to B Company from the 15th Infantry Regimen all the way through the war. Actually he ended up commanding B Company. But on the 10th of July 1943, Murphy as a private landed in Sicily and his company commander in B company was Keith Ware, and after a couple of days, Ware apparently said to Audie Murphy, “You know, I’m not gonna have a kid killed on my command, you know, what the hell are you doing in the US Army? What are you doing in my company.”
And Ware said that Murphy at the time was 18 years old, but he actually looked… Ware said that actually Murphy looked like he was 14, he looked a lot younger. And if you look at pictures of Audie Murphy from that period, he looks like a boy. I mean he really does look like a teenage boy, he doesn’t… A young teenage boy, you know, very… Very youthful indeed. So Ware said, “You’re out of the front lines, I’m gonna make you a runner. I’m not gonna be responsible for getting kids killed under my command.” and Audie Murphy became a runner for a while and then insisted on going back in the front lines and Ware said, “Okay, if you wanna go back, you can go back, being on you.” And he did and he stayed there from July 1943 all the way to the end of the war. He was wounded twice.
So he taken out of combat, arrived in Anzio, two weeks later than everybody else ’cause he had suffered from influenza and had to… Arrived late but though they were sort of two weeks in Anzio that he missed, and then there were, I believe, two months in the fall of 1944 that he missed because he was wounded by a sniper, very badly wounded by a sniper, but basically just two and a half months from… Out of that very, very long period of time, July 1943 to May of 1945, Audie Murphy was in the war for all but two and a half months. Incredible. And then as he said, the fact that he survived was something of a miracle, he was defying all the odds, a fugitive from the law of averages he said, that’s how he described himself as a fugitive from the law of averages. So, amazingly he lived so long, amazing that he wasn’t killed. And just an absolutely remarkable story of a, I think one of America’s finest ever warriors, I haven’t come across anybody like him from world war II. He was as lethal, as daring, as cool under fire, as instinctual as a combat warrior than Audie Murphy.
Brett McKay: Going back to Ware, what did he do to get a citation for the Medal of Honor?
Alex Kershaw: Ware was… He rose to the ranks, and in December of 1944, in the battle of the Colmar Pocket, right on the German boarder, in view actually of Lorraine. So you go south from the battle of Boulogne then you go south about 200 miles and you get to Colmar which is on the actual Lorraine and there was a… What was it called, the Colmar Pocket, which was a pocket reaching into France, into Alsace, where the Germans stood and held and fought very very valiantly and held up the… Held up the Americans for basically two months, and in December of 1944, Keith Ware was at a place called Sigolsheim in a vineyard.
And basically his men were pinned down by the Germans, suffering high casualties and he basically grabbed a browning automatic rifle and commandeered. Basically called a tank to the front and went ahead of the tank and fired at various machine gun installations and retraced the fire, directing the tanks fire and cleared out the German opposition on a hill near Sigolsheim in the Colmar Pocket, and for that he received the Medal of Honor. So he was a lieutenant colonel, a Battalion commander you don’t see that happen very often in a war, you shouldn’t… Strictly speaking, you’re not supposed to be that close to the front, you should be behind the lines to some extent, giving orders, but he knew that unless he took control, unless he showed his men how to do the job, it wouldn’t get done, and… So he just did it, he just threw out an hour and a half, standing back straight, walked up a hill in the middle of the vineyard and pounded the hell out of German Machine gun places. Quite extraordinary.
Brett McKay: And yeah, as you’ve said, he continued in the military, and he rose all the way to the ranks… Rank of General, and he actually… His life ended in Vietnam?
Alex Kershaw: Actually, strictly speaking it ended in 1968 in Cambodia, but publicly we were not supposed to be talking about being in Cambodia, but by 1968 we were in Cambodia, or rather, I said “The Americans were in Cambodia.” And hell of a lot because that’s where you went and sought out the enemy, that’s where the Viet Cong were. So he was in a helicopter, which was shot down by the enemy, and he was killed in 1968, I think he was the highest ranking army officer to die in 1968. Maybe in the Vietnam war but the Division Commander killed in combat was a tragedy, and this guy had given his entire life to the US military, receiving the medal of honor in world war I and it was very sad that he should die, I think he was aged 53 in Vietnam, in 1968. He is actually buried at Arlington National Cemetery. And I have been to his grave and… It’s not very far, I mean, it’s a five-minute walk from his grave to Audie Murphy’s and they actually… They stayed in touch after the war, as I said, they had this connection from right at the beginning, day one, when Americans started to liberate Europe in Sicily, Ware was Audie Murphy’s company commander and then he was… As Ware rose to the ranks, he was still… Had authority and control over whatever position Murphy was in.
Brett McKay: They fought in the same unit, the 15th Infantry Regiment all the way through the war and stayed in touch. Murphy in 1955, made a really big movie called To Hell and Back, which was based on his autobiography, which was a big best seller, and Murphy starred in his own movie and he contacted Ware and said, “Would you be the technical advisor on the movie?” And Ware was at West Point at the time, teaching and Ware said “I’m sorry, but I’d love to, but I’m too busy.” But when Ware was killed, Murphy took it really badly, he had a great deal of respect for Ware they’ve been for the war together, they were bonded by that. In fact, in the fall of 1944, Murphy had saved Ware’s life. Ware was at the front trying to see what the hell was pinning down part of his battalion, and he came across Murphy and went ahead on a scouting patrol, and Murphy was worried that these guys were gonna walk into hell, and they did. And through Murphy’s quick actions, he managed to save Ware’s life. So I think that Ware without a doubt, felt a great kinship with Murphy and also to some extent, felt like he owed in his life, ’cause he literally was came within a hair’s breadth of being killed by the Germans and had it not been for Murphy, he well may have been killed.
So, we’ve been talking about Audie Murphy throughout this, and I’m sure, and people listening to this podcast have probably heard of Audie Murphy. He’s got an interesting… His whole career was just crazy, so started off, when he was born, he was born in Texas, broken family, he was picking cotton when the war started, he wanted to sign up, but he’s under age, underweight, I think his sister finally lied and signed an affidavit saying, “Yeah, he’s old enough to join up,” He joins up and… What do you think what it was about Murphy, he was like this baby-faced looking guy, but he was just this fierce, courageous warrior like what? Was it just something he was… Like his temperament he was born with?
Alex Kershaw: That’s a great question. What makes a great warrior? Murphy had a very, very… He went through a war before he even got into a war, so he had a very, very tough, brutalizing childhood and hunted to put food on the table, so he was a superb shot, actually, uncannily, great shot. I came across a couple of… When I went to support in particular, that sort of describe Murphy and training, and he was literally running along with a carbine and hold several targets perfectly from, like I think 100 yard, so he’s running and firing at targets 100 yards away and holding them perfectly. So he could move at great speed, I think he was only like 5’7, 5’8, so he could get down close to the ground and move at great speed, which was very useful. He made himself a small target, highly mobile, very, very fast, very good reactions. A predator, I mean a superb Hunter and a human predator, I would not have liked to been a German anywhere near where Audie Murphy was in World War II.
Some people they come up with these figures. I don’t know where the hell they get them from, that he killed over 120 Germans, could have been a lot more, who knows, but he certainly was very, very effective, very calm, made split second decisions, could scan the landscape, knew how to stay low, how to read a situation, knew how to hunt the enemy, knew how to find them, knew how to conserve his energy, knew how to kill up close very quickly. And was a superb shot for absolutely fantastic shot. When he was wounded by a sniper, he was shot in the back side, so eventually I think they took like three or four pounds of flesh out of his buttock because the wound became gangrenous. But when he went down, the sniper that hit him was under a cape and he… Murphy was like trying to find cover, he was in agony and he was bleeding, but he also was aware enough to try and make himself a smaller target as possibly try to find some kind of cover. The sniper then lifted the cape again to finish him off.
The German snipper and Murphy saw this… Basically it got twitch in the distance, so this cap rise for like a second, and at that very second, bang! He put a bullet right through the Germans forehead. So imagine lying there in agony with half your backside shut off and you’ve got the sound fire to, with a rifle to wait for that split second of movement and then put a bullet through someone’s head from 50 yards.
Brett McKay: And how he earned his medal of honor citation. It’s just this… It’s like made for the movie, it was basically commandeered a broken down tank, and started using the 50-caliber machine gun to just take people out.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah, that was again, in the Colmar pocket the Holtzwihr, their is this called Holtzwihr where I’ve been and the Germans attacked, and Murphy knew that his company B would be probably wiped out if he didn’t take action, and he jumped on to a burning tank, moved the dead body of an American out of the way and fired the 50 cal for… Some people say it was about an hour in the citation that he was on the tank for about an hour and repelled several German attacks while the tank was flaming, while the flames leaking around his feet, and he was wounded and hobbled back to his unit, reorganized his unit, company B, and then counterattacked, even though he was wounded. So it’s just a… Again, almost like a one-man army, but extraordinary reactions. And what’s interesting is that Ware, his company command, and as I mentioned, his commanding officer through most of the war, he was the one that actually made a recommendation, wrote up Murphy and had him recommended for the medal of honour and in… It’s quite interesting to see that… When you read the recommendation that Ware believed that Murphy had saved the day that if it hadn’t been to Murphy a hell of a lot of Americans would’ve been killed that day, it was a 26th of March, 1945 in the Palmer pocket.
Brett McKay: And as you said earlier, Murphy ended up being the most decorated soldier of World War II. Correct?
Alex Kershaw: Well, we have to be careful here because many people say that he not only was the most decorated soldier from US soldier, from World War II, but the most decorated of all time. But I don’t think we can make that argument because, number one, in the first World War, for example, you couldn’t receive as many medals, the Bronze Star didn’t exist for example. But as an infantryman, you can say, I think that without being discredited, I think that you could say that he was the most decorated US infantryman to serve in the US army in World War II. Yep.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Well, and then afterwards, like Murphy out of all the… He seemed to have the biggest problems with PTSD, but he also seemed to be like that… He used his own PTSD to try to reach out to other veterans and help them out as well.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah. He struggled a lot. I mean he became a chronic gambler in the 19… Late 1940s, ’50s. He was a hell of a gambler. And that was a kind… I think, in a way, the only thing that gave him the sort of buzz that he had from… That he’d… That he’d experienced in World War II. He was looking for that sense of sort of excitement. He never… He said he could never feel like that sense of adrenaline rush or that intensity of life again, after World War II. Yeah and had suffered with PTSD, his first marriage sort of fell apart because, he was very troubled, very woke and had terrible nightmares, slept with a pistol under his pillow, would wake up in the middle of the night feeling like as if he was back in Combat and fired a pistol at various objects in his house. [chuckle]
So, yeah, troubled but people have to remember that this guy had been through extraordinary trauma and seen so many people killed and been wounded badly himself under shell of fire for day after day after day enough to shred most people’s nerves to pieces. And yet he came back and became a movie star. And whenever he was called out on Memorial Day or to, at ceremonies, et cetera, to support the US military to do what he could, he did. And he did it with great pride and professionalism. So yeah, deeply troubled but at the same time managed to be highly functional.
Brett McKay: Well, how did he… How did he become a movie star? How did that happen? Did he just kind of fall into that?
Alex Kershaw: His face was on the front of Life Magazine in July of 1945. He was… Became the Poster Boy, if you like for American heroism in World War II, the ultimate GI and Jimmy Cagney in Hollywood picked up life magazine, looked at this boy on the front cover with a medal of honor dangling around his neck and thought, “Wow, this guy’s a… This guy’s a star. He’s a very handsome… ” You couldn’t make this up. And he contacted Murphy in Texas when Murphy went back and he said,”Come out and stay with me in Hollywood. And I’ll help you get a career in Hollywood.” So I think it was the fall of 1945 Murphy went and stayed with Jimmy Cagney, stayed in his… At his home in Hollywood. And Cagney got him, started in a gym, had tried to sort of help him rehabilitate him in some ways. Cagney said he looked terrible when he came back from the war, he was very, very thin. And he looked like he’d really been through hell and back. And then got him… I think Cagney helped him paid for some acting classes.
And then finally, I think in 1947 Murphy picked up his first role. I think it was in a movie ironically about West Point. And from there on, the rest is history, starred in Red Badge of Courage and that great John Houston movie. And then his most successful movie was, “To Hell and Back”, which came out in 1955, which is the actual book that Murphy wrote himself about his time in war. And then he ended up dying at what, 46 in a plane crash. Not far from Roanoke in Virginia. And it was quite ironic in a way that the colors of the plane were blue and white. And that’s the insignia for the third ID is blue and white, blue and white, patched with blue and white stripes. So people pointed that out that it was kind of ironic that he died in a plane, which was the same colors as the unit he’d fought with throughout World War II.
Brett McKay: As you took a deep dive into the lives of these men, like, did you take way any life lessons from them?
Alex Kershaw: Yeah, definitely. I mean, there it’s incredibly humbling or inspiring and it makes you feel extremely small to spend quite a bit of time writing about such incredibly strong, determined, inspirational people. They were very selfless. They gave an enormous amount. They were extremely fortunate and blessed, I believe to be able to survive World War II. And they were… They loved other people. They had great love for other human beings and especially the men that… Especially the men that… The men they commanded and were utterly, utterly selfless. Their courage was really about doing whatever they could to keep others alive and to save lives. Yeah. Look, life lessons that you know are so humbling because they achieved so much and they had such essentially good lives. They… What they did in World War II was unbelievable. But then to come back and raise families and give back yet again and serve others through their communities, through whatever they could do to help others in their communities, which included Audie Murphy, that was amazing. They lived fantastic lives. They were great, great men and great Americans. They were just really, really inspirational figures.
Brett McKay: You’ve written numerous books about World War II. I mean, what keeps you interested in and drawn back to that period?
Alex Kershaw: I think it’s, the stories are amazing. You can’t… I don’t think you can find better war stories than those from World War II. The stakes were so high. Most wars are very morally complicated. World War II was a very important victory for Americans and very important for us [0:50:14.7] ____ the guys that I write about predominantly put everything on the line to liberate Europe, to restore democracy and civilization to a place where complete evil had taken over. They stopped genocide, they stopped the Holocaust, they gave so many millions of people hope, they gave them freedom, democracy, and wonderful lives. I’m 56 years old, and I’ve grown up in a… I was 28 when I left England, but I consider myself a European and I’ll always be massively indebted to those young Americans, Brits, Canadians, New Zealanders, but I live in America, so I’m particularly grateful to the Americans that I’ve written about for making, giving so much to restore everything that matters to a beautiful part of the world that…
I’m gonna be there, back there in a couple of weeks, and they brought light to a place of immense darkness and evil, and we can never ever thank them enough. It was an unbelievable achievement, the greatest, I think in American history. The greatest chapter of American history, the greatest American heroes come from World War II because… And it’s the results of what they achieve, the immensity of that gift is with us today. We can vote, we live in a free country, and most Europeans were liberated by what these guys I write about.
Brett McKay: Well, Alex this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Alex Kershaw: Yeah, you can go to alexkershaw.com, and you can find the book online at Amazon and go to your local independent bookstore if you’ve got one, because lets not forget the more books you buy in a local independent bookstore, the more independent bookstores there will be around in the future, so yeah, you can find it anywhere at good book stores, etcetera. And I hope people really enjoy it. I found it in a really amazing moving experience to write about these guys, and I hope people will be inspired.
Brett McKay: Well, Alex Kershaw, thanks for this time. It’s been a pleasure.
Alex Kershaw: Thank you so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Alex Kershaw, he’s the author of the book Against All Odds, it’s available on Amazon.com in book stores everywhere, you can find more information about his work at his website, alexkershaw.com, also check out our show notes at AOM.is/againstallodds, you will find links to resources, where we delve deeper into this topic.
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