Saturday, July 4, 2020

Five-foot 4 inches, 150 lbs, Medal of Honor WWII, a legend

Nicholas Oresko  was born in 1917. He grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. On January 23, 1945, he was involved in taking down German machine gun positions just east of the Moselle River border between Luxembourg and Germany. He was part of an Army operation to "mop up" German military members as General Patton's 3rd Army swept into Germany. For his valor, he received the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman on October 30, 1945. This story is about him.

You might ask why Oresko?  I saw an article in Business Insider which said he died on October 4, 2013 at age 96, at that time our oldest recipient of the Medal of Honor. He had no family left to stand by his side. But dozens of military veterans and school kids heard he was not recuperating well from surgery on his leg and came to his room to visit, and be with him.

That all peaked my interest.

Military.com has a wonderful video of Nicholas wshere he describes the events of the battle. You'll love the guy. I have transcribed what he said and will present it later.

Nicholas Oresko grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. His father came to the US from Russia, though I think he was of Ukrainian heritage. Growing up, Nicholas talked Russian to his father and English to his mother, who was born in New Jersey.

In the video, he said when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean, he wanted to be a pilot; when they had stories about fighter pilots he wanted to do that; and when Joe Louis won the title he wanted to be a boxer. His problem was he was a short guy, 5 ft. 4 in. and said to weigh in the neighborhood of 150 lbs. 

His father was quick to remind him of his being short, telling him constantly that he had to read and study, read and study over and over if he wanted to be anything.

Nicholas understood his size issue, but just kept plugging on. Oresko said his mother always told him:

"Remember that, in life, you can always do more than you think you can." 

Applied to Nicholas, that was quite prescient.

Myles Ma wrote about Oresko during his final days. Ma said Oresko had been living in an assisted living home in Cresskill, New Jersey. He required surgery on a broken right femur that happened when he fell. He went to Englewood Hospital for the surgery.

He had no immediate family. His wife and son had died. 

But Englewood Fire Chief Gerald Marion invited firefighters who had served in the military to visit Oresko.

Jack Carbone was a friend who cared for Oresko. Carbone commented: 

“Nick didn’t have to worry. Because the family he didn’t have was really the family he hadn’t met yet, and that was the army and the military ... A hero like Nick changes the course of history."


More than 12 people were at the hospital before the staff took him to surgery. Regrettably, the surgery was too much for Oresko. He died of complications. His funeral was held on October 10, 2013.

Bergen County Police led a hearse taking Oresko's body to the funeral home in a procession that included Englewood fire­trucks.

One of Oresko's friends, Richard E. Robitaille posted the information on the internet leading to an outpouring of affection from people across the country. He said:

"They understood the type of person we were talking about and said, ‘We can't let him die alone'"

Robitaille added that people came from as far away as Maine and Maryland to visit Oresko. He added:

"He's loved throughout the Army. He's an American hero."

Three hundred people attended the funeral at The Anna Maria Ciccone Theatre on the Bergen County College campus in Paramus. Four Medal of Honor recipients attended.

I'd like to show a few photos from his funeral. They are very telling about the man and his legacy.


 
 
The lady in the center of this photo is Genevieve Doocey, a long-time friend of Oresko. She received the flag on behalf of a grateful nation.

Let's review what these people said about him to get a better sense for the kind of man he was.

Bob Jerome carried Oresko's Medal of Honor at his funeral and noted:


“He was the Fred Astaire of the Medal of Honor Society. He was one of the most amazing dancers that you’d ever want to see.”

Perhaps because of his father's constant urging, Oresko had a great interest in education. Bayonne School #14 was renamed in his honor in July 2010. It is called the Nicholas Oresko Community School. Broadly speaking, #14 is a school largely for gifted students.

Oresko visited his namesake school often. Many students visited him in the assisted living home in Cresskill.

Westwood, New Jersey Police Officer Scott McNiff said of Oresko:
 
“He’s a legend, he’s an inspiration, he’s everything I admire in a human being.”
 
It seldom gets any better than that.
 
Councilman Max Basch said of him:
 
"Sergeant Oresko defended our freedom, our inclusiveness and our tradition of helping each other. We owe him a debt of gratitude."
 
Col. Harvey Barnum, USMC (Ret.), himself a Medal Honor recipient, said this at Oresko's funeral:

"Taking out two enemy fortified bunkers,  killing 12 of the enemy, Sgt. Oresko cleared the way for Allied forces to advance forward. Despite being severely wounded, weak from loss of blood, Sgt. Oresko refused to be evacuated until he was assured of mission accomplishment."
 
Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., USA, Superintendent, U.S. Military Academy, spoke at the funeral on behalf of the Secretary of the Army and Army Chief of Staff. Mike Strasser, U.S. Military Academy Public Affairs, said that four Medal of Honor recipients attended along with David Tarantino, an Eagle Scout with Troop 113 in Hackensack, New .Jersey. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered flags to be raised at half staff for a week to honor Odasko.
 
Col. Jack Jacobs, USA (Ret.), Medal of Honor recipient, commented:

“It would be nice … if all the kids knew about the Nicholas Oresko story and had baseball cards with Nick Oresko’s picture on it. There’s a real model for the young kids … about service, sacrifice,  patriotism, and diligence.”
 
General Caslen said: 
 
"By all accounts, he was a tremendous friend to so many, and would always take the time to talk about his experiences. Looking through pictures, I was struck by how happy Sergeant Oresko always looked. His infectious smile from when he was a young man seemed to carry through his entire life. People, I'm told, always felt better about themselves, when they were in his presence.
 
"Thinking about the words and phrases that capture the essence of the 'Greatest Generation,' I realized that they represent what made Sergeant Oresko great. Traits like selflessness, loyalty, courage and integrity were evident in everything he did. Sergeant Oresko embodied the Army values; he made honor a matter of daily living--carrying out, acting and living our values each and every day.
 
"Sergeant Oresko was wounded in the attack, yet despite his wounds, he continued to fight in order to protect his Soldiers and complete the mission. He is an outstanding example of dedication and is exactly what a leader should strive to be, when he refused to be evacuated before he was sure the mission was successful.

“Sir, we hope in your eyes we have earned what you have done for us.”
 
Major Kenneth Nielson, USA, the West Point Chaplain, said this:
 
"His actions were those of a man who was formed by those who loved him and who, in turn, strove to be a man of courage and love."
 
The Citation to Accompany the Medal of Honor for MSgt. Nicholas Oresko is everywhere in the internet. I have decided not to paste that into this article. Instead, I have transcribed Oresko's explanation of what happened on January 23, 1945. I transcribed this from the video I mentioned previously.
 
The Battle of the Bulge began roughly on December 16, 1944 the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front and lasted until January 1945, two days after Oresko's match with the Germans. The Battle of the Bulge was the Germans' last attempt to stop the Western march to Germany. It caught the US by surprise, but the US prevailed.  
 
I need to show you a map so you know he was and so you know generally what was happening. Don't let the map scare you with all those notations!
 
Lots to see on this map. The red arrow through the center of the graphic points to the German offensive designed to split the US forces and capture the Ardennes Forest region. The bottom black arrow points to where US forces were positioned on December 20, 1944. The Germans pushed them back to top black arrow by December 26. You can that push created a "bulge" splitting US forces. However, US forces recovered and [pushed the Germans back into Germany, shown by where they were located on January 26.

Oresko was a platoon leader with Company C, 1st Battalion, 302nd Infantry (C/1/302 Infantry), 94th Infantry Division (ID). The 94th ID was part of General Patton's Third Army. Follow the blue arrow. It moved out of France into the southeast portion of Luxembourg on January 7, 1945, replacing the 90th ID. The 94th crossed the Mosel River into Germany and seized Tettingen, Germany on January 14, 1945, about 12 miles southeast of Luxembourg City. Tettingen is marked roughly by the blue dot.
 
Much of the 94th ID kept moving east.  division then seized several other towns in succeeding days. Oresko's unit was in Tettingen on January 25, 1945, behind the division's eastern advance. In military parlance, he was tasked to "mop up" those German soldiers who remained in and around Tettingen. Mopping up is anything but an easy chore. Yes, the 3rd Army was moving quickly to the east into Germany, but the Germans still held strong positions in the Tettingen area. Deadly enemy automatic fire from the flanks pinned down his unit. 
 
I'll should mention that this area of Germany was known as Hitler's "West Wall." It was meant to defend the industrial Saarland. Saarbrucken, marked by the red dot at the bottom of the graphic in the right quadrant, was in the Saar Valley, a massive German industrial center because of its plentiful coal deposits. This West Wall was to defend the Saar's heavy industries
 
The Germans built the Siegfried Line along from south-to-north along its western border, marked by the thick red line.  It passed through the area near Tettingen. It was a concrete obstacle course of fortifications, bunkers, ditches and barriers, often known as the Dragon's Teeth. The photo shows a portion of the Dragon's Teeth. The Germans had positioned many German forces in this area to defend the Saar Valley.

So TSgt. (at the time) Nichiolas Oresko and his 94th ID platoon. In those days, an infantry platoon was meant to have three six-man squads, or 18 riflemen, plus a four man headquarters element, totally 22 men. I do not know how many Oresko had, but that gives you a rough idea. Survival among the men in the rifle squad was always fluctuating.

While he was only commanding a platoon, you can see how his men were part of a huge and very important recovery from the Battle of the Bulge and the push to Berlin.
 
With that, this is how Oresko described events:

"Our job was to take the two (enemy) machine guns that were on the side of the hill somewhere looking down on us. We couldn't see them, but they saw us and every time we attacked you would lose some people. So after two days of battling and preparation for artillery and mortar fire, we decided the third day we would attack without preparation.  
 
(In other words, no artillery and/or mortar fire to soften their target area. It was his platoon against the machine guns.)

"We'll wait until it starts to get dark. It was January, it was cold, and the snow was deep and we thought we could sneak up on the machine guns that way.  

"So I told my men tomorrow we attack at 4:30. No preparation. Just get ready to sneak up on the enemy. Next day came, 4:30, I  said to my men, 'Okay, let's go. Move out.'

"Nobody moved. I yelled again, 'C'mon, let's go.' Again, nobody moved. And I felt so alone. 'Cause I said, 'Well somebody has to move so I guess I'll just have to go by myself.'

"I looked up at the sky, and I said, 'Lord I know I'm gonna die, let's just make it fast, make it quick 'cause I know this is end.'

'And a cold wave came over me, you don't feel anything, you're numb, you're not in your right mind, you go by instinct, so I stepped out of the trenches and by myself, step by step through the snow, and the Germans didn't see me. And little by little I could see that my men one by one started to follow but they were maybe 50 feet away and they were no help to me. So I was alone. 

"Now you can't imagine how it is to be alone on the battlefield and your men on the ground and the Germans in front of you. What do you do? You just keep plugging along step by step and I say, 'Well if I have to die for my country, I'm ready.'

"And then all hell broke loose somehow. All I know is there was a lot of screaming, and yelling and shooting and firing (inaudible) the first machine gun was knocked down, but I can't remember much about that. Only then when I was wounded I came back to reality. I thought they'd missed me because my rifle belt and my clothing were full of bullet holes but they missed me but I was on the ground, I was knocked down. And then as I started to walk I could feel warm stuff coming down my leg. I was wounded seriously in the right hip. And then I knew I was wounded. And then it started to hurt. 

"And of course the more it bled the more blood I lost and I was weaker. I was still alone. This is the important thing. I kept trudging ahead, figure I'm gonna die anyway so what difference does it make. 

"'While I was crawling my helmet hit a wire which I knew was a booby trap. But because I was low that the shrapnel from the booby trap went over me instead of in to me, because I was so low to the ground. 

"Then I thought I better rest a while so  I saw a little indentation on the ground, so I went in there and I rested. So then I said I think I'll just lay here for a while. As I lay there, I could see right over me a flame of  red, blue and purple coming out of something. And that was the enemy's machine gun. They thought they had killed me and they went back and fired on my troops who were on the ground.

"Well I couldn't go because the guns would get me, I couldn't go forward 'cause they were there, and apparently they thought they'd killed me. They didn't see me. Well I saw them. So I said great, what I will do now is take one of my grenades out of my shirt and throw it in and finish the job, hopefully. 

"Well I reached in and the grenades were gone 'cause I lost them as I was crawling. What else could happen? So I crawled back about twelve feet I guess, and I found the grenades and put one in my shirt and crawled up to the same position. They were still firing at my men. I was just below them. 

"So I said, all right, here we go! I counted to four, I pulled the pin, I counted to four,  threw it in (inaudible) jumped in after and started shooting, who the grenade didn't get my rifle did. And then there was peace.

"It was so quiet it was unbelievable. It was over. The guns were gone, and then my men came running, and helping me and patching me up, and so on and so forth, 

Oresko took his mother to Washington to be with him when he received the Medal of Honor. Oresko told her:

"Well mom, I hope this makes up for all my naughtiness when I was a young man, because I think I was a pretty naughty young man."

The town of Tenafly, New Jersey dedicated an oval-shaped park in the heart of town in his name.



An Army unity relevant to Oresko is the 94th Training Division. It's Total Army School System (TASS) Training Center, Ft. Lee, Virginia has been named in honor of Msgt. Nicholas Oresko. Brigadier General Héctor López, the commanding general of the 94th Training Division in 2018, said this of Oresko:

“He led by example … he demonstrated the kind of leadership that is needed these days in all ranks. As leaders in today’s Army, we must cling to Master Sgt. Oresko’s indomitable spirit and be willing to do what is right for our units and Soldiers.”

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