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Saving Private Murphy

LIKE MANY STUDENTS who enrolled at the University in the fall of 1939, Frederick C. Murphy, W'43, had a rendezvous with a destiny that would take him many miles from College Hall and Franklin Field. Though only at Penn for a short time, he would become the University's only alumnus to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, for acts of almost unbelievable valor that would cost him his life.
   And yet he could easily have avoided the war that was just getting underway: He had flunked two physicals and was classified 4-F on account of a large cyst at the base of his spine. But eventually, after two operations, he got himself fit enough to be a soldier, and Private First Class Murphy was sent overseas with the 65th Infantry Division as a medical aide.
   On March 18, 1945, Murphy found himself in the terrible battle of the Siegfried Line at Saarlautern in Germany. The 65th's objective, to capture a bridge over the Rhine before the Germans could blow it up, met with fierce resistance. The details of Murphy's part in that battle, drawn here from the Congressional citation, are throat-swelling. After being wounded in the right shoulder soon after the dawn attack began, the citation noted:
   He refused to withdraw for treatment and continued forward, administering first aid under heavy machine-gun, mortar, and artillery fire. When the company ran into a thickly sown antipersonnel mine field and began to suffer more and more casualties, he continued to disregard his own wound and unhesitatingly braved the danger of exploding mines, moving about through heavy fire and helping the injured until he stepped on a mine which severed one of his feet. In spite of his grievous wounds, he struggled on with his work, refusing to be evacuated and crawling from man to man administering to them while in great pain and bleeding profusely. He was killed by the blast of another mine which he had dragged himself across in an effort to reach still another casualty.
   By most military standards, the battle was a disaster, with some 60 percent of Murphy's company killed or wounded. But the Germans did retreat, and the bridge remained standing.
   Murphy left behind a wife, Virginia, and an infant daughter, Susan, whom he had never seen and to whom Congress presented theMedal of Honor. A Massachusetts hospital would be named in his honor, and after it was torn down, a federal center in Waltham, Mass., was renamed the Frederick C. Murphy Federal Center. That was in 1993.
   It was only then that the Class of '43 became aware of Murphy's remarkable legacy. The Massachusetts native appears not to have been at Penn for much more than the fall semester, and according to class president John A. Lawler, Jr., EE'43, "no one at Penn knew any of this story" until the news about the federal center reached Kevin O'Connell, W'43. O'Connell called John J. Huston, CE'43, a member of the class's executive board, and asked what the class was planning to do about Fred Murphy. "Who's Fred Murphy?" asked Huston. He quickly found out.
   In May, a new plaque honoring all veterans, with Murphy's name given special mention, was presented and later added to the rebuilt University War Memorial on South 33rd Street. And in September, the class dedicated its gift of a revamped circulation area in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center to his memory.
   "He was one of us for a very short while," recalled Lawler at a brief ceremony in the library. "But he represented the true spirit of the Class of '43."
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