“I think about that incident every day,” he told The Record newspaper of New Jersey in 2011. “It never leaves you. When you kill somebody, even though it’s combat, you remember it, or it remembers you.”
The day was January 23, 1945. The place was Tettingen, Germany. The time was 4:30 a.m. Thick snow covered the ground as the Battle of the Bulge enters its second month. The Germans have Company C, 1st Battalion, 302nd Infantry Regiment, 94th Infantry Division, pinned down. A platoon sergeant from Bayonne, New Jersey, looked up to heaven and prayed: “Lord, I know I am going to die. Make it fast, please.”
God had other plans for Nicholas Oresko.
His company had assaulted two German machine gun nests twice, and had been repelled twice. The 28-year-old native of Bayonne, New Jersey, ordered his 42-man platoon to attack a third time. No one budged. He ordered them to move forward again. He was met with silence.
“I said to myself, ‘Well, someone has to go.’ So I decided to go myself,” Oresko said.
He had his M-1 and grenades. He got 30 feet ahead, turned, and waved his men to follow. No one did. He went alone, hurling a grenade into one nest. After it exploded, he rose and shot the survivors.
Once again, he turned and waved to his men to follow. Germans in the other bunker opened fire on him. They shot him in the right hip and leg. He fell in the mud. The Germans assumed they killed him and turned their attention elsewhere.
He realized his grenades had fallen out of his jacket. He went back and retrieved one. He approached the second bunker, threw the grenade, and after it exploded, he cleaned up the Germans again, making sure every soldier was dead.
And every day for the rest of his life, he remembered that battle.
He was only 5-foot-4 and weighed maybe 150 pounds at the time. But despite his slight build, he was a one-man army that day. He refused medical attention until he was sure his men were safe. He was sent back to the States to rehab.
Yes, he received the Medal of Honor from a grateful President Truman in October 12, 1945. It read:
M/Sgt. Oresko was a platoon leader with Company C, in an attack against strong enemy positions. Deadly automatic fire from the flanks pinned down his unit. Realizing that a machine gun in a nearby bunker must be eliminated, he swiftly worked ahead alone, braving bullets which struck about him, until close enough to throw a grenade into the German position. He rushed the bunker and, with pointblank rifle fire, killed all the hostile occupants who survived the grenade blast. Another machine gun opened up on him, knocking him down and seriously wounding him in the hip. Refusing to withdraw from the battle, he placed himself at the head of his platoon to continue the assault. As withering machine gun and rifle fire swept the area, he struck out alone in advance of his men to a second bunker. With a grenade, he crippled the dug-in machine gun defending this position and then wiped out the troops manning it with his rifle, completing his second self-imposed, 1-man attack. Although weak from loss of blood, he refused to be evacuated until assured the mission was successfully accomplished. Through quick thinking, indomitable courage, and unswerving devotion to the attack in the face of bitter resistance and while wounded, M/Sgt. Oresko killed 12 Germans, prevented a delay in the assault, and made it possible for Company C to obtain its objective with minimum casualtiesIn November 1945, the people of Bayonne held a big parade for their two Medal of Honor recipients,Nicholas Oresko and Lieutenant Stephen Gregg, who as a tech sergeant provided cover fire on August 27, 1944, for medics aiding wounded soldiers in a battlefield near Montélimar, France.
The next day, he directed mortar fire until the Germans captured the mortar and began firing at the. Gregg recaptured the mortar.
Both men lived long lives. After the war, Gregg went home to his wife in New Jersey and they raised a family. He worked for the Hudson's County Sheriff's Department -- for 51 years, retiring in 1996, at age 82. Gregg died at 90 on February 4, 2005.
Oresko returned to his wife, but not his job in the shipping department of a Standard Oil of New Jersey refinery. He went to work for the Veterans Administration.
"I saw no way out," he told the Record in 2011. "I didn't expect to survive. I was surrounded by enemy. I was in the middle of enemy. They were shooting at me."
The occasion was the death of Barney Hajiro on February 2, 2011, which made Oresko the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient.
Oresko died at 96 on October 4, 2013, after falling and breaking his right leg -- the same leg that the Germans shot on that fateful day that he remembered every day for the rest of his life.
Robert Dale Maxwell then became the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient.
I am publishing the best of these tales, in Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.
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