ROANOKE COUNTY, VA. – Friday marks 50 years since a decorated war hero and American celebrity died in a plane crash just west of Roanoke. Audie Murphy was one of six people who perished on the side of a mountain near the present-day Appalachian Trail.
We dug deep in the WSLS archive to find our film reel on the story. The date was May 31, 1971, three days after the plane had departed Atlanta headed for Martinsville and never arrived.
A reporter asked questions of a Civil Air Patrol member about the search.
“Were there any indications of life?” the reporter asked.
“Not from where we could see but we couldn’t get low enough to tell,” the man replied.
The massive search for the plane led them to the side of Brush Mountain on the Roanoke County, Craig County line.
“And this was the plane that former World War II hero Audie Murphy was on?” the reporter asked.
“As far as we can tell, yes,” the man replied.
Lee Anthony of Roanoke County will never forget that day. He was one of the first Civil Air Patrol pilots in the air after word came in about the crash. Due to bad weather and technological limits, it took three days before the search began. More than 20 aircraft took to the skies searching for the wreckage.
“The important thing was that it was a downed aircraft, regardless of who was in it,” Anthony said. “The search efforts went over the western and southwestern area of Virginia, aircraft were searching all over the area.”
It’s unclear exactly what happened, but the official crash report said the pilot flew into bad weather after overshooting his original destination. There were low clouds, rain and fog, and investigators say the pilot was trained to fly visually, and not under instrumentation, as needed in low visibility.
“From my observation, I’d say the aircraft had let down and was approaching Roanoke from below the top of the mountain,” the Civil Air Patrol official told the WSLS reporter at the time.
Audie Murphy grew up outside Dallas, Texas, and that’s where the Audie Murphy museum resides today. Kristen Still is the assistant director of the museum that works to educate people about Murphy’s story.
“It’s very sad, he survived so much during his war and his life,” Still said. “He had a really great impact on a lot of people through the military, he was also very vocal at a time when most people were not about what the veterans needed.”
Today, mother nature has reclaimed the site and there’s no wreckage left. But many hike to the stone marker to pay their respects and remember the lives lost there. Many local history buffs do an annual hike to the site around this time of year. The crash and others around that time helped shape future safety changes in flying.