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Audie Murphy Connections

1/26/2006:

Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier in World War II, and his highest award, the Medal of Honor, was directly linked to a North Dakotan. 1st Lt. Walt Weispfenning grew up in Fredonia, in Logan County, and enlisted in the Army in 1941. He rose through the ranks to become a commissioned officer, a singular achievement, even in wartime.

Weispfenning and Murphy both belonged to Company B, 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. On this day in 1945, the Company had been reduced from 235 to just 18 men. They were holding a position in a French forest, and when the Company Commander was wounded, Lt. Murphy was ordered to take his place.

They were hopelessly outnumbered, both in manpower and weaponry, and the ground was too frozen to dig foxholes. That afternoon, the Germans attacked with some 200 men and six tanks that quickly took out Company B’s machine gun squad and their only remaining tank destroyer. “At that moment,” Murphy wrote, “I know that we are lost.”

Lt. Weispfenning was in a forward position when his radio failed, so Lt. Murphy got on the field telephone to call for artillery support. When asked how close the Germans were, he yelled, “Just hold the phone, and I’ll let you talk to one of the bastards.”

Weispfenning’s eyewitness account became central to Murphy receiving his Medal of Honor. “I saw hundreds of Germans swarming from the woods,” he wrote. “They all had automatic weapons. [Murphy] was all alone out there, except for a tree and a tank destroyer that was about ten yards to his right. The artillery fire he directed had a deadly effect. I saw Germans [disappear] in clouds of dirt and snow. A direct hit from a German 88 smashed into the tank destroyer, and I saw the men bail out and withdraw to the woods with the rest of the company. Smoke and flames spurted from the tank destroyer, and the German tanks advanced, firing their machine guns and cannons at Lieutenant Murphy. The Kraut infantry line came on. The tanks gave the tank destroyer a wide berth because its gasoline and ammunition might have exploded at an moment.”

Weispfenning continued, saying Murphy did “the bravest thing I’ve ever seen a man do in combat. With the Germans 100 yards away, he climbed onto the tank destroyer turret and began firing its .50 caliber machine gun at the advancing Krauts. He was completely exposed to the enemy fire, and there was a blaze under him that threatened to blow the destroyer to bits. Machine gun, machine pistol, and 88-shell fire was all around him.

“Twice the tank destroyer was hit by direct shell fire and Lieutenant Murphy was engulfed in clouds of smoke and spurts of flame. His clothing was riddled by flying fragments of shells and bits of rocks. I saw that his trouser leg was soaked with blood. He swung the machine gun to where 12 Germans were sneaking up a ditch in an attempt to flank his position, and he killed all of them at 50 yards.”

Weispfenning later said the episode lasted nearly an hour. “When a man is expecting to get his ass shot off in the next minute, he doesn’t pause to consider how the incident will look historically,” he said. “Audie deserved the Medal of Honor long before he got it, and I was only too glad to help out when the opportunity finally came.”

Audie Murphy was later the featured guest on a popular television program, “This is your Life.” The show’s producers wanted Weispfenning as a surprise guest and tracked him down in Cooperstown, where he was managing the Melroe Steel Fabricating Plant.

Reuben Gums, Weispfenning’s brother in law, says, “That was the first any of us knew that Walt had been responsible for Audie getting our nation’s highest military award.”

Sources:

Champagne, Daniel R. One-Man Stand at Holtzwihr. World War II Magazine. May 2002.

Graham, Don. No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphey. Viking, 1989: 88-92.

Gums, Reuben. (Personal account.) Jamestown ND, 2 Sep 2005.

Weispfenning’s obituary. Jamestown Sun. 9 Nov 1991.