Profiles of Valor: LTC Matt Urban - “The Hero We Nearly Forgot”

  • Saturday, December 9, 2023
  • Mark Caldwell
In a Valor Profile on Audie Murphy, I noted that he received 23 medals in addition to his Medal of Honor, including the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Stars (two), Legion of Merit, Bronze Stars (two with a “V” device), and Purple Hearts (three) — and I noted further, that his military decorations are rivaled only by the awards earned by one of his fellow WWII Army Medal of Honor recipients, LTC Matt Urban.

While most current service members or combat Veterans from any branch would know the name Audie Murphy, they have likely not heard of Matt Urban, despite his legendary service as an infantryman.
In addition to his Medal of Honor, Urban earned Silver Stars (two), Legion of Merit, Bronze Stars (three with a “V” device), and Purple Hearts (seven).

A Buffalo, New York, native, Urban was born Matthew Urbanowicz in 1919, attended local schools, and graduated from Cornell University in June 1941, where he excelled as a member of ROTC. He was commissioned an Army second lieutenant just prior to graduation and began his active-duty service in July at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His Army records noted his name as “Urban” from that point on.

After the onset of World War II, he would serve as a first lieutenant and then captain during six campaigns before being severely wounded in his seventh campaign in 1944.

His first campaign was North Africa, where he received the first of his Silver Stars and his first Purple Heart after being wounded numerous times. He arrived in Africa aboard a troopship named “Florence Nightingale,” later recalling: “My ship to Africa was a ship of outcasts. You’d think a ship with a name like that would not be a fighting man’s ship, and it wasn’t. … During that first day of battle, we lost three sergeants. We paid the price for not being more experienced.” But in the crucible of combat, they all learned quickly: “We became a war machine. My men were combat veterans now, and we had become quite good at what we did.”

Staff Sergeant Earl Evans, who was a member of Urban’s 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, wrote of his service in Africa: “The … lieutenant was wounded in Maknassy, Tunisia and refused to be evacuated. He followed up this refusal by taking out a combat patrol. At another time in Tunisia, our battalion successfully halted a German counterattack, and it was through [his] efforts that we succeeded. As our outfit was falling back, he held his ground and grabbed the closest German. He killed him with a trench knife, took the German’s machine pistol, and fired at the onrushing enemy.” Urban was also wounded by a grenade in that battle.

Evans was the fellow soldier who originally wrote the War Department recommending Urban for the Medal of Honor. It would be 35 years until his service was finally and fully recognized.

In Sicily, where Urban was awarded his second Silver Star, his leadership and actions were just as daring, in one instance shooting down a German Stuka dive bomber after it had wounded one of his anti-aircraft gunnery crew.

In France on June 11, 1944, Urban’s 2nd Battalion landed on Utah Beach. Three days later, after his company was hit by heavy enemy fire near Renouf, Urban retrieved a bazooka from an injured gunner and worked his way through the hedgerows into a position where he was able to take out two German tanks. Later that day, he was injured by a German tank round but refused to be evacuated and continued directing his company against enemy positions. He was wounded again the next day and had to be evacuated to England for surgery and recovery.

Six weeks later, he got word that his company was taking severe casualties, and after making his way back to Normandy with other soldiers he had trained in England, he fashioned a stick into a crutch and hitchhiked his way to Saint-Lo to rejoin his men. Once there, he fearlessly confronted enemy tankers and units and saved many lives. He was wounded twice again in the two weeks that followed but refused to be evacuated.

A month later on September 3, now in Belgium, Urban led his battalion’s attack on Philippeville, and while charging an enemy machine-gun emplacement with grenades he was shot through the neck — which permanently disabled his larynx. This required his evacuation back to England where his survival was in question.

In December 1944, while on leave in Scotland for recovery, he “diverted” to Germany to rejoin his men, many of whom thought he had been killed. Because he could not speak, he was denied a combat role but stayed with his 2nd Battalion unit they pulled out of Elsenborn.

Urban was finally medically retired from the Army in February 1946 after being promoted to lieutenant colonel. At that time he officially changed his name to Urban. He moved to Michigan where he coached community sports, later becoming chairman of the Michigan Olympic Boxing Committee and accompanying Muhammad Ali for his Olympic tryouts. In Holland, Michigan, from 1972 to 1989, he devoted his life to serving others, including becoming an executive with Boy Scouts of America and establishing a camp for poor urban kids.

In early 1979, a Michigan disabled American veteran who knew Urban and his extraordinary service record quietly sent a Medal of Honor inquiry letter to Army headquarters, and it was only then that Urban’s long-misplaced Medal of Honor recommendation from his former battalion commander in France, which originated with SSG Earl Evans in 1944, was found.

As I have noted before regarding long delays between service rendered and recognized, to a person, these men are among the most humble people I have met — warrior bravado over good whiskey and cigars notwithstanding. Inherent in their willingness to “lay down one’s life for his friends” is a deep sense of humility, valuing the lives of others above one’s own. Thus, it is not in their nature to advocate for their own recognition, and it falls to others, often years later, to advocate for them.

On July 19, 1980, former president Jimmy Carter presented Urban his Medal of Honor in a ceremony attended by his wife and daughter — and hundreds of his fellow 9th Infantry Division soldiers. Of his service, Carter 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.”

Indeed.

Urban’s MoH citation (https://www.cmohs.org/recipients/matt-l-urban) notes he “distinguished himself by a series of bold, heroic actions, exemplified by singularly outstanding combat leadership, personal bravery, and tenacious devotion to duty, during the period from 14 June to 3 September 1944,” and further outlines those actions in detail.

In 1989, after his retirement from community service, Urban published an autobiography, The Matt Urban Story, Life And World War II Experiences, in later reprints titled, The Hero — We Nearly Forgot, The Matt Urban Story. It is an exceptional firsthand account of his actions. He died on March 4, 1995, at the age of 75 — his cause of death was a collapsed lung related to the chest injury in France, which had narrowly missed his heart. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

LTC  Urban, your example of valor — an American Patriot defending your fellow warriors and Liberty for all above and beyond the call of duty and disregarding the peril to your own life — is eternal.

“Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

(Join us in prayer for our nation’s Military Patriots, Veterans, First Responders, and their families. Please consider a designated gift to support the National Medal of Honor Sustaining Fund through Patriot Foundation Trust (https://patriotfoundationtrust.org), or make a check payable to: NMoH Sustaining Fund (noting MoH Sustaining Fund on the memo line) and mail to: Patriot Foundation Trust, PO Box 407, Chattanooga, TN 37401-0407. Visit the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center at Aquarium Plaza. (https://www.MOHHC.org))


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