Letter in a Battle

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

"I still want to know what we can send in little packages . . ."

After taking Palermo, David Murdock's 7th Infantry regiment broke east along the coastal highway toward Messina.

Lieutenant David Murdock in Washington, D.C., 1942.
Lieutenant David Murdock in Washington, D.C., 1942.
This pile of trash in a Tempe alley held Jimmy Creasman's letters, books and family papers.
Vivian Spiegelman
This pile of trash in a Tempe alley held Jimmy Creasman's letters, books and family papers.

"It's a P poor war, Ben," he wrote August 6, in a letter he never finished or sent. "We've been sitting here for 3 days doing absolutely nothing. They're shooting a lot of artillery about 6 miles up and we're alerted to move on 15 minutes notice but there seems to be little action -- don't know why the delay. We've got plenty for the job, but I guess somebody knows what's going on. In the meantime, we sit in the dirt & sleep & eat C rations -- thrilling . . ."

Soon after that, Murdock and his company began a week of almost round-the-clock fighting. Retreating German forces made the mountainous coastal terrain a part of their already formidable arsenal. They mined the dry river bottoms and gorges that cut through the hills below the towns, then trained their mortar, artillery and machine-gun fire on the narrow, difficult low ground between the hills.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Pratt, who fought with the 7th Infantry through that part of Sicily, says that to advance troops and equipment along the coastal highway, which was tucked against the cliffs in spots and occasionally blown out by the Germans, the regiment had to sweep on foot through the overlooking mountains, fighting as they went.

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 . . .

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