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Letters give glimpses into combat pilot's life

The Baltimore Sun

I knew John Leo Virgil Murphy Jr., who was the father of a friend of mine, back in the 1970s and 1980s.

He was a former safety engineer for U.S. Fidelity & Guaranty Co., and when I knew him, he was working as a city housing inspector.

Murphy was one of Baltimore's great characters. He was an inveterate lunchtime walker and could be seen wearing his trademark crushed fedora or summer straw hat while slowly puffing on the extra-long cigarettes that were a fixture of his daily downtown perambulations.

Murphy was also a serious sidewalk superintendent who loved nothing more than peering through holes and cracks in the wooden walls encircling construction sites or into the vast street excavations caused by the subway construction of those years.

I knew he had been a World War II Army Air Forces pilot but if the subject came up, he quickly moved away from it.

What I didn't know, until I wrote his obituary for The Sun in 1999, was that he had flown in two of the war's bloodiest and most historic campaigns.

On D-Day -- June 6, 1944 -- he flew and landed his Waco glider at Sainte Mere Eglise behind German lines before the initial invasion forces landed on the beaches.

In the fall of that year, Murphy flew a C-47 during Operation Market Garden, the Allied ground and paratroop assault at Arnhem in the Netherlands.

Killed in the ill-fated battle were nearly 6,484 British troops who were trapped by two German Panzer divisions. Some 102 Poles fighting with the Allies also perished, and 3,664 Americans were killed or wounded. German dead totaled about 2,000.

Recently, Robert Rothgaber, a mutual friend of the Murphy family and mine, lent me copies of the wartime letters Murphy sent home to his mother, Edith Murphy, who lived at 104 W. University Parkway.

While in England before D-Day, Murphy was forced to make a sudden landing in a field, and "I didn't even scratch the ship," he wrote.

"Whoever said, 'There are no atheists in the sky,' knew what he was talking about. I prayed all the time I was flying since it was the toughest trip I've had yet and ever hope to have," he wrote.

Murphy didn't begin to write about Normandy until weeks later, when he acknowledged in a letter that "I know how worried you probably are about me. I can truthfully say now that things are just about back to normal."

Another month passed before he was able to begin to write more fully about D-Day.

"For some strange reason since D-Day I seem absolutely unable to write to the many people I should.

"I didn't mean to press you too much about how things were in the States when the news broke that we had invaded the continent. The whole thing was that that was what most of us talked about when we knew definitely that we were really going in. I know how you must have worried about me when you did hear it. If you had known the assignment you would have worried more," he wrote.

"As I told you before, I was in the very first wave that went in. We were ahead of the beach head. You see all the Allied ships [aircraft] were painted with foot wide black and white stripes around the fuselage and wings so there would be no mistaking them from the ground or the air."

Murphy was hit in the right hand and leg by enemy flak and it "swelled up some; after the second day inside of the German lines, I managed to dig it out with my pocket knife," he wrote.

After returning to his base in England, Murphy was presented the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

"There are very few times that I miss Mass and communion now, after what God got me through," he wrote.

In a letter dated July 22, 1944, he wrote, "Naturally I can't tell you what I'm doing; but suffice it to say that at the present time there is no great cause to worry. Of course, it is far from being a picnic over here; but I'm in no great danger.

"After you go thru something like we did, I suppose it warps your idea as to the definition of real danger, nevertheless, it isn't too bad."

He concluded: "The news from Germany seems better all the time and I'm hoping that there may be a collapse at almost any time. Of course, we can't rely on anything as good as that and must keep on fighting our damndest until the very end."

Five days after British forces surrendered at Arnhem, Murphy sat down on Sept. 26, 1944, and wrote a letter describing the battle.

"Nevertheless, I'll do my best to enable you to understand what such warfare is like, omitting of course, lots of the more horrid details," he wrote.

"We suffered pretty heavy casualties ... also, some were my close friends," he wrote, including the colonel who had decorated Murphy with the Purple Heart. He was shot down and burned to death in his plane.

"You get hardened to that tho. It is to be expected and there is no mourning for those who are unfortunate," he wrote.

While poking around a burned C-47, Murphy and another airman discovered three bodies were burned beyond recognition.

"I got hold of the dog tags and knew them both well," he wrote. "This will suffice to show that it is not a picnic. I shall go on to relate the brighter side. I very fortunately came thru this time without even a scratch."

Murphy, who was in the second air wave at Arnhem, wrote that "I knew this mission was in the offing and I also knew that it would be pretty rough."

He ended his 19-page letter with the words: "Love to all at home and continue to pray for your son. John."

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