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."

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