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Medal of Honor winner remembers day he put his life on the line

Alone and exposed, with machine-gun fire zipping around him in the snow, Nicholas Oresko was sure he was going to die that day.

Then 93, Nicholas Oresko waves during last year’s Memorial Day parade in Hoboken, N.J. (David Jolkovski / Jersey Journal)
Then 93, Nicholas Oresko waves during last year’s Memorial Day parade in Hoboken, N.J. (David Jolkovski / Jersey Journal)Read more

Alone and exposed, with machine-gun fire zipping around him in the snow, Nicholas Oresko was sure he was going to die that day.

German soldiers fired at him from the cover of bunkers while pinning down his unit near Tettingen, Germany, in January 1945.

Army Master Sgt. Oresko, who now lives in Cresskill, N.J., knew the enemy had to be eliminated, but no one would take the lead. What he did next changed his life.

"You go by instinct," said Oresko, 94, the oldest of 85 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration. "If you're going to die anyway, you just keep going."

The Bayonne, N.J., native single-handedly destroyed the bunkers with grenades and killed 12 German soldiers, though shot in the hip during the fight.

Nine months later, President Harry S. Truman presented him with the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House.

And every year since then, especially on Memorial Day, Oresko has been honored for the day when he put his life on the line for his company - and his country.

Monday is no exception.

"I'm already set for Memorial Day," said Oresko, a widower who lives alone in a retirement home. "I'm going to be leading the parade in Bayonne."

Fifty-five years ago, he was one of 338 living recipients of the medal, said Laura Jowdy, archivist at the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

"But the number has been shrinking," said Jowdy, happily adding that Oresko "is still out there and active."

The memories of the battle 66 years ago have never been far from the veteran's mind. Seven years after the war, with the experience still vivid, Oresko and his wife visited the spot where he had once cheated death.

"It was covered with bushes, but it was a good feeling to visit the place," he said. "It felt good - but sad."

Oresko joined the Army from Bayonne and arrived in France two months after the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

He was the platoon leader in Company C of the 302d Infantry Regiment, 94th Division, which spent months crushing pockets of enemy soldiers who had been bypassed in the Allies' early push through northern Germany.

By December, the unit was redeployed to support American forces that had to pull back during the Battle of the Bulge, the last-ditch German offensive aimed at throwing back the Allies.

Oresko and his company ran into stubborn resistance Jan. 23, 1945, near the small town of Tettingen, in Merzig-Wadern, Saarland. They were hit by automatic fire from the flanks.

"Realizing that a machine gun in a nearby bunker must be eliminated," his citation said, "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 point-blank rifle fire, killed all the hostile occupants who survived the grenade blast."

Instinct kicked in, Oresko said. "After a while, you're numb," he said.

Then "another machine gun opened up on him, knocking him down and seriously wounding him in the hip," the citation said.

"I still sometimes have pain from it," Oresko said of the wound.

He again struck out alone in advance of his unit to attack the second bunker, the citation said.

"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," it said.

In a matter of minutes, a dozen enemy soldiers lay dead and Company C was advancing again.

"Although weak from the loss of blood, he refused to be evacuated until assured the mission was successfully accomplished," added the citation, which also praised his "quick thinking, indomitable courage, and unswerving devotion."

After the war, Oresko worked in the claims department of the Veterans Administration, retiring in 1978.

The Bergen County man also became a celebrity of sorts, often recognized at veterans' events and leading parades.

In January, he became the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor after Barney Hajiro died at 94. Hajiro had served with a rifle company in the 442d Regimental Combat Team during World War II in Europe.

Of the 85 living recipients, 16 earned their Medals of Honor in World War II, 13 in the Korean War, 55 in the Vietnam War, and 1 in the war in Afghanistan.

"There aren't that many recipients left. [Oresko] is the oldest," said Louis Pittner, 86, a World War II veteran and co-grand marshal of Bayonne's Memorial Day parade this year.

Bayonne School No. 14 was renamed for Oresko last year, helping to preserve the memory of his heroism for years to come.

But the attention and praise haven't gone to his head.

"I just did what I had to do," Oresko said.