'The Ghost' is the most decorated infantry officer you've never heard of
Guinness World Records stopped tracking the world’s most decorated soldiers because the importance and distinction of certain medals outweighs the objective number of medals a service member can be awarded —a distinction veterans certainly understand.
What brought this to their attention was the medal count between Audie Murphy – long regarded as the most decorated U.S. soldier ever – and a little-known WWII veteran and Medal of Honor recipient named Matt Urban, whose medal count matched Murphy’s.
But no one knew that Urban had matched the well-known Murphy until 36 years after the end of WWII because Urban’s recommendation and supporting paperwork were lost in the bureaucratic shuffle.
He was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Merit but never knew until his military records were reviewed to award his Medal of Honor.
And there were a lot of actions to review.
President Carter called then retired Lt. Col. Matt Urban “The Greatest Soldier in American History” as he presented the Medal of Honor to Urban in 1980. The soldier’s Medal of Honor citation alone lists “a series of actions” – at least 10 – that go above and beyond the call of duty.
The Nazis called Urban “The Ghost” because he just seemed to keep coming back to life when they killed him. The soldier’s seven Purple Hearts can attest to that.
Urban joined the Army ROTC at Cornell in 1941. It was just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and unfortunately for the Nazis, Urban graduated in time to land in North Africa in 1942.
He was ordered to stay aboard a landing craft off the Tunisian coast, but when he heard his unit encountered stiff resistance on the beaches, he hopped in a raft and rowed to the fight. There he replaced a wounded platoon leader.
Later, at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, Urban destroyed a German observation post, then led his company in a frontal assault on a fortified enemy position. During one German counterattack, Urban killed an enemy soldier with his trench knife, then took the man’s machine pistol and wiped out the rest of the oncoming Germans. He was wounded in his hands and arm.
In North Africa, his actions earned him two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts.
It was in France where Urban would distinguish himself and earn his nickname. His division landed at Normandy on D-Day, and later at the French town of Renouf he spearheaded another gallant series of events.
On June 14, 1944, two tanks and small arms began raking Urban’s men in the hedgerows, causing heavy casualties. He picked up a bazooka and led an ammo carrier closer to the tanks.
Urban then exposed himself to the heavy enemy fire as he took out both tanks. His leadership inspired his men who easily bested the rest of the German infantry.
Later that same day, Urban took a direct shot in the leg from a 37mm tank gun. He continued to direct his men to defense positions. The next day, still wounded, Urban led his troops on another attack. He was wounded again and flown back to England.
In July 1944, he learned how much the fighting in the French hedgerows devastated his unit. Urban, still in the hospital in England, ditched his bed and hitchhiked back to France. He met up with his men near St. Lo on the eve of Operation Cobra, a breakout effort to hit the German flanks and advance into Brittany.
He found his unit held down by a German strong point with two of his tanks destroyed and a third missing its commander and gunner. Urban hatched a plan to remount the tank and break through but his lieutenant and sergeant were killed in their attempts – so he mounted the tank himself.
“The Ghost” manned the machine gun as bullets whizzed by and devastated the enemy.
He was wounded twice more in August, refusing to be evacuated even after taking artillery shell fragments to the chest. He was promoted to battalion commander.
In September 1944, Urban’s path of destruction across Europe was almost at an end. His men were pinned down by enemy artillery while trying to cross the Meuse River in Belgium. Urban left the command post and went to the front, where he reorganized the men and personally led an assault on a Nazi strongpoint. Urban was shot in the neck by a machine gun during the charge across open ground. He stayed on site until the Nazis were completely routed and the Allies could cross the Meuse.
And that’s just his Medal of Honor citation.
In a 1974 interview with his hometown newspaper, the Buffalo News, he credits his survival to accepting the idea of dying in combat.
“If I had to get it,” Urban said, “it was going to be while I was doing something. I didn’t want to die in my sleep.”
The reason he never received a recommendation for the Medal of Honor was because the recommendation was just lost in the paperwork shuffle. His commander, Maj. Max Wolf filed the recommendation, but it was lost when Wolf was killed in action.
“When I came home, I never thought about war,” he said in a 1988 press report. “That’s why the medal was 35 years late. … I just never pursued it.”
It was the enlisted men who fought with Urban who started asking about “The Ghost’s” Medal of Honor.
“The sight of him limping up the road, all smiles, raring to lead the attack once more, brought the morale of the battleweary men to its highest peak – Staff Sgt. Earl G. Evans in a 1945 letter to the War Department that was also lost.
Matt Urban died in 1995 at age 75 and is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.