How Audie Murphy Inspired a Kenyan Immigrant to Join the US Army

Audie Murphy To Hell and Back
WWII hero Audie Murphy played himself in the movie "To Hell and Back." (Universal Pictures)

Turner Classic Movies gave itself a makeover earlier this year, updating its look and trying out new approaches with its programming in an effort to introduce new audiences to amazing old movies.

One of the most inspired events so far is the upcoming "The Idea of America" series, premiering on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, at 8 p.m. ET and continuing for the next two Fridays. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz will interview nine immigrants about how the movies inspired them to move to the U.S.

The series will kick off with a showing of "To Hell and Back," the great World War II drama in which war hero and Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy played himself.

U.S. Army veteran Ajay Vyas says that "To Hell and Back" inspired him to join the B Company, 1st Battalion,15th Infantry Regiment, which is the same regiment as Murphy after he immigrated to the U.S. While Vyas was born in Kenya and grew up in the country, his family comes from India. Both India and Kenya were part of the British Empire, although both countries were moving toward independence by the time he was born.

TCM Idea of America Ben Mankiewicz Hemrani Vyas
Ben Mankiewicz and Hemrani Vyas discuss her father's love of America and "To Hell and Back" as part of Turner Classic Movies' "The Idea of America" series. (TCM)

Hemrani Vyas is the assistant manager of programming at TCM, and her father's story inspired her to develop "The Idea of America" series. Ajay asked Hemrani to appear on camera with Mankiewicz, and "To Hell and Back" will be the first movie in the TCM series.

Ajay Vyas declined to appear on camera despite his daughter’s requests, but he was more than happy to speak with about his Army career.

Ajay Vyas River Kwai
Army veteran Ajay Vyas photographed at the River Kwai. (courtesy Viyas family) How did you first see American movies?

Ajay Vyas: "I used to go to theaters. I lived in a giant family, and most of them watched Indian movies from Bollywood. I didn't particularly care for those movies. I used to go to English [language] movies. Since I grew up in a British colony, it was mainly British movies. Once in a while, we would get a lot of American movies, mainly westerns and war movies. I would throw a tantrum to get money from my grandfather, and he would let me go to the movies." Tell us why you love "To Hell and Back" so much.

Vyas: "I cannot tell you the number of times I've seen 'To Hell and Back.' We had a theater in Nairobi called the Cameo Theater where they ran for 24 hours. You can buy the ticket at 8 o'clock in the morning and stay there all day. You can stay there for the whole week, watch the same movie over and over again. I've done that. I spent a whole weekend watching 'To Hell and Back' in that movie theater.

"I enjoy that movie, because it wasn't that gory but it still gives you an insight of what a person would do. As a young child, he had siblings to take care of because their father had left them. Murphy had to do the right thing, unlike today, when people say to just take care of yourself. But he took care of his family. That was his whole goal. His whole paycheck went to taking care of his little ones.

"The movie hit home for me in my last unit when I was assigned to the Third Infantry Division on Fort Benning, the Third Brigade, Bravo Company 115, a unit that I supported as a career counselor in the brigade.

"I helped set up the Audie Murphy Museum after it transferred from Germany to Fort Benning. When we set up the museum in the battalion headquarters, we could actually see his stuff there. To be able to hold something and realize this was touched by Audie Murphy ...

"I used to have his DD 214 discharge certificate, but in the mood, somebody stole it. The family had donated it to the museum. But as it was coming to the U.S., somewhere along the line, it disappeared. So there's a replica there, but the original is gone.

"'To Hell and Back' is the required movie for every soldier assigned to the 115. So even after I left Africa, I saw 'To Hell and Back' every week when I was at Fort Benning. We just popped the tape in and watched it." Why did you decide to immigrate to the United States?

Vyas: "We never thought of moving to the U.S. I had no choice in the matter. Coming to America was not even part of a dream. It was a very unthinkable option at that time. We're talking back in the '60s and the '70s.

"After 1972, the political situation in East Africa changed when Idi Amin came to power in Uganda. He decided to throw all non-Africans out of Uganda. My grandfather owned a lot of businesses in East Africa in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. He started shutting down his businesses and decided to move back to India.

"In 1973, I moved to India to take care of them. College in India was a very difficult option, because even though my heritage was Indian, the strange thing was that I was born in Kenya. When I went to India, they did not consider me to be Indian because I was born in Africa.

"So getting to college was difficult. You have to cross that hurdle. Language was also an issue. We grew up in English- and Swahili-speaking school systems. My native tongue, Gujarati, was not taught, other than in the home. They stressed learning English, since that was a national language.

"After my grandfather passed away, I moved back to Kenya with my father who was to run a business there. One day, he just came up and said, 'You've got a physical to do.' I asked why, and he explained that we are trying to get to America if we can.

"We immigrated to the United States in 1975 when I was 18 years old. You have to understand that we did not have independent thoughts in Africa. When I was growing up, the tradition was you stayed with a family and did what the head of the family said. Since my father was the head of the family, we had to follow his instructions and go where he takes us." How did you come to the decision to enlist in the military?

Ajay Vyas uniform
Army veteran Ajay Vyas in uniform (courtesy Vyas family)

Vyas: "Oh, that decision was a long time coming. I remember the 1962 war between India and China where the whole family would gather in front of the radio. I was 7 years old and had no idea what was going on. My mother always said, 'I wish I was a man so I could serve in the armed forces for my country. And I guess that's when the seed got planted in my mind.'

"I didn't want to join the family business. I was reading a lot of comic books and watching a lot of war movies. The military sounded like an exciting life. In 1977, I went to India to join the Indian army. But they said no, I couldn't join because I didn't speak the language." Did you enlist right away once your family moved to Detroit?

Vyas: "Oh, no. What had happened was, I tried to go to a college at Wayne State University in Detroit. Yes, I did want to join the military. But my parents were adamantly opposed to it. They said, 'You're the only son we have, and we don't want you to go into the military.'

“I tried to go to the university, but they would not accept my high school diploma from Kenya. In order for me to join a university, I needed a U.S. diploma, so I got my GED. In March of '75, I went down to one of the offices that were holding the test, and I took it. They checked my paperwork, and said, 'Congratulations, your diploma will be in the mail.'

"At that time, I did not realize the value of a high school diploma versus a GED. The university then said, you have a GED so you need to go to a community college first. We didn't have funds at the time. So I went to vocational school and became a radio and TV repairman. But the military was always bugging me in the back of my mind. I was watching a lot of 'M*A*S*H.'

"Later, I was delivering pizza for a restaurant that was next door to the recruiting station. And the recruiter actually ordered a pizza for delivery. When I gave him the pizza, he asked me what I was doing in life, and I said that I do TV repairs. Then he asked me to come to his place to repair his TV.

"We started talking. I explained to him my situation with my family and he said, 'Hey, you're in America now; 18-year-olds can do whatever they want to do,' but I was caught between two places. So I waited until my parents went to India, and on July 28, 1978, I went and signed a contract for the delayed entry program where you can stay out of the military for a year before you go to basic training. On the fourth of May 1979, I went on basic training and never looked back.

"When I first joined the military, it was ... fun! Other than basic training, which was a little bit difficult. But there was nothing I could not handle. My basic training [was] at Fort Dix, New Jersey. It was in June, in the summertime; a lot of kids felt it was hot. But I grew up in a hot country on the equator, so I was used to the heat. Basic training was not that difficult for me because I used to walk to school every day, back and forth, ever since I can remember. So walking, hiking physically, I had no problems. Mentally, I had no problems.

Ajay Vyas uniform
Ajay Vyas during his Army service (courtesy Vyas family)

"After basic, I'm in for my advanced training. I wanted to be a computer repairman because electronics was my background. I went to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. There was self-paced training. Once you graduate, you move on to your next destination. My first present unit was in West Germany. I was stationed in a place called Hanau near Frankfurt. We occupied old Second World War German barracks made out of stone. My first room had 15 people to the room. Conditions were a bit atrocious. We had to tie our tissues to the pipes so the water wouldn't leak on us.

"Remember that the Army was transitioning from our draft army to an all-volunteer army. So when you had draftees in the military at that time, people didn't care about the conditions because they knew they were there for two years, and they'll be going home.

"I got to Germany in '79 and came back to Fort Bragg in 1982. After I got married, the career kind of slowed down. Before, I used to go do anything and everything I could do. But now it's a marriage between two people. My wife was not used to having a guy in the Army with no family or friends around.

"After about 12 months at Fort Bragg, I wanted to go back to Germany. We stayed there for 11 years. My wife could go see her family in England, because we had an arranged marriage and her family was in London. So every four-day weekend, we drove to London.

"I've come to realize that life as a soldier is hard, but it's a fair life. You don't make a lot of money, but you learn things. You meet people from other states. You meet people from other countries, and you find out that you have the same values. My kids hate me saying all this, but it's not political. The Army teaches you to do the right thing. You have to own anything and everything you do.

Ajay Hemrani Vyas
Ajay and Hemrani Vyas (courtesy Vyas family)

"After Germany, we came to Fort Benning, Georgia, stayed in barracks for a while. We decided to buy a house here because my oldest daughter was getting ready to graduate from high school. We've been in Georgia since 1992. I had planned on staying in for 35 years, but at 21½ years, I retired. That was the best time in my life. You can't beat that. Military life is something different.

"I retired in 2000, and nine months later, we had 9/11. I could not go back since I was retired. But I was living right outside Fort Benning, there were opportunities for prior military to come in

to help people deploy. After that, I got a contract job as a civilian, to work in Iraq and then in Afghanistan I did that for about 10-15 years. Then I lost my eyesight in one eye, so I'm fully retired now."

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