If it's the last thing he does, Art Dembik is going to make sure the late Lt. Col. Matt L. Urban, perhaps America's most decorated soldier, gets his due.
Dembik is determined to see the image of his high school pal and World War II hero on a hometown monument, on the walls of public buildings and on the sides of buses -- and his name on signs at the city limits.
And he won't stop there. He wants Veterans Affairs Medical Center renamed for Urban, who earned 29 combat medals, including the Medal of Honor and two Silver Stars.
"First of all, he was America's most outstanding veteran. No other city can claim him," Dembik said. "Second, I'd like people to know who he was."
As a young captain with the 9th Infantry Division's 60th Regiment, Urban was wounded seven times in Tunisia, Sicily, France and Belgium but kept going back to fight. His invincibility led German foes to nickname him "the Ghost."
His bravest exploit occurred following the D-Day invasion of Europe. Shot in the leg a few days after landing on Omaha Beach, he managed to rejoin his pinned-down company near the Normandy village of St. Lo.
"One of the craziest officers suddenly appeared before us, yelling like a madman and waving a gun in his hand," a sergeant later said.
Urban got them moving, led an attack and climbed atop a tank to man a machine gun in the face of heavy enemy fire. He was praised for saving "countless American lives" and helping the Allies break out of the St. Lo pocket.
His leadership under fire eventually earned Urban the Medal of Honor, which was bestowed by President Jimmy Carter in Washington, D.C., in 1980. His other medals, besides the Silver Stars, include seven Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars. France also awarded Urban the Croix de Guerre.
According to the Total Army Personnel Command in Alexandria, Va., Urban's 29 medals equal the number earned by Lt. Audie Murphy, who held the title of "most decorated" for more than 30 years before Urban's belated Medal of Honor arrived.
However, Arlington National Cemetery, where both heroes are buried, credits Murphy with 28 medals, which supports Dembik's claim that Urban trumped Murphy when he received the Medal of Honor -- his 29th combat decoration.
Murphy's heroics propelled him into a movie career that began in 1955 with the World War II movie "To Hell and Back," in which he played himself. Murphy died at age 46 in the 1971 crash of a private plane.
Urban, who was born Matt L. Urbanowicz, died at age 75 in 1995, of complications from one of his war injuries. He was city recreation director of Holland, Mich., where he had settled after the war. Before taking the director's post in Holland, he was recreation director of Port Huron, Mich., and director of the Monroe, Mich., Community Center.
As for getting proper respect for Urban in Buffalo, don't bet against Dembik. At 84, he is down to 145 pounds from his wartime fighting weight of about 185, and confined to a wheelchair because of lingering World War II injuries. But he is persistent.
Ask the Army bureaucracy, which only recently acknowledged Dembik's own heroism during the fighting in Europe nearly 60 years ago.
With assistance from Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, Dembik, who still thinks of himself as one of Gen. George Patton's "blood and guts guys," received the Bronze Star he earned as a machinegunner with the 6th Armored Division's 50th Armored Infantry Battalion during the Battle of the Bulge. The decoration for bravery, which Dembik first requested in 1955, arrived with six other long-overdue medals.
Persistence pays off
He's not done with the Army, which still hasn't sent the Purple Heart he feels he merits for shrapnel wounds caused by an exploding land mine. It took him two weeks to dig the shards out of his arms and hands, which now are weakened by arthritis.
"They owe me one," Dembik growled.
He's already won some battles on Urban's behalf, too:
Dembik and fellow veterans Norm Skulski and Joe Andrycaj, supported by Erie County Legislator Raymond K. Dusza, D-Cheektowaga, successfully pushed for an Urban monument at the Rath County Office Building downtown. Final plans for the monument are to be announced in September, with installation due next May.
Raising funds for monument
A model of the proposed work shows Urban, armed with a bazooka, leading his men into battle. The county and the state have agreed to split most of the projected $45,000 cost. The vets, with Dembik throwing in more than $1,000 of his own money, have raised $8,500 so far. Dembik was the prime mover in establishing the ROTC Alumni Hall of Fame in Cornell's Barton Hall, which salutes a campus military training tradition dating to 1862. Urban is one of seven graduates inducted so far.
Through Dembik's efforts, portraits or plaques of Urban are displayed at Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the Rath Building and Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park, among other places.
The Polish Community Center at 1083 Broadway, a block from Urban's boyhood home, was renamed the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center.
A retired tool-and-die maker, Dembik began lobbying for greater recognition for Urban in 1992, after the two old friends and fellow veterans attended a reunion of the East High Class of 1937.
While staying with Dembik and his wife, Lucille, in their Amherst home, Urban reminisced about growing up on the East Side, where he lettered in three sports at East High and ran in the annual Broadway Market races with his brothers, Art and Stan. And he talked about his years at Cornell, where he studied government and physical education and was an outstanding boxer.
Then, as the evening waned, Urban spoke of the disappointment over his long wait for the Medal of Honor -- a feeling Dembik knew all too well.
After the war, returning veterans wanted to forget the experience and get on with their lives. Only later did many begin to seek validation for their sacrifices in the form of medals earned on the battlefield.
In both Urban's and Dembik's cases, the Army claimed it had lost their combat records.
"I said to him, 'Matt, you should be getting more publicity,' " Dembik recalled. "A few weeks later, he sent me a package about that thick," he said, holding his thumb and index finger inches apart.
It contained newspaper clippings and other memorabilia -- ammunition for Dembik's 10-year crusade on his old friend's behalf. He has since donated the original material to Cornell.
After retiring in 1990, Urban detailed his experiences in a book, "The Matt Urban Story: Our Most Decorated Combat Veteran."
No chance of surrender
Though the effort to raise Urban's profile locally has scored some successes, Dembik isn't satisfied.
He says the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority turned down his request to place a plaque at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. And he received only a handful of replies to a letter he mailed to 300 congressmen asking that the Veterans Affairs Medical Center be renamed for Urban.
Surrender is not in Dembik's vocabulary, however.
"Before I go, I'd like to see all this happen for Matt," he said. "Look what they did for Audie Murphy. They made a big movie out of him. Matt deserves what I'm trying to do for him just as much. He was really a buddy of mine."