Letter in a Battle

Rediscovered cache of castoff communiqués captures World War II and 1940s Phoenix

To add to the misery, Pratt recalls, the Germans had a six-barrel mortar -- the one the Brits described to Murdock -- "with whistles on the fins that filled the air with screams that could be heard for miles . . . we hated it."

The morning of August 11, 1943, Murdock's company was ordered to follow a lead battalion's attack on the hills and towns of Malo, Pernicchia and Cresta di Naso, which lay slightly inland and south of the Cape of Orlando. Another battalion followed on the heels of Murdock's.

They had been fighting this way for days. One company would lead, then give way to a second, third and fourth, moving amoebalike across the rugged terrain, attacking and outflanking the retreating Germans.

The lead battalion began its attack on the hills approaching Malo around 6 a.m., bringing a hail of German mortar and machine-gun fire. Late that morning, Murdock's company began its own attack toward Malo, cleaning out German troops that had escaped the first American wave. At 11:50, an American spotter plane reported seeing a line of friendly troops 300 yards shy of Malo.

Sometime around noon, while scrambling through the dry, wash-cut hills around Malo -- exactly two years from the day he was inducted into the Army -- David Murdock was hit by machine-gun fire. The same fire wounded his company's first Lieutenant Charles Treadway, who refused evacuation and led Murdock's company ahead.

At 1:30 that afternoon, the battalion following Murdock's radioed the regiment that it wanted to immediately evacuate three bodies and 13 wounded men. Murdock was among the dead.

Word of his death didn't reach his father, who was still in Tempe on the congressional summer break, until September 8. That morning, a Western Union agent delivered a telegram confirming his death to Congressman Murdock's Tempe home on Van Ness Avenue, now part of the ASU campus. Murdock drove the nine miles to Scottsdale to tell Rachael the news in person. Rachael can't remember when or how her father told her mother. They sent word to Ben, in England.

"There's nothing new to say," Rachael wrote her mother the next day, "but millions of things to remember and repeat. We've all known for a long time how the cards were stacked, but even so it's terribly final not to hope anymore for a way out.

"David knew he wouldn't be back too and I'm sure he died with the complete satisfaction and self-respect of knowing he stood well up on the scale of men as men.

"He was always uncertain before. It's terrible to think he went back into battle in a weakened condition, but his last v-mail attested to his confidence and regard for the higher ups in this war.

"David always wanted to compete, under fair rules, with no favors shown, and I think he must be content with the results of his last competition.

"He had a job to do and I know without anyone's telling me that like the great guy he was he did a super job.

"I'm glad Ben's across -- it will be easier for him. He'll do his job too -- and extra super. And I'm just as sure the stack of chance favors him. Ben will come back to take the place of both boys and do the work of two. . . . The big job is only started. We need Ben & many others like him to make this world click after the firing's ceased.

"David died proud of his mother & dad, proud of his family and what it stood for, proud to die doing a job he couldn't quite understand but knew was right. As much as he loved us all, I'm sure the self respect with which he died made it all right. He'd done his share and surely felt no inferiority or regrets . . .

"There's no use being bitter. We've got to take up this battle where David left off and do a job that would make him proud. We can't do that and be bitter. Anyway, David would like it that way. He loved things to be smooth, cheerful, enthusiastic and worthwhile.

"I'm going to do a much better job raising my family and I know David will help. He'll help us all!

"And gosh, wasn't he a swell guy. I hope if souls are used over and over he'll wait for me and we'll be twins next time."

A week or so later, at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., Myrtle Murdock visited a soldier who had served in Murdock's company. He had been wounded on August 9 and evacuated to a hospital in Africa, where he met a buddy who was with Murdock's company on the 11th.

"As soon as I seen Buchanan wasn't going to die," he told her, "I says to myself, 'Now I can find out about my buddies as to who's left,' and let me tell you the first one I asked about was 'Bernie.'"

When Myrtle Murdock looked surprised, he said, "Of course you wouldn't call him 'Bernie' but all the fellows did. I don't know who that 'Bernie' was they named him after but it was some swell guy that could sing and make everybody happy. Whenever Lt. M. came on our field even in Africa [it] got around, 'Bernie's here, get the singin' gang together.'"

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