World War II Medal of Honor Winner Matt Urban

Medal of Honor winner Matt Urban may be the most decorated soldier in United States history. Another Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Audie Murphy, has held that distinction for years, but Matt Urban may have exceeded his totals. However, some inadvertent bureaucratic snafus caused Urban to not receive some of his medals until the problem was rectified. Whatever the final count, there is no debating the amazing courage and fortitude Matt Urban displayed in winning the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Matt Urban was born in Buffalo, New York, on August 25th, 1919. Growing up in a middle class family where money was tight, Matt worked to help contribute to his family’s needs. He was able to put away enough money to be enrolled at Cornell University in 1937. He did well in school and also as a member of the boxing team; he was proficient enough at the sport to be crowned champion of his collegiate weight class in 1939. He joined Cornell’s ROTC program, and was called to duty in June of 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor. He attended officer’s school and joined the 60th Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. When the 60th received its orders in the summer of 1942, Matt Urban was the Executive Officer of Company F.

Right away Urban proved his mettle. In North Africa he was awarded a pair of Silver Stars and the first of an incredible seven Purple Hearts. As a matter of fact, the Germans would later nickname him “der geist” {the ghost} because of his ability to keep coming back when they thought he was dead! Due to the death of its commanding officer, Urban was assigned the leadership role of Company F.

On 14 June, 1944, Urban, now a captain, was leading his company on an attack near Renouf, France. He and his men ran into heavy enemy small arms and tank fire. The company was being torn up by the fire coming from the tanks and it was suffering heavy casualties. Captain Matt Urban decided to do something drastic to save his men from this potential total annihilation. He took up a bazooka and made his way with an ammo carrier through hedgerows, under a barrage of fire, until he was close to the tanks that were chewing up his men. Exposing himself to enemy fire as he stood up, Urban destroyed the pair of tanks with the bazooka. His company saw his heroism and responded by rushing forward and routing the German position. The same day, near Orglandes, Matt Urban was wounded in the leg by 37mm. tank-gun fire. Refusing to be evacuated, he continued to lead his company until they were able to assume defensive positions for the evening. In the morning, despite his grievous wounds, Urban directed his company in another attack. He suffered yet another wound and was evacuated to England.

In mid-July, while in a hospital recovering from his injuries, he was visited by a man from Company F, who was also in the process of recuperating. He told Urban how the company had been decimated by the fierce fighting in and around Normandy and had been made into a bunch of frightened soldiers. Urban deserted his hospital bed that night and hitchhiked his way back to his unit near the town of St. Lo, France. He arrived at the 2d Battalion Command Post on July 25th and found that his unit had been sent on a mission called “Operation Cobra.” Despite his leg wounds that caused him to limp, Matt Urban made his way to his unit and retook the command of his company. “I was full of anger, remorse, and despair. I’d seen my men mutilated, chopped up. I was seeking revenge. I was like a tiger. It was all bubbling up inside of me, and it exploded,” he remembered. One sergeant, upon seeing Urban hobbling up the road to his beloved Company F said, “The sight of him limping up the road, all smiles, raring to lead the attack, once more brought the morale of the battle-weary men to the highest peak.”

Urban did not limp into a picnic. His company was being held up by strong enemy opposition. Two Allied tanks had already been destroyed and another, in one piece but lacking a tank commander or gunner, was immobile. He spotted a lieutenant in charge of the support tanks and together they formulated a plan to attack the enemy position. But the lieutenant, along with a sergeant, was quickly slain by heavy enemy fire when they tried to get into the tank. Matt Urban knew that something had to be done quickly. Courageously, he ran through the German bullets, up the hill, and mounted the tank despite his injured leg. Later he recalled, “I cried as I ran up that hill. I thought I was a goner, headed for certain death.” Captain Urban ordered the tank crew to take the vehicle forward and, completely exposed to enemy fire, he manned the machine gun. Urban began to wreak havoc on the Germans with his guns, and the battalion, upon seeing his bravery, joined the action; they attacked and overwhelmed the enemy position.

As Company F advanced over the next few days, Urban was wounded once more, this time on August 2nd. He was wounded in the chest by shell fragments but refused to heed the recommendation of the Battalion Surgeon, and pressed on. On August 6th, Urban was made the commander of the 2d Battalion. He was once more wounded on August 15th, but true to form, he remained with his men. Near Heer, Belgium, the 2d Battalion was given the mission of creating a crossing-point on the Meuse River. On September 2d, the battalion encountered some fierce enemy artillery, small arms, and mortar fire. The mission was in jeopardy until Urban moved from his command post to the lead position of the battalion. He reorganized the attacking elements and then personally led the charge toward the enemy’s strong-point. Making his way across some wide open terrain, Matt Urban was seriously wounded in the neck, taking shrapnel deep in his throat, unable to talk above a whisper. In mortal danger, he still declined to be evacuated until the enemy was beaten back and his battalion had secured the crossing-point on the river. The very next day, as Urban was on his way to England aboard a hospital ship, the Germans counterattacked his battalion. The men of Company F that were not killed were taken prisoner, among them a Sgt. Earl G. Evans, who had served with Urban since North Africa. Evans had overheard a battalion officer say that he was going to recommend Urban for the Medal of Honor for his valor but this particular officer had been felled in the fighting at the Meuse River.

Repatriated in July of 1945, Sgt. Evans wrote a letter to the War Department that recommended Urban for a Medal of Honor. The letter was sent to the commanding General of the 9th Division, on occupation duty in Germany, but it failed to make it there. Fortunately, a copy of Evan’s letter was placed into Matt Urban’s personal file. Urban received a medical discharge in early 1946; among the medals he had already been awarded were 2 Silver Stars, 1 Legion of Merit, 3 Bronze Stars, and 7 Purple Hearts. But Urban was completely unaware of the letter from Evans that was in his file.

It was not until over three decades later, when Urban had requested some information and his official file was reviewed by the Army Military Awards Branch, that the recommendation was discovered. But before a Medal of Honor can be awarded, there is lengthy documentation that must be presented as evidence. Eyewitness accounts or affidavits of the soldier’s exploits are required; in this particular scenario the job was extremely difficult because the heroic acts had occurred so long ago. Finally the picture of what Urban had actually accomplished, and his unquestioned courage and leadership, came into focus. Besides earning a Medal of Honor, it was also discovered that Urban had not received the proper medals for some of his actions in Belgium and France. When he received these medals, he was in the rarefied air that only Audie Murphy had been in as far as decorated soldiers go. On July 19th, 1980, 36 years after repeatedly saving his company, President Carter awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to Matt Urban. Carter called Urban the “greatest soldier in our country’s history” and said, “Matt Urban showed that moments of terrible devastation can bring out courage. His actions are a reminder to this nation so many years later of what freedom really means.”

After the war, Urban served as recreation director in Port Huron, Michigan for seven years, then as the director of the Monroe Community Center for sixteen more. He became the director of the civic and recreation department of Holland, Michigan and retired in 1989 to promote his book, “The Matt Urban Story: Life and World War II Experiences.” Matt Urban died on March 4th, 1995, from a collapsed lung. It had been injured in one of his many gallant adventures overseas. He left behind a wife and a daughter, and a legacy of epic stoutheartedness and leadership. He is buried near the Tomb of the Unknowns in Section 7-A of Arlington National Cemetery. In 2000, the Polish Community of Buffalo was renamed for Matt Urban. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes him as our country’s most decorated soldier, with 28 medals, but this doesn’t really matter. Whether it’s Matt Urban or Audie Murphy as the soldier with the most medals, what matters is that all those who sacrificed for our country be honored and remembered for generations to come.

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