A retired Army lieutenant colonel received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Carter yesterday in an emotional ceremony that came 35 years late and left both men blinking back tears.
Matt Urban, now 60 years old and a recreation director in Holland, Mich., was a captain in the Army in France in World War II when his heroism and leadership under fire despite wounds won him a recommendation for the nation's highest award for valor.
The recommendation was lost in the mails and was not found until 1978. Yesterday, at a reunion of Urban's old division at the Shoreham Americana Hotel, the president expressed his regret about the delay and praised Urban before his comrades as "truly a hero of this great nation."
Before 500 veterans of the 9th Infantry Division and their wives, the president lauded Urban for "outstanding, bold and courageous leadership under punishing enemy fire."
After the presentation, the two men hugged. Urban struggled to retain his soldierly bearing, but his face melted with emotion and his eyes shone with tears. The president also blinked back a tear.
The road to yesterday's ceremony began in northern France in June 1944, not long after the D-Day invasion. Urban, then 25 and a captain, was leading his company in the face of heavy fire from German artillery and tanks.
Armed with a bazooka, Urban moved out into the enemy fire and blew up two German tanks. His men advanced and routed the enemy. After suffering two battle wounds the next day, Urban was evacuated to an English hospital.
However, just six weeks later Urban heard that his company had suffered severe casualties. He returned to France and hitchhiked to the battle front where he found his company again bogged down by German fire. Still hobbling from a leg wound, Urban commandeered a tank and led his troops through the enemy lines.
Despite three more wounds in the next month, Urban refused to leave the battlefront until his battalion had established a crossing point into Belgium.
The way one 9th Infantry Division veteran told it yesterday, a major had watched in awe as Urban rode the tank into enemy fire telling another soldier, "I'm going to recommend that man for the highest medal the U.S. has.
The major was later killed in action, but the other soldier, Sgt. Earl Evans wrote a letter to his superiors in July 1945, urging that Urban be awarded the Medal of Honor.
The letter vanished. Urban received a chestful of other medals, including a Silver Star, Legion of Merit award, a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart with six oak leaf clusters. But not the biggest one, the Medal of Honor.
In reviewing Urban's records in 1978, the Army found a copy of Sgt. Evans' letter. After confirming the letter's accuracy, the medal was approved.
President Carter said that he "deeply regretted" that Urban's honor was so long in coming. "But I am grateful," Carter added, "for this timely reminder to our nation of what freedom means, what it has cost, and what is really at stake when we speak of America."
When the audience, including 40 to 50 of Urban's battle companions, rose to cheer, the honored soldier finally relaxed, smiling unabashedly and waving both hands.
Afterwords, Urban said the medal was "a dream come true."
"All of this could have only come about through the fellow upstairs, the Lord Almighty," he told a throng of reporters and friends in a hoarse, happy voice.
He insisted that he did not regret having to wait for the honor. His only regret, he said, was that his mother and father could not have lived to see him receive the award.
Several men stepped up and introduced themselves to Urban in the sometimes vain hope that he would immediately recognize them. Others asked for autographs. As several uniformed officers began to lead Urban out of the hotel, to attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, someone asked Urban what had prompted him to his acts.
Urban paused and spoke more softly.
"Anger. Remorse. Despair at seeing your friends die. You cannot understand the kind of dependence that fighting servicemen have for each other. We are closer than brothers. I just couldn't leave them in there and not help," he said.
Earl Evans stepped out of the crowd and the men kissed each other.
"Remember," Urban told his listeners moments later. "War is a world of hell."