Jerry Summers: Audie Murphy's Chattanooga Connection

Sunday, November 24, 2019 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Much has been written of the heroic exploits of Tennessee Medal of Honor winners, Alvin York (WWI), Charles Coolidge, Desmond Doss and Paul Huff (WWII). 

 

Movies have been made about the military events of Sergeant York and recently about conscientious objector, Doss.  Sometime in the future the acts of bravery of Coolidge and Huff may be preserved in cinema. 

Chattanooga has established a National Medal of Honor of Military History and its supporters are in the process of attempting to expand and relocate it from its present location in the Northgate Mall at 4900 Hixson Pike. 

Although not a Tennessean, another Medal of Honor winner had legitimate ties to Chattanooga through attorney Raymond Austin Prater. 

Prater was a 1941 graduate of Tyner High School.  He served in the Army from 1942-1946, graduated from Washington and Lee Law School in Virginia and opened a law practice in Chattanooga in 1950 with offices in the Chattanooga Bank Building.  He unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1952 and 1962 as a Democrat and was co-manager of the Hamilton County campaign of President John F. Kennedy in 1960.  During his military career he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded a Purple Heart and Combat Infantry Badge.  

Prater was politically ambitious and aligned himself with the enemies of controversial Criminal Court Judge Raulston Schoolfield who was successfully impeached in 1958 on three minor charges and was disbarred from the practice of law in 1961. 

Prater had initially approached Judge Schoolfield about running for Congress in the 1952 race in the Democratic Primary.  He asked the judge for his political support.

Schoolfield is alleged to have told Prater that he should not run for two reasons: 1.) He was too young; and 2.) He needed some legislative experience and suggested that he run for the Tennessee General Assembly for his first political attempt.  Prater was not receptive to that advice and became an outspoken enemy of Schoolfield.  In 1962 Prater ran again and he finished a distant third behind J.B. Frazier and Wilkes T. Thrasher, Jr. Thrasher upset Frazier and then lost to political newcomer, Republican William (Bill) Brock, III.  Prater in 1962 only received 2,658 votes but may have provided the margin of defeat for Frazier who only lost to Thrasher by 269 votes (36,055 to 35,786). 

Prater continued his involvement in Democratic politics and it has been alleged that he was requested by Attorney General Robert Kennedy to screen the jury pool for the government in the Jimmy Hoffa trial in Chattanooga in 1968.  A previous trial in Nashville had resulted in a mistrial because of jury tampering. 

Prater was killed in a small place crash near Roanoke, Virginia, on May 28, 1971, along with the pilot and four other passengers including World War II Medal of Honor recipient and movie star, Audie Murphy. 

The pilot had his private pilot license, 8,000 hours of flying time, but no instrument rating and the plane crashed into Brush Mountain in bad weather. 

The life story of Audie Murphy has been well documented in literature and songs.  He was an underage teenager who lied about his age to get into the Army in World War II.  In numerous battles in Italy and Europe against the Germans he was awarded a total of 33 medals by the American, French, and Belgium governments to become the most highly decorated soldier of that war.

The ill-fated flight had left Atlanta, Georgia, in the morning and the plane was on its way to a Modular Management Plant at Martinsville, Virginia.  Raymond Prater was identified in an article in the Chattanooga Times on May 31, 1971, as “general legal counsel for Modular Management, Inc.” 

Family members of Prater also claimed that he was a “lawyer and adviser to WWII hero and movie star, Audie Murphy.”  The extent of that relationship is somewhat contradicted in an article in the Chattanooga Times on May 31, 1971, where Murphy was identified as “representing himself and two groups of prospective investors.”    

Irrespective of their relationship, both of the decorated World War II soldiers died in the same plane crash.  Murphy was 46 and Prater was 48. 

Prior to his death Murphy acted in 40 movies.  The majority of his roles were in Westerns.  He played himself in the 1955 autobiographical portrayal of his life, “To Hell and Back.”  Although not a polished actor, Murphy did receive favorable reviews for his performance in Stephen Crane’s Civil War Classic, “The Red Badge of Courage” directed by John Huston. 

When he returned to civilian life Audie suffered from what today is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow and became addicted to sleeping pills. 

Although he had financial problems prior to his death in 1971, Audie refused to appear in alcohol and cigarette commercials as he thought such action would convey the wrong message to young people. 

He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery where his gravesite is the second most visited after President John F. Kennedy’s.  Prater is buried at the National Cemetery in Chattanooga. 

 

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Jerry Summers can be reached at jsummers@summersfirm.com

Audie Murphy
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