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Published: Monday, 5/30/2005

Monroe hero may have most WW II medals

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Dale Schroeder, left, and Richard Pearch are behind a campaign to honor Lt. Col. Matt Urban with a postage stamp. Dale Schroeder, left, and Richard Pearch are behind a campaign to honor Lt. Col. Matt Urban with a postage stamp.
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MONROE - Eleven days after the death in 1995 of former Monroe resident Lt. Col. Matt Urban - to some World War II's most decorated veteran - Richard Pearch wrote a letter to the U.S. postmaster general.

Mr. Pearch of Monroe asked Marvin Runyon to consider putting Mr. Urban's likeness on a postage stamp.

His reason?

"I just knew that Matt Urban was a real hero. It just really bothered me that he didn't get [enough] recognition for his feats."

At the time, Mr. Pearch was not aware that other than presidents, potential candidates have to be dead 10 years before the postal service will consider a commemorative stamp for any individual.

Mr. Urban reached that mark March 4, so the campaign is official.

Mr. Pearch, a retired Army MP and World War II veteran, and his friend, Dale Schroeder of Monroe, a retired Navy veteran, began the effort 10 years ago. They recruited members of the Matt Urban American Legion Post 40 and other area veterans to write letters to the postal service on behalf of Mr. Urban.

Mr. Schroeder, 87, defers credit to 77-year-old Mr. Pearch.

Lt. Col. Matt Urban, with his wife Jennie and daughter Jennifer attending the White House ceremony, received his Medal of Honor from President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Lt. Col. Matt Urban, with his wife Jennie and daughter Jennifer attending the White House ceremony, received his Medal of Honor from President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
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"It was 99 percent him," he said. Said Mr. Pearch: "I was only the embryo in this thing, by writing the first letter to the postmaster general."

True enough: Mr. Pearch was not aware of how massive the Matt Urban postage stamp campaign would become.

Anthony Bajdek has seen to that.

"I've got 60,000 to 70,000 signatures right now," said Mr. Bajdek, a retired dean at Northeastern University in Boston and president of the Polish American Congress of Eastern Massachusetts.

Mr. Urban's father's family - the Urbanowiczes - immigrated to the United States from Poland. But Mr. Bajdek said ethnic origin is not the only reason he decided to direct the Urbanstamp campaign.

He explained: "He received seven Purple Hearts. I would have been supportive of him whether he was Greek, Italian, or whatever. The fact he is Polish is convenient for me."

Post office officials, while describing the Urban campaign as impressive, say it is too early to know what the outcome will be.

Mr. Urban's story is a Hollywood script long overdue, many of his supporters believe.

He was raised in Buffalo, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he starred in football, boxing, and track. On his graduation day in 1941, Mr. Urban, a commissioned ROTC officer, handed his parents his textbooks for safekeeping.

"He told them he wasn't [coming] back home with them; that he was going to train troops," said his widow, Jennie Urban of Holland, Mich.

Mr. Urban was soon overseas, where he fought with the 9th Division's 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment, in North Africa, Sicily, France and, finally, Germany.

His exploits in Africa earned him his first two Purple Hearts, according to Mr. Pearch. But it was in the European campaign where his exploits elevated him to mythical status.

He was wounded seven times in 20 months and returned to the front each time but the last. The Germans started to call Mr. Urban "The Ghost," so vast was his reputation among the enemy for his heroics and repeated returns to combat after they believed that they had killed him.

Two of his feats in particular are frequently recounted.

  • On June 14, 1944, at Renouf, France, Mr. Urban destroyed two German tanks with a bazooka while under heavy fire and with his unit taking heavy casualties. As a result, his company was able to rally and win that battle.

    The same day, in another fight, Mr. Urban was wounded in the leg. Despite the injury, he refused evacuation and worked through the night to place his unit in position for an attack the next morning. Mr. Urban led the offensive and was shot again. The battle finally won, he was evacuated to a hospital.

  • A month later, though not healed, Mr. Urban heard his division was in trouble at Normandy. He left the hospital, hitched a ride to the front, and rejoined the group near St. Lo, France, on July 25, the first day of Operation Cobra - one of the war's most significant campaigns. Again, his division was under heavy fire and casualties were high. Mr. Urban, still limping, recruited a lieutenant and a sergeant to help secure an abandonedAmerican tank. His companions were killed, leaving Mr. Urban to take the tank, which he did. He then drove the tank toward the Germans, firing as he went. His revived unit followed, eventually routing the enemy.

    Mr. Urban was wounded three more times over the next five weeks. In his final battle, while leading a platoon toward an enemy nest on the Meuse River near Heer, Belgium, Mr. Urban was shot in the neck. Despite the gravity of his injury, he refused to be evacuated; so a medic was summoned.

    In a 1980 Blade interview, Mr. Urban recalled the moment: "I was looking right at [the medic] when the chaplain asked if I had any chance to live, and he shook his head no. So they gave me my last rites."

    But Matt Urban survived.

    Four months later, another Army veteran became a national hero. In a single battle in January, 1945, 21-year-old Sgt. Audie Murphy commandeered a burning U.S. tank and killed more than 50 Germans while sustaining heavy fire and being shot in the leg. Sergeant Murphy was given the Medal of Honor nine months later. With 29 medals, he was considered the war's most decorated soldier. After the war, Mr. Murphy starred in a movie about his life and in 43 other feature films, before dying in a plane crash in 1971.

    Mr. Urban received no such recognition. Unknown to him, his files were misplaced; they remained missing 35 years. It was not something he thought about when he returned home to Buffalo. His first goal was to regain his health. Second, he needed a job. The wound had damaged his vocal cords, leaving him with a quiet, raspy voice.

    He turned to children, a group he could direct without shouting. He married and moved to Monroe in 1946, where he became director of the Monroe Community Center. He also owned and operated a sporting goods store. It was there that Richard Pearch first met Mr. Urban.

    "He used to tell us stories right there in the store," Mr. Pearch said. Mr. Schroeder once recalled seeing Mr. Urban stripped to his underwear, revealing combat wounds on his neck, chest, and legs.

    "I had seen wounds before, but nothing like that. I was very humbled," he said.

    Mrs. Urban said her husband's fearless approach to battle was motivated, in part, by his witnessing of the horrific death of one his best friends early on in the Normandy campaign.

    "He cared for people," she said. "When he saw his men getting shot, he was gung ho."

    Mr. Urban moved from Monroe to Port Huron, Mich., in 1962. In 1973, he moved to Holland. By then he had divorced, remarried, and became the father of a daughter, Jennifer Hurford, a Harvard Law School graduate who lives in Illinois with her husband and two children.

    Mr. Urban's records were found in 1980. That July, President Carter awarded him the Medal of Honor. He also received his seventh Purple Heart, the Legion of Merit, and the Croix de Guerre with a Silver Star. The medals elevated Mr. Urban's standing in World War II lore and created a national debate between Murphy and Urban camps. Depending on who you talked with, Mr. Urban was either tied, just ahead, or just behind Audie Murphy in medals received.

    Mr. Schroeder is clear on the matter: "Matt Urban is the most decorated combat veteran of World War II."

    Mr. Urban retired in 1989 as director of Holland's community recreation department. He had written his autobiography, The Matt Urban Story, and began traveling to promote the book. He died at 75.

    Mr. Bajdek said early efforts on behalf of an Urban stamp were futile.

    "Unfortunately, long before I got involved well-meaning people from different parts of the country collected signatures but the postal service rejected them. It was too early."

    One of them was Wes Taft, a 86-year-old Navy Seabees veteran of World War II and a New Salem, Pa., businessman. Over a period of several years, Mr. Taft accumulated 35,000 signatures, which he mailed to the group that chooses stamp designees. He never heard from the committee, so he called.

    "They claim they didn't get them. They probably went to File 13," Mr. Taft said.

    Postal service spokeswoman Rita Peer said there is no way to know for sure the signatures are lost. She said that information is held close by the Citizens Review Advisory Committee, the 13-member independent board that meets eight times a year to choose the 25 to 30 annual stamp designs

    There are precedents for stamps featuring military heroes. In 2000, the postal service issued a four-stamp series on distinguished soldiers that included Sergeant Murphy, Gen. Omar Bradley, Maj. Gen. John L. Hines, and Sgt. Alvin York.

    She said that Mr. Bajdek's cache of signatures on behalf of Mr. Urban - he hopes to reach 100,000 before he delivers them to the committee - is an unusually large number and will get the board's attention.

    Mr. Bajdek said 10 to 15 petitions are coming in every week to his Web site, www.paceasternmass.org. But he is not relying only on the committee to make things happen: Mr. Bajdek will attempt to persuade Congress to pass a resolution supporting an Urban stamp.

    "We'll get their attention," he said. "Hopefully, they'll do this out of a sense of fair play and justice. Matt Urban was an all-American hero."

    Contact George Tanber at: gtanber@theblade.com or 734-241-3610.



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