Urban, Matt Louis

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Urban, Matt Louis

(b. 25 August 1919 in Buffalo, New York; d. 4 March 1995 in Holland, Michigan), military officer who was the most highly decorated American combat soldier of World War II and awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Normandy campaign.

The third of four children (one of whom died in childhood) of Stanley Urbanowitz, a plumber of Polish descent, and Helen Urbanowitz, a homemaker, Matt L. Urbanowitz, a devout Catholic called “Matty” by friends and associates, grew up on Buffalo’s East Side near the New York Central Railroad yards. At an early age, he abbreviated his last name to Urban. Attending Buffalo’s East High School, he excelled as an athlete, lettering in three sports. In the fall of 1937 Urban enrolled at Cornell University, where he was inspired by his history professor, Fred Marcham. Prior to graduating, Urban competed on the university’s intercollegiate boxing team and joined the army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to pay for his education. In June 1941 Urban graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in history and government.

Urban received his commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army on 22 May 1941 and moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he was assigned to the Sixtieth Regiment of the Ninth Infantry Division for basic training to prepare for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa.

The Sixtieth Regiment was part of the western task force that invaded French Morocco. Landing during the early morning hours of 8 November 1942, Urban’s Company D sustained heavy casualties from the French Foreign Legion defending Port Lyautey and its strategic airfield. After the war, Urban claimed that the motivation for his heroism was generated by the shock of holding in his hands the decapitated head of a dead comrade during this battle. With Morocco occupied by the Americans, the Ninth Division relocated by truck and train to the Tunisian front to reinforce the British at Thala in the aftermath of the Allied defeat at Kasserine Pass.

Urban fought at Maknassy Pass from 28 March to 9 April 1943. He single-handedly captured a German communications post in March 1943. Captain Urban’s troops captured strategic enemy positions in the Sedjenane Valley and played a major role in the assault on Djebel Cheniti, which hastened the fall of Bizerte and the end of German resistance in Tunisia on 13 May. With the liberation of North Africa, Allied forces invaded Sicily as a precursor to the invasion of the Italian peninsula. As part of Operation Husky, the Ninth Division landed at Palermo, twenty-two days after the main American force breached Sicily’s southeastern coast on 10 July. By this time Urban commanded Company F of the Sixtieth Regiment. Urban’s unit was ordered to flank the Germans and take control of the territory overlooking the towns of Troina, Cesaro, and Randazzo. By doing so the Americans reached the Tortorici line, the last German line of defense on the island. Leading tethered pack mules over mountainous terrain on foot, Urban’s company cleared the high ground used by the Germans for observation and long-range eighty-eight-millimeter artillery bombardment. With the fall of Ran-dazzo, the Ninth Division reinforced the Third Division, which had made an amphibious landing at Brolo on 8 August. Messina and the island fell to the Allies on 17 August 1943.

From Sicily, the Ninth Division relocated to the British Isles, where it bivouacked near Winchester, England, one of the many staging areas for the D-day invasion of Normandy, launched on 6 June 1944. Having crossed the English Channel, troops of the Ninth loaded into Higgins landing craft near Utah Beach on 11 June to reinforce the Fourth Division. Moving inland, Urban’s company encountered remnants of the German Panzer Lehr Division near Saint Mère-Église and Renouf on 14 June 1944. During the ensuing battle, Urban saw his bazooka gunner fall, a victim of enemy gunfire. Urban took up the weapon and, followed by an ammunition carrier, stalked two Mark IV tanks behind thick hedgerows, destroying both with devastating side shots. A third German tank nearby fired at Urban, wounding him in the left calf. Refusing evacuation, Urban ordered his men to rig a stretcher so that he could remain in combat. A bullet wound in the right forearm necessitated Urban’s withdrawal to a hospital in southern England the next day.

On 25 July, Urban returned to France, where the Allied advance had bogged down in hedgerow country, a labyrinth of small fields surrounded by rock walls laced with thick hedge growth, all of which bolstered the Germans’ defense. By then General Omar Bradley, the commander of American ground forces, had devised a plan to take the offensive. Operation Cobra began with an aerial and artillery bombardment pulverizing a rectangular area three and one-half by one and one-half miles wide near the Periers-Saint-Lô Road. Urban’s command was in close proximity to that area on the morning of 25 July 1944, the day of the offensive.

Upon his return to the front, Urban, walking with the support of a cane, found his men behind three stalled Sherman tanks. They were pinned down by lethal fire from a German antitank gun and a machine gun emplacement. One tank was burning. Urban heard cries for help from the second tank, from which he pulled a wounded man to safety; within seconds the vehicle burst into flames. The third tank had stopped, its turret gunner dead. Hobbling to it in a hail of gunfire, Urban climbed into the turret, ordering the driver forward. He manned the fifty-caliber machine gun, pouring devastating fire into the German gun emplacement. With the tank moving in the direction of the enemy, Urban’s men rallied and captured the German position.

Eyeing the action through his binoculars, the battalion commander, Major Max Wolf, was so impressed with Urban’s courage and leadership, he informed Sergeant Earl Evans that he would recommend Urban for the Medal of Honor. But Major Wolf was killed in action that same day. Remembering Wolfs words, Evans wrote a letter to the Pentagon dated 5 July 1945, which was forwarded first to the adjutant general of the army. The letter, however, was misplaced at the Pentagon. Still, Evans and Urban knew of the document’s existence, and it was the basis of the latter’s claim to the congressional medal. Meanwhile, on 3 September 1944, Urban was wounded for the seventh and final time when an enemy bullet pierced his throat, damaging his larynx. After twenty months of combat duty, he was medically discharged on 27 February 1946 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In October 1944 Urban began working as a writer for the military magazine Liberty, serving in that capacity until January 1946. After moving to Michigan in 1947, Urban was the executive director of the Monroe, Michigan, Community Center, until 1967. He then served as city recreation superintendent in Port Huron, Michigan, through 1974. After his marriage to Jennifer (“Jennie”) Rockwell of Port Huron, he accepted a job as recreation director and Civic Center manager in Holland, Michigan. The couple had one child. Urban retired to devote more time to writing his autobiography, The Matt Urban Story: Life and World War II Experiences (1989). Urban’s physique reflected the rigorous regimen of countless hours of roadwork throughout his life. He wore a neatly trimmed mustache and his eyes, set beneath his auburn hair and broad forehead, exuded the confidence of a natural leader.

In July 1980 President Jimmy Carter awarded Urban the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony after thirty-five years of bureaucratic oversight. This enabled Urban, who was decorated twenty-nine times for bravery, to surpass Audie Murphy as America’s most highly decorated veteran of World War II. Urban died in 1995 from complications due to a collapsed lung. He is buried in section 7-A of Arlington National Cemetery, near the Memorial Amphitheater and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Numerous obituaries, clippings describing Urban’s celebrity status in the Holland community, and even Department of the Army personnel records can be found in the Hope College archives in Holland, Michigan. Information can also be found in the Buffalo News library in Buffalo, New York. Urban’s autobiography, The Matt Urban Story: Life and World War II Experiences (1989), is a good place to begin a study of his life, although it is lacking in historical detail. The definitive history of the combat record of the Ninth Division is Eight Stars to Victory: A History of the Veteran Ninth U.S. Infantry Division (1948), by Captain Joseph B. Mittelman. An excellent bibliography is included in Armies Corps, Divisions, and Separate Brigades (2d ed., 1999), compiled by John B. Wilson. An obituary is in the New York Times (7 Mar. 1995),

Jean W. Griffith