Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The "Ghost," Matt Urban, Medal of Honor

I came across a photo of this man wearing the Medal of Honor. The caption then asked, “Do you know who he is?” I responded, “No.”

I then learned he is among the most combat decorated soldiers in American history.

I looked him up. His name is Lt. Colonel Matt Louis Urban, USA. He was known as “the Ghost.” The Germans nicknamed him “The Ghost” because he just kept coming back no matter how many times or how seriously he was wounded in battle. They just couldn't kill him.

He was assigned to and fought with the 60th Infantry Regiment, “The Go-Devils,” of the 9th Infantry Division (ID) in North Africa, Sicily, France, and Belgium. At the time he was a first lieutenant and then captain. He was awarded seven Purple Hearts. He also received the Silver Star with one Oak Leaf Cluster (which means two Silver Stars), Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star with two Oak Leaf Clusters (three Bronze Stars), Croix-de-Guerre, Presidential Unit Citation, and American Campaign Medal.

The surprises former kept on coming. His full name was “Matthew Louis Urbanowicz.” He was the son of Polish immigrants, born in 1919, grew up in Buffalo, New York, and graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Why did this surprise me? My father and mother were born in 1918-1919 of Polish immigrants, they grew up in Buffalo, and I too grew up there and graduated from the University of Buffalo.

I was embarrassed. I did not know about him. So, I wanted to tell his story.

Operation Torch

Let's start with "Operation Torch," the US landings in North Africa, Lt. General Dwight Eisenhower in command. The US and Britain landed 100,000 troops in a three-pronged attack, aimed at Casablanca (Western), Oran (Center) and Algiers (Eastern), in advance of a rapid move on Tunis. They were supported by 670 vessels and heavy air cover.

Then Lt. Matt Urban was with the 60th Infantry and landed at Port Lyautey, French Morocco on November 8, 1942. French Vichy forces loyal to Germany defended it, Urban was assigned as Morale and Special Service Officer. He was tasked to prepare entertainment for the combatants as they returned from battle. Ha — He would have none of that. 

The 60th met heavier resistance than expected.  Urban heard his regiment was in trouble, so he rowed himself ashore in a rubber raft with another soldier to get into the fight.

He found that a platoon leader was wounded. He then engineered to become the executive officer for the F/2-60th Infantry, F Company, 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment.

Technically he was AWOL. Urban’s colonel threatened him with a court martial for disobeying orders but that did not come to pass. Instead he received a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.

Following this battle, the 9th ID headed eastward across Morocco and Algeria to Tunisia. The battles fought in Tunisian were many, vicious and bloody, often seesaw in character, far too complex and ferocious to describe here. There were high casualties.

Major General George Patton, USA, commanded the II Corps, which included the 9th ID. Patton's forces had to fight their way to the coastal plain of Tunisia, which meant they had to deal with Tunisia's mountains. 

Urban was with the 60th Infantry. He knocked out a German observation post on his own, and led his F/2-60th in a frontal assault. He was injured in his hand and right harm. He received two more Silver Stars, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

Sgt. Earl G. Evans, a member of Urban's unit wrote this about Urban:

"The major (Urban), only a lieutenant at the time, was wounded in Maknassy (Pass), 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 the major’s efforts that we succeeded. As our outfit was falling back, the major 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."

D-Day Normandy

The 60th Infantry landed at Utah Beach during the D-Day landings. It immediately began moving westward to cut the Cotentin peninsula in half and make the Cherbourg port on the English Channel vulnerable. Urban was now the F/2-60th commander. About halfway across, his company was at risk of being wiped out at Renouf, France in the center of the peninsula. He armed himself with a bazooka, worked his way through the hedgerows with an ammo carrier, all the while under a continuous barrage of enemy fire. Urban managed to get himself close to some enemy tanks, and exposing himself to the hostile fire, knocked out two tanks. Later that day, he was wounded in the leg, refused evacuation and led his company into defensive positions at night.

Early in the morning the next day, though badly wounded, he directed his company in yet another attack. He was wounded again. He now suffered two wounds, one serious, and was evacuated to England. 

Operation Cobra, the drive through France and Belgium

"Operation Cobra" was designed to break out of the Cotentin peninsula and move into the heart of northwestern France. Urban was still recovering in the hospital in England. He read a newspaper article that said the 9th ID was in distress. One of the battalion officers told Urban:

"I don't know how well they'll perform. They're pretty banged up. They're so worn out it's as if they have no more fight in them."

Urban responded:

"Oh they still have plenty of fight in them. They just need me to show them where to  look."

So Urban hobbled out of the hospital and made his way to France. He walked with a stick and a pistol, and hitch-hiked his way to the front, one time ordering a private to drive him to St. Lo. Shortly thereafter they approached an intense battle. One observer commented:

"His men looked tired and timid, not anything like the bold and daring troops he had led the previous month. Urban got out of his Jeep and told the acting commander:

"I'm retaking command of Company F. Come on men! It's time we turned those Krauts into sauerkraut. We're gonna kick them outta here, and I'm gonna lead the way."

He had found his men lying in ditches and foxholes, and told them:

"On your feet soldiers. Follow me. Let's go."

One soldier was said to have replied:

"A crazy officer appeared, yelling like a madman and waving a gun in his hand. He got us up on our feet, gave us our confidence back and saved our lives." 

There was one tank available. Two of Urban's soldiers were killed trying to get on board. Urban moved toward the tank under a hail of hostile fire and determined his injured leg helped him because he "crawled up there like a snake." 

Once aboard the tank, he ordered the driver to move the thing forward. The tank came under intense fire. Nonetheless Urban got out, manned the machine gun and placed devastating fire on the enemy. That action galvanized his men and they moved forward and destroyed the enemy position.

In the process, Urban was again wounded, receiving shrapnel to the chest. The battalion surgeon wanted to evacuate him and told Urban his wounds were serious. But he refused, saying, "nonsense I've been nicked up a little, but I'm better off than in the hospital. Case closed."

The doctor removed as much shrapnel as he could, sewed him up, and let him return to his unit. He stayed with his unit. 

Off to Belgium

Urban's unit along with others made their way into Belgium. As they approached the Meuse River, German artillery rained down on them. Urban sensed his men were in jeopardy. He left the command post and went to the front lines. He was still limping, but reorganized his troops and led a charge across an open field. They came under heavy machine-gun fire and Urban was hit in the neck.

Urban passed out. A medic ran over to him, worked to stop the bleeding, and put a tube down his throat so he could breathe. Litter bearers came to him and took him to the rear. A priest came over and Urban thought he was dying. The battalion surgeon came over and ordered him to be evacuated. 

Urban argued saying he had to remain with his troops and complete the mission. 

Though suffering from pain and trying to remain conscious, he jotted down an attack plan, gave it a sergeant and told him to give it to the acting commander.

Urban still refused to be evacuated. However, once he heard his forces had secured a crossing point, he relented and was evacuated. He retired as a lieutenant colonel. He died at the age of 75 in 1995.

The Medal of Honor

A colonel and a staff sergeant witnessed the limping Urban returning to the front to lead his men near St. Lo, France. They wrote out the paperwork recommending he receive the Medal of Honor. The colonel was killed shortly thereafter, and the paperwork was lost. It went unseen for more than 35 years.

A reporter conducting research on Urban's military service in the late 1970s discovered the lost Medal of Honor recommendations. The Army investigated, consulted with several eyewitnesses, and upheld the recommendation.

On July 19, 1980, President Jimmy Carter presented Urban with the Medal of Honor. That made him the most decorated soldier in the history of the U.S. armed forces.

The certificate attached to the medal cited him not for one act of bravery alone, but for consistent bravery exhibited over several actions, "an inspiration to his entire battalion. His valorous and intrepid actions reflect the utmost credit on him and uphold the noble traditions of the United States Army."

Matt Urban, the college boxer

Urban attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York prior to entering the Army. He excelled at sports, primarily track and boxing.  Michael Mroziak, reporting for the August 23, 2011 edition of Am-Pol Eagle, wrote this about Urban and boxing:

"Matt Urban, weighing only 160 pounds, boxed his way into the finals of the Mideastern Intercollegiate Boxing Association. Fighting many in the 175 lb. class, Urban won all his bouts. In the match the photo was taken the decision went to a boxer named Woyciesjes who along with the crowd thought Urban had won."

Civilian life

A web site known as "Your dictionary," wrote this about Urban:

"Urban returned to the field of athletics and recreation as the city recreation director for Port Huron, Michigan, a position he held from 1949 until 1956. He then served as the director of the Monroe, Michigan community center for 16 years before becoming director of the Holland, Michigan civic center and recreation department in 1972. Urban became a devoted softball player and enthusiast, and was known around Holland as 'Mr. Softball.' He retired in 1989, stating that he might well have become a lawyer or public speaker had his vocal chords not been damaged in combat. Urban remained active in veteran's affairs and provided assistance to young people embarking on military careers."

Matt Urban's legacy in Buffalo

On November 11, 2000, the Polish Community Center of Buffalo (PCCB) was renamed in honor of Lt. Colonel Matt Urban. The Polish Community Center’s site at 1081 Broadway was built in 1905 as a Dom Polski (Polish Home) Club. In 1976 The PCCB was incorporated as a cultural/service organization. On November 11, 2000, the PCCB officially changed its name to the “Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center of Western New York” (the Matt Urban Center) and rededicated its mission to serve the needs of the diverse surrounding community under a new corporate identity. It now operates eight sites and employs nearly 100 people.

Leonard Amborski was Urban's friend in high school. He called that Urban was on a beach on Lake Erie and some friends offered him a ride home in their car. He said, "no,"and told them "he was going to go home later after he finished his beer. These fellas took off in their car and were killed on a railroad track."

Amborski commented:

“He figured ‘I could have been in that accident, too, so I guess my time is not here.’ So when he got in the military, I think that was his attitude. He got up on tanks, shot at the Germans, and they couldn’t shoot him down. He just kept going after them all the time. So he figured if it was going to happen, it was going to happen.”

Wars are won by men

Commenting on men like Urban, General George Patton observed:

"Wars may be fought with weapons. But they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and the man who leads that gains the victory."

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

"The Valley of Death," Sangin, Afghanistan

                                 “People need to hear what these young men went through”
                                                                                                                                 Mark “Coach” Soto

The Sangin Valley in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province is not on the radar scope of most Americans. But it is engraved in the hearts and minds of many British and American combat veterans who fought there. It is also engraved within the tombs of many who fell.
Some called Sangin Afghanistan’s hell. Others called it “The Valley of Death.” It has been known as one of the bloodiest places on Earth, a "hellhole," Afghanistan’s Stalingrad, or as the British would say, “Sangingrad.” One Marine called it “the Wild West.” At one point it was the most brutal tour for Marines of the entire war.

Let's just quickly review the year 2001 in Afghanistan:
  • The air attack against the US that killed over 3,000 occurred on September 11, 2001.
  • The US and Britain launched their invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.
  • Afghan militias and other nations would join later.
  • The Allies drove the Taliban government in Kabul out by December 17, 2001. That government fled to Pakistan along with many of its fighters. But most of its fighters fled to southern Afghanistan, to the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.
The Taliban remained quiet until 2006, recruiting, regrouping, and training. Its war fighters re-emerged then and remain a powerful and elusive force to the present.

In response, the British deployed to the Sangin area in 2006. They stayed until 2010. Initially, their objective was to confront local drug lords who cultivated the lucrative opium fields in the Helmand province. The Taliban forced the British to set that objective aside and instead fight to prevent the Taliban from overrunning their bases; that is, fight to survive.

The British formed Task Group Helmand, rotating in units every six months: the 16 Assault Brigade and 1 Royal Irish, 3rd Commando Brigade Royal Marines, 12 Mechanized Brigade, and 52 Infantry Brigade. Forces from several other countries served with the British as well.

General Sir David Richards said they “turned up a hornet’s nest” when they deployed to Helmand.

He said, "There was in some respects a failure of intelligence despite the efforts to get it right.”

In short, the British were not prepared for the fierce fighting they would encounter. And, as noted earlier, they found themselves too often on the defense.

General Sir Peter Wall, the head of the Army, agreed, saying:

"I absolutely accept that what we found when we had our forces on the ground was starkly different from what we had anticipated and been hoping for ... We were ready for an adverse reaction but we did not, to be fair, expect it to be as vehement as it turned out to be ... We had always anticipated Taliban potential intent. What we probably underestimated was their capacity.”

The British did not have enough men, not enough equipment, and they were so busy protecting towns and villages that they had almost no time to go out and attack the enemy elsewhere in the province. They destroyed a lot of enemy but they could not achieve larger objectives.

The British and their allies fought with great valor, but came to a stalemate by December 2007. They had lost some 106 men in the Sangin District.

The US commander in Helmand, Major-General Richard Mills, USMC said that the UK forces' performance in Sangin had been "simply nothing short of magnificent."

The US sent Marines to help. The 1-6 Marines were the first, followed by the 2-7 Marines. The 1-6 Marines focused mainly on southeastern Helmand, mostly in the town of Garmsir. The 2-7 Marines deployed to several towns, one of which was Sangin. Through April 2008 the 2-7 lost 14, and by end of tour had lost 20 with 160 wounded, thirty of which were amputees.

Chris Craven a former Marine platoon sergeant with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment (B/1-6 Marines) said:

“I fought in Fallujah and I fought in Ramadi (both in Iraq) as well, and it’s the same kind of low blow. Out of the three, (Sangin) was by far my bloodiest.”
 Sangin District Center, the scene of much heavy fighting.

 Sgt. Dean Davis, a Marine correspondent described Sangin this way:

“Sangin is one of the prettier places in Helmand, but that’s very deceiving. It’s a very dangerous place; it’s a danger you can feel.”

One from the British 2 Rifles said

“The problem with Sangin Valley is it is where the Taliban and Islamist insurgents flock to.”

Dan Lamothe, a staff writer with the Marine Times, wrote this on November 5, 2008 about the 2-7 Marines:

“Deployed to Afghanistan since March, the battalion has fought off ambushes in lawless areas of Afghan wilderness, traveled bomb-laden roads and experienced more casualties than any other unit in the Corps this year.”

In the spring of 2009, eleven thousand additional Marines poured into the province, the first wave of President Obama's 21,000 troop surge into Afghanistan

Ferocious fighting has been the rule in Helmand every day since 2006. That continues to this day.

A report dated July 14, 2011 by Gretel Kovach about Sangin starts off this way:

“There hasn’t been a lot of good news coming out of Sangin lately. After a year of punishing losses among the insurgent ranks, the Taliban finally launched a counteroffensive to retake their former stronghold in the poppy fields of southwestern Afghanistan.

“The Camp Pendleton unit fighting to rout them from Sangin, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (3-5 Marines), has lost seven Marines killed in a little more than a month, and many more wounded.”

The 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment US Marines (3-5 Marines) arrived in Sangin in September 2010, relieving the 3-7 Marines who had relieved the British 40 Commando. The 3-5 would remain until April 2011.

During the period October 2010 through January 2011, the 3-5 Marines lost 25 dead and 184 wounded, including 34 who lost one or more limbs to traumatic amputation.

Late in 2010, Secretary of Defense Gates offered to withdraw the Marines. Gates commented, “This district was one of the most dangerous not just in Afghanistan but maybe in the whole world.”

General James Amos, Commandant USMC, said “absolutely not. We don’t do business that way. You would have broken the spirit of that (3-5) battalion.”

Following this, the 1-5 "Geronimo" Marines came to Sangin to relieve the 3-5. Geronimo lost 17 KIA, and suffered 185 wounded during its deployment. Tony Perry, writing for the Los Angeles Times, said:

“Of the 17, nine were lance corporals, three were corporals, four were sergeants and one was a gunnery sergeant. The youngest was 20; the two oldest were 29. The 17 included snipers, riflemen and specialists in finding and defusing the buried bombs that are the main killer of U.S. and Afghan military personnel.”

The number of battles fought by US and Allied forces in Sangin is too high to accurately count. These became known as the Battles of the Sangin Valley, to this day, one of the most difficult and lethal aspects of the Afghan War. One American Marine aptly said:

“Marines do not fight wars. They fight battles.”

That is exactly what they did in Sangin. And they were fierce.

Toby Woodbridge, in his book, "Sangin, A Glance through Afghan Eyes," wrote this informative piece in his book:

“From a military standpoint the town (of Sangin) was no natural fortress for those stationed within.” He said foliage and high growing crops reduced the field of view. The rolling hills could mask sight of enemies hiding behind them. There was sufficient high ground in every direction enabling an enemy a good view of the town below. The walls are “interlinked in a warren-like honeycomb without external support, a permeable perimeter enabling easy access into the town’s center from myriad different directions.” Woodbridge said that it was impossible to place enough troopers out there to cover every potential gap, and the enemy had a way of finding the gaps and punching through. He explained that the terrain was such that soldiers were virtually forced to take known paths, vulnerable to easy ambush.

He noted this reality:

“From the defenders’ point of view it was a landscape that rewarded constant presence and continual oversight at all times, for the moment you turned to look another way so your enemy would ensure danger greeted the next discerning glance. There was of course no possibility to place a boot on every pace of grass, dirt or track …”

Julius Cavendish reported for Time magazine on March 10, 2011 that one western diplomat viewed the current situation this way:
“Basically in Sangin they have lots of guns, lots of heroin infrastructure, key distribution points, and zero interest in 'government' — which may just want to control the heroin ... It's not always useful to look at things as 'government' versus 'Taliban' rather than a hotch-potch of interest groups — cut along tribal, political, historical lines — fighting for control.”

I will stop here, though there is much more to tell.

The Marines left the Sangin Valley in May 2014. About 300 Marines returned in May 2018 to work as advisors. I believe they are still there.

Ownership of territory in Helmand has changed hands many time. Fierce fighting continues there to the presen, including in Sangin.Thomas Ricks mnoted this in 2017, and it applies now as well:

"The spectre of Sangin lives on."