This Day in History: Lt. Col. Matt Urban & his Medal of Honor
On this day in 1980, Lt. Col. Matt Urban receives the Medal of Honor. That Medal had been a long time coming: Urban’s bravery came years earlier, during World War II.
Usually, Medals are awarded for bravery during one particular conflict or for a specific act. But Urban received his Medal for continuous acts of bravery between June 14 and September 3, 1944. His heroism was needed in those weeks after D-Day.
On June 14, Urban was in Renouf, France, where his company encountered two German tanks. Those tanks were “unmercifully raking his unit’s positions and inflicting heavy casualties,” but Urban wasn’t going to let those tanks get the better of his men. He armed himself with a bazooka and worked his way toward them. He was exposing himself to enemy fire and risking his life, but he finally got close enough to destroy both tanks.
It was enough to turn the tide, and his company soon routed that detachment of German infantry.
There were more Germans just around the corner, of course. The efforts in France continued and Urban was wounded in the leg later that day. He refused to be evacuated, instead helping his men to set up a defensive posture for the night. Finally, at 5:00 the next morning, another serious wound forced his evacuation to England.
You can imagine that Urban wasn’t too happy about that. He soon checked himself out of the hospital. He was still recovering and using a cane, but he was determined to go back and help.
He tricked the Army into letting him train and accompany a group of soldiers across the English Channel. He was supposed to immediately return, but he didn’t. Instead, he promptly hitchhiked his way across France. He was back where he wanted to be.
Urban returned just as a planned break-out at St. Lô was beginning. Operation Cobra would prove to be important—and Urban was one of its heroes.
“One of the craziest officers suddenly appeared before us,” a staff sergeant later reported, “yelling like a madman and waving a gun in his hand . . . . He got us on our feet, gave us back our confidence, and saved our lives.”
The soldiers were under attack. Two of their tanks had been destroyed and one was usable, but mostly unmanned. Urban watched as a lieutenant and a sergeant were killed trying to get to the turret gun. He knew he couldn’t send any more soldiers to “certain death.” There was only one thing to do: He’d have to do it himself.
Machine-gun bullets pelted at him the whole way. Once inside the tank, he realized that he’d need to stick his head up again if he planned to fire the gun. The Germans were shocked when he stood up and began firing—it gave him an advantage. And he used it.
Urban’s bravery didn’t end there. For weeks, he led his men heroically, refusing evacuation despite several wounds. Finally, on September 3, he received a life-threatening wound to his neck. Even then, he still resisted evacuation until his battalion had secured its objective.
For all these actions, Urban would receive the Medal of Honor. It wasn’t his only military honor—not by a long shot. Indeed, some people claim that Urban is America’s most combat-decorated soldier. Others contend that Audie Murphy retains that distinction or that the two men are tied.
A bit odd that the controversy hasn’t been fully resolved, isn’t it?
Either way, both men represent America at her finest. RIP, gentlemen.
C. Brian Kelly, Best Little Stories from World War II: More than 100 true stories (2010)
Editors of the Boston Publishing Company, The Medal of Honor: A History of Service Above and Beyond (2014)
George J. Tanber, Who has more medals? Depends on who's counting, Toledo Blade (May 30, 2005)
Medal of Honor citation (Matt Urban, July 19, 1980)