Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Audie Murphy and the American Cotton Museum Greenville, Texas

It was on a very hot North Texas day I decided to get out of the house and head back out to Greenville, Texas to visit the Audie Murphy/American Cotton Museum. Of course, the question will arise, why Audie’s museum is part of a museum dedicated to the production of cotton.

The museum started as the Hunt County Museum in 1987 as the Audie L. Murphy Hunt County Veteran’s Exhibit from a little downtown storefront to the current building alongside Interstate 30. Greenville has a very long and colorful history of cotton farming and production. It has a great collection of cotton production memorabilia and very detailed working models of cotton gins and the tools used to prepare the cotton for manufacture.

On the grounds is the oldest standing structure in Greenville, the Ende-Gaillard House which was built between 1857 and 1859 by Charles Frederick von Ende for his wife, Emilie Amelia Rinecker von Ende. This Greek Revival house, originally situated on Greenville’s Stonewall Street, was moved to Graham Park in 1957 to save it from destruction, and was moved to its present location in 1996 for preservation and is open for tours.

When you enter the museum, you enter the Cotton Museum. It has a well-done 1920’s era display of a typical sharecropper’s home. Pretty sparse in that many of the items were homemade and built for economy not comfort.

Greenville was known as the “Cotton Capitol of the World” in the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s. It boasted the world’s largest cotton compress which condensed huge bales of combed cotton into more manageable and compact 500 lb. bales more suitable for shipping. Folks, I tried to move this thing, kids do not try this at home!

Of course, with cotton plantations came slavery and the Civil War. The war ended slavery but began reconstruction which didn’t go well for either whites or blacks. The economy faltered when cotton declined as a major cash crop without indentured servitude, the importation of foreign cotton and the introduction of manmade fibers.

Throughout all this, Greenville’s favorite son status rested on Audie Murphy. There’s been a lot of controversy over where Audie was born and several towns vie for the honor. Two, Farmersville and Celeste, Texas, claim to be Audie’s hometown. He was most likely born in a town called Kingston, Texas in 1924 but the town declined over a rerouting of a railroad line and became, in essence, a suburb of Celeste. The family did move around and even lived briefly in an abandoned railroad car. Audie was a sometimes resident and worked in several places in Greenville, most notably at a general store, gas station, garage in the downtown area.

Although Audie was a fifth grade dropout from an extremely poor family, in the course of his service, he became the most decorated American soldier of all time. After the war, he became a celebrated movie star for over two decades, appearing in 44 films. He also found some success as a country music singer/songwriter.

Audie L. Murphy was sixth of the twelve children of Emmett Berry Murphy and his wife Josie Bell Killian. Emmett was an unsuccessful sharecropper and when his father abandoned the family in 1936, Audie, 12, dropped out of school to help support his family. He worked plowing and picking cotton on any farm that would hire him. This is the time he acquired his shooting skills. As the breadwinner, Audie and his friends often hunted to bring home food for his family. He became very adept at shooting rabbit and squirrel with his rifle. Bullets cost money and he never wasted a shot. This would come in handy in his future military career.

In 1941, at 16, his mother died and forced Audie to place his three youngest siblings, Nadine, Billie, and Joseph Murphy into an orphanage home. Joseph Murphy later became a Frisco Police Officer but eight months later, on January 29, 1968, was killed in a collision on his way to assist on a call in Celina, Texas. Thankfully, his is the only name on our Police Officer Memorial in front of Police Headquarters.

The real story is how he got into the Army. There was not a lot of opportunity for the poor and uneducated in post-depression Texas. Audie had always considered the military as an honorable career and had tried to enlist after Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, Audie was very small in stature, 5-5 and 110 pounds, so he was rejected by the Marines, Navy and Army for being too small and underweight. In June 1942, shortly after his 17th birthday, his older sister Corrine adjusted his birth date on his birth certificate so he appeared to be 18 and legally able to enlist. He was accepted into the Army and inducted in Greenville at the old Post Office on Lee Street.

His hopes of being a line soldier almost came to an end at basic training in Camp Wolters, Texas in a place called Mineral Wells just west of Weatherford, Texas. During a session of close order drill, he passed out in the hot west Texas sun. His company commander took pity on him and tried to have him transferred to a cook and bakers' school but Audie insisted on becoming a combat soldier.

For Audie, that officer’s decision to allow him to continue, set the stage for his phenomenal military career and unsurpassed 33 medals including the Congressional Medal of Honor he received in his 27 months of action with the 15th  Regiment of the 3rd  Infantry Division in the European Theater. True to form, when the Korean War began, he re-enlisted with the Texas National Guard’s 36th Infantry Division but wasn’t deployed. He ended his service in 1966.

When he came back from WWII, Audie became depressed and was diagnosed with “Battle Fatigue”. For years, he battled the condition we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In his later life, as he saw soldiers suffering coming back from Korea and Vietnam, he was one of the few early veteran’s advocates publicly discussing his own war-related mental conditions and pushed for better treatment of veterans.

While on a business trip on May 28, 1971, (Memorial Day Weekend) he was killed at the age of 46. A private plane flying in fog and rain crashed in the side of Brush Mountain near Catawba, Virginia. Five others, including the pilot, were also killed. Although Audie owned and flew his own plane earlier in his career in Hollywood, he was among the passengers that tragic day.

On June 7th, Audie Murphy was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. His  gravesite, near the Amphitheater, is the second most visited gravesite year round. President Kennedy's grave is the most visited. It got so many visitors, Arlington had to build a walkway to the site to accommodate all the visitor traffic.

1st Lt. Dean Hallamrk front left 

The Hall of Heroes exhibit which contains the Audie Murphy story is well done but like the man, simple. I actually found some of the lesser-known exhibits really informative. There is the Dean E. Hallmark display. 1st Lt. Dean Hallmark was a member of the Doolittle Raid of “30 seconds over Tokyo” fame. Originally born in Robert Lee, Texas, by 1930, his family had moved to Greenville and he became a civilian pilot flying oil workers for Humble Oil (now Exxon) in Venezuela earning him the nickname of “Jungle Jim” by his fellow Doolittle Raiders. In 1940, he was recruited by the Army Air Corps to become a military pilot ending up in B-25 Mitchell medium bombers.

At the beginning of the war, Dean was flying anti-submarine patrols from Oregon over the Pacific. When Doolittle asked for volunteers for the raid, Dean joined up. Dean was the command pilot of the sixth B-25 to launch from the deck of the Hornet, tail number 02298 and dubbed "The Green Hornet." In the movie “Pearl Harbor”, Ben Affleck’s character Capt. Rafe McCauley, assumes Dean's #6 position in order of flight during the Doolittle Raid sequence as evidenced by the chalkboard in the ready room scene. Like most of the Doolittle Raiders, after successfully making the bomb run, he barely made it to the shoreline of China.

Hoping to evade the Japanese, they were captured on the eighth day. Subsequently brought up on espionage charges and the alleged killing of innocent civilians in the raid, Dean and two others were executed by firing squad in Shanghai, their graves misnamed to cover up the atrocity. After the war, US officials discovered the graves and Dean was moved and reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery in 1947.

I also learned the origins of the term “Kilroy was here”. The famous WWII expression and grafitti was derived from a foreman’s signature validating the work of riveters in a shipyard in Massachusetts. Riveters were paid by the number of rivet holes they filled in a shift. Kilroy, wanting to show his supervisors he was doing his job and as a warning to dishonest riveters, wrote the words “Kilroy was here” to show the oncoming shifts where riveters had stopped. Of course, this notation was seen in various locations throughout a ship Kilroy worked on and a mystery became an urban legend myth during WWII.

Soldiers seeing this decided it had been written by a brave pioneer of the early conflict and was copied throughout both theaters of war. The graffiti would often be seen at the sites of early landings by the Allies with an accompanying G.I. that would swear it was there before they got there. So much so, that by the wars end in Europe, Hitler himself became convinced Kilroy was some super spy who seemed to be everywhere and demanded he be captured and killed.

If you like guns, you’re in the right place. From the Civil War to WWII, weapons were on display including my favorite, the Colt Walker M1847 .44 cal revolver. This thing was huge and must have been a handful to fire. There was even a display honoring the humble but ubiquitous P-38 can opener. I wonder if anybody can confirm the explanation on the card.
There was also a small but very concise history of Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group (AVG) “Flying Tigers”. It was interesting to learn General Chennault’s career, another Texan from nearby Commerce, Texas, somewhat paralleled Billy Mitchell in that they were both very vocal proponents of aerial bombing in a “good old boy” cavalry based infantry still grounded in the tactics of the late 1800s’. He quit to work for the progressive Chiang Kai Shek Nationalist Chinese who understood a thing or two about airpower. They were wise enough to cut him a blank check to put together a small but effective force to make the Japanese think twice about bombing their cities and civilians.

I discovered what it means to be a “Short Snorter”. A “snort” is, of course, a stiff drink and a “short” was less than a full pour, like a “shot”. It was the name given to members of the “Short Snorters” club. The practice was popularized by aircrews in WWII and involved a soldiers two favorite pastimes, drinking alcohol and collecting paper money.

It was based on how often an airmen had crossed the equator in an aircraft as well as how often he crossed into another country on a flight. You had to be a member of the military at the time of the crossing and the way to show this was by getting a sample of paper currency from that country and having them signed by fellow airmen who had witnessed the event. The money would be glued or taped end to end creating an ever-growing map of their travels and exploits. Many got to six feet or more. The longer your “Short Snorter” roll, the greater your status.
Typically, an airman would challenge another airman at the bar and ask, “Are you a ‘Short Snorter’ ?” Both obliging airmen would produce his “snorter roll” of bills and a comparison would take place. Generally, the guy with the shortest roll would have to buy the drinks. Several variants exist but the one I particularly like was the one where two crew or squadron members would tear a bill into two pieces, each carrying one half into battle. When they returned, they would join the bill together, buy and share a “Short Snorter” together and that would seal their friendship for life.

Outside, the Museum had built a very moving monument to both Audie Murphy and the fallen members from all the major conflicts from Hunt County. Audie is depicted in a statue capturing him with a German MG-42 (a distant relative of the iconic M-60 machine gun) in the battle action that won him his Distinguished Service Cross in 1944.

Having had my WWII fix for the day, I drove off in search of a meal. Greenville is not a hopping place, even on a Saturday and open eateries were hard to come by but a little tickling of Patty’s touch pad resulted in a lock on a BBQ place coincidentally on the north approach to the Audie L. Murphy Memorial railroad overpass.

The Johnson Street Smokehouse is a little restaurant tucked between the north and south approaches to the bridge. It had an extensive menu of cholesterol infused beef, pork, sausage and chicken. I had the beef plate with two delicious sides of potato salad and green beans. The beef slices fell apart as I stuck my fork in and the potato salad had just the right amount of mayonnaise and mustard which didn’t overwhelm the chunks of green onion and hardboiled egg. The beans had been steeping for a while in their salty brine and were tender and flavorful. All washed down with sweet tea that I got to go for the long drive back to Frisco.

I must say, although one of my best history trips of the year, it wasn’t the same without Dianna in the right seat coaxing me along. But it was a crazy Texas-hot afternoon and she would have surely melted. I’ll get her back when the weather cools for more tales of the backcountry.

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