It took the United States more than 30 years to realize it, but a genuine American hero of World War II worked tirelessly – and in perilous circumstances – to help secure Allied victories on two continents: Europe and North Africa. But for a long time, this man’s remarkable exploits went unrecognized.
Lieutenant Colonel Matt Louis Urban’s feats of bravery were rewarded with seven Purple Hearts along the way, two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars, and other honors that, when tallied up, made Urban one of the most decorated soldiers to emerge from World War II. But it took until 1979 for him to receive the Medal of Honor, a commendation he richly deserved.
Nicknamed “the Ghost,” Urban had just the right combination of bravery, skill, and luck. He was also incredibly dedicated.
He risked his life on many occasions when he should have, by rights, seized the opportunity to retire in good health with a fat pension. But he was an exceptional leader who would ask nothing of his men that he was not prepared to do himself.
After university, Urban joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. From there, he signed up for the army in 1941, just as America was entering the war. He soon became a 2nd Lieutenant and developed a reputation as a man who just wouldn’t stop fighting, even when injured.
In Tunisia, Urban once kept fighting when his men were compelled to retreat. He took on a German soldier one-to-one, killed him, grabbed his rifle and began firing it back at the enemy. This led to his first Purple Heart.
After new orders to ship out and help the Allies at Normandy, he joined the 2nd Battalion, Infantry Division. On June 14, 1944, at Renouf, France, they came under heavy attack by the Germans. They suffered many casualties.
Urban knew he had to act to ensure the survival of his men. So he seized a bazooka, secured someone to carry ammunition and then proceeded to launch a two-man, terror-filled assault on the entire German unit. In the face of such an onslaught, the enemy soldiers retreated.
But Urban wasn’t finished. A short distance away on that same day, his men came under attack again. This time, Urban got hit.
Rather than allow his unit to ship him out to safety and medical care, Urban insisted on leading them in a counter-attack, during which they were able to set up defenses.
Unfortunately, he was hit again and had no choice but be sent to England for care.
Four weeks later, Urban got word that his men were in deep trouble at Normandy. Without permission, Urban left the hospital and headed to France where he found his men in severe jeopardy. Two of their tanks were destroyed and the third had no one to operate it.
He ordered two of his men to take control of the remaining tank, but when they tried, German soldiers rained gunfire upon them. Both men were killed instantly.
Forgetting about his leg injury, Urban scrambled into the tank and grabbed its machine gun. He started to fire at the enemy, and his men followed suit. Together, they obliterated the Germans.
Carrying on, Urban was wounded again and again, but he kept going, leading his men, and fighting ferociously. The final injury that forced Urban out of battle happened in Belgium.
He led his unit in an assault on enemy soldiers at the Meuse River. He took a gunshot in the neck and finally understood that, without treatment, he would die. But he wouldn’t leave battle until he knew his men were going to win. Once assured, he agreed to leave.
In 1944, an army official recommended Urban for the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, the officer was subsequently killed, so his recommendation got lost in the sea of paperwork that any protracted war engenders.
It wasn’t until 1979 that the documents were found, at which time Urban was awarded the Medal of Honor by then-president Jimmy Carter.
Urban died in 1994. By all reasoning, his risks and over-the-top bravery should have seen him perish much sooner. Luckily for the Allies, and for his men specifically, fate did not have that in store for Lieutenant Colonel Matt Urban.