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

Edward Colimore, Inquirer Staff Writer

Updated: Sunday, May 29, 2011, 1:40 AM

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

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

A Memorial Day weekend beach scene at the Cape May Beach near Grant Ave. with a young girl doing cartwheels, right. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
A couple lugs beach chairs, bags and towels from the Cape May Beach near Grant Ave. at the end of the day on Saturday. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
A Memorial Day weekend beach scene at the Cape May Beach near Grant Ave. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
A Memorial Day weekend beach scene at the Cape May Beach near Grant Ave. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
Theresa Baltz of Glenside, Pa. assists her granddaughter, Hannah Aumack, as they check out the shallow surf at the Cape May Beach near Grant Ave. Hannah lives in East Rutherford, N.J. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
Ryan Epps, 9 of Elizabethtown, Pa. waves a U.S. flag dressed as Spider-Man on Saturday, May 28, 2011 at the Mount Joy Memorial Day Parade, considered the largest and best known parade in Lancaster County. (AP Photo/Intelligencer Journal, Vinny Tennis)
The Cape May Beach Patrol is celebrating its 100th year of existence. Two Lieutenants in the Beach Patrol assist folks at the beach. Beach Patrol equipment sits on the beach in front of their headquarters (not shown). (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
The Cape May Beach Patrol is celebrating its 100th year of existence. A.J. Mercincavage stands in front of the lifeguard stand near Grant Ave. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
Chris Knipe, left, and A.J. Mercincavage at the lifeguard stand near Grant Ave. The Cape May Beach Patrol is celebrating its 100th year of existence. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
Ralph Atwell, a school teacher in Medford, N.J., is starting his 46th year on the Cape May Beach Patrol. The Cape May Beach Patrol is celebrating its 100th year of existence. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
Ralph Atwell, a school teacher in Medford, N.J., is starting his 46th year on the Cape May Beach Patrol. The Cape May Beach Patrol is celebrating its 100th year of existence. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
The Cape May Beach Patrol is celebrating its 100th year of existence. Harry "Buzz" Mogck has been in charge of it for approximately a third of its existence. From the upper deck of the Beach Patrol Headquarters, Buzz talks about the tricky currents at the southern tip of the Jersey shore. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
The Cape May Beach Patrol is celebrating its 100th year of existence. Harry "Buzz" Mogck has been in charge of it for approximately a third of its existence. He watches the beach from the upper deck of the Beach Patrol Headquarters. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
The Cape May Beach Patrol is celebrating its 100th year of existence. Harry "Buzz" Mogck has been in charge of it for approximately a third of its existence. He watches the beach from the upper deck of the Beach Patrol Headquarters. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) INQ FOX
Medal of Honor recipients, from left, Nicholas Oresko, Francis Currey, and Ronald Rosser watching the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team perform in Chicago in 2009. BRIAN KERSEY / United Press International
Nicholas Oresko receiving his medal from President Harry S. Truman at the White House in 1945. (Star-Ledger)
Then 93, Nicholas Oresko waves during last year's Memorial Day parade in Hoboken, N.J. (David Jolkovski / Jersey Journal)
Nicholas Oresko of Cresskill, N.J., holding his medal in 1999. There are 85 living Medal of Honor recipients, down from 338 in 1956. JERRY McREA / Star-Ledger
Defense Secretary Robert Gates shake hands with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, at Memorial Day weekend Rolling Thunder event on the National Mall in Washington Sunday, May 29, 2011. Motorcyclists are in Washington for the traditional annual Rolling Thunder events during the Memorial Day weekend. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Defense Secretary Robert Gates views the crowd as he speaks on the National Mall in Washington, Sunday, May 29, 2011, at a Rolling Thunder event. Motorcyclists are in Washington for the traditional annual Rolling Thunder rally on the Memorial Day weekend. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
A U.S. soldier writes his name on a board to mark the Memorial Day at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday, May 29, 2011. Some U.S. troops in Afghanistan have held a candlelit remembrance for those lost ahead of Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
Actor Tom Sizemore salutes in honor of Memorial Day, a day early, at the Mexican-American All Wars Memorial in Los Angeles Sunday, May, 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Visitors look at the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on Sunday, May 29, 2011. Motorcyclists are in Washington for the traditional annual Rolling Thunder events during the Memorial Day weekend. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
An unidentified man sits in a bamboo cage, representing the kind that held prisoners of war, during Memorial Day weekend events on the National Mall in Washington Sunday, May 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Andrea Richard of North Carolina touches the name of her brother William A Buck, Jr. at the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on Sunday, May 29, 2011. Motorcyclists are in Washington for the traditional annual Rolling Thunder events during the Memorial Day weekend. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
A U.S. soldier carries A candle for placing to mark the Memorial Day at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday, May 29. Some U.S. troops in Afghanistan have held a candlelit remembrance for those lost ahead of Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
U.S. soldiers place lit candles as they gather to mark Memorial Day at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday, May 29. Some U.S. troops in Afghanistan have held a candlelit remembrance for those lost ahead of Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
U.S. soldiers holds candles to mark the Memorial Day at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday, May 29. Some U.S. troops in Afghanistan have held a candlelit remembrance for those lost ahead of Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
Participants in the Rolling Thunder annual motorcycle rally ride past the Washington Monument on the National Mall during the Memorial Day weekend in Washington, May 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Participants in the Rolling Thunder annual motorcycle rally ride past the Washington Monument near the National Mall during the Memorial Day weekend in Washington, May 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Participants in the Rolling Thunder annual motorcycle rally ride down Constitution Avenue near the National Mall during the Memorial Day weekend in Washington, Sunday May 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Participants in the Rolling Thunder annual motorcycle rally ride through the Constitution Avenue near the National Mall during the Memorial Day weekend \ in Washington, May 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin holds hands with people gathered for Memorial Day weekend events on the National Mall in Washington Sunday, May 29, 2011. Palin rode to the mall from the Pentagon with motorcyclists in the traditional annual Rolling Thunder rally. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin holds hands with people gathered for Memorial Day weekend events on the National Mall in Washington Sunday, May 29, 2011. Palin rode to the mall from the Pentagon with motorcyclists in the traditional annual Rolling Thunder rally. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, accompanied by her husband Todd Palin, top left, shakes hands with people gathered for Memorial Day weekend events on the National Mall in Washington Sunday, May 29, 2011. Palin rode to the mall from the Pentagon with motorcyclists in the traditional annual Rolling Thunder rally. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, accompanied by her husband Todd Palin, top left, talks with people gathered for Memorial Day weekend events on the National Mall in Washington Sunday, May 29, 2011. Palin rode to the mall from the Pentagon with motorcyclists in the traditional annual Rolling Thunder rally. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Sarah Palin, former GOP vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor, rides on the back of a motorcycle at the Rolling Thunder annual motorcycle rally, past the U.S. Capitol during the Memorial Day weekend in Washington, May 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Sarah Palin, former GOP vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor, looks at the tatoos of Ed Robbins from Cincinnati, Ohio, at the beginning of Rolling Thunder at the Pentagon Sunday, May 29, 2011, during the Memorial Day weekend in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Sarah Palin, former GOP vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor, arrives at the beginning of Rolling Thunder at the Pentagon Sunday, May 29, 2011, during the Memorial Day weekend in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Young baseball fans mimic the Vanderbilt bullpen as they give thanks to Veterans on Memorial Day prior to the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship baseball game at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., Sunday, May 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
People dressed in business suits march to the ocean led by John Walton (holding the American Flag) as part of the Unlocking of the Ocean events Friday to kick off the summer in Ocean City. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer )
"Unlocking of the Ocean" participants dressed in business suits and carrying briefcases march into the Ocean City surf Friday to the sound of "Pomp and Circumstance" to welcome the new season. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)
Displaying float decorations are (from left) Joe Laufer, Burlington County historian; Carol Ritter; and Robert Ritter, with a picture of Thomas Eayre. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Rudi Lea, left, with wife Ruth. He wrote a book about a dog that adopted him in wartime England. Below, Stanley Meshkov, who survived the war thanks to a bout of airsickness. LAURENCE KESTERSON
Stanley Meshkov survived the war thanks to a bout of airsickness. (Laurence Kesterston/Staff)
Soldiers at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, take time to recognize Memorial Day. Candles are used as a way to remember the comrades they have lost. MUSADEQ SADEQ / Associated Press
Albert Hillman, 82, who served in the Army from 1951 to 1953, salutes the dead during a ceremony held at Bridesburg American Legion Post 821, (Before the parade started). ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Marge Chmielewski (cq), 87, a Sgt at Arms with the Bridesburg American Legion Post 821, rides in the parade. Chmielewski who was born and raised in Bridesburg, was a Navy Wave from 1942 to 1946. She said she has participated in the Memorial Day parade for the last 65 years. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Cynthia Sheppard, at left, waves an american flag as she marches with Quaker City String Band during Port Richmond's Memorial Day parade in Philadelphia, Pa. on May 30, 2011. ( David Maialetti / staff photographer )
A flag hangs from a home along the 3100 block of Belgrade Street as members of the Polish American Stringband pass during Port Richmond's Memorial Day parade in Philadelphia, Pa. on May 30, 2011. The owner didn't want to be identified but said the flag was from a relative who served during World War II. ( David Maialetti / staff photographer )
Rachel Belville watches the parade with her husband, David (left) while holding her nieces, Michelina, 2, with her right arm and Emerson, 1, with her left arm. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Color Guard Captain James Willis listens to speakers near the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier during the 17th annual 2011 Memorial Day Commemoration at Washington Square Park on Monday, May 30, 2011. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution (right) lay a wreath near the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier as Bugler Kevin Gruenfeld performs during the 17th annual 2011 Memorial Day Commemoration at Washington Square Park on Monday, May 30, 2011. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
John Nieves, of Port Richmond, sports a pair of patriotic sunglasses at Port Richmond's Memorial Day parade in Philadelphia, Pa. on May 30, 2011. ( David Maialetti / staff photographer )
Spectators recite the pledge of allegiance during the 17th annual 2011 Memorial Day Commemoration at Washington Square Park on Monday, May 30, 2011. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
Corporal Robert P. Witiw, left background, who was the Grand Marshall of the Port Richmond's Memorial Day parade, steps off of a fire truck before the parade started in Philadelphia, Pa. on May 30, 2011. A spectator wearing patriotic shots watches. ( David Maialetti / staff photographer )
Erna Huber, 83 of Washington Twp., places a red carnation on the newly dedicated plaque honoring her husbands service to our country during Memorial Day Services at Franklin G. Atkinson Memorial Park in Washington Twp. on May 30, 2011. Michael F. Huber served in the US Army 1943-1946 and was a translator at the Nuremberg Trials. Erna and Mike Huber met in Germany. ( Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer )
David Kephark, 7, claps for military members in the parade. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Scott Bowfinger carries a bag of ice from a store to his friend's house before the parade began. Temperatures were in the 90's during the parade. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Lenny Gipson (center), 9, keeps cool in a small pool while watching the parade with his friend Chris Fiuri, 9, (left) and sister Ava Gipson (right holding hat). (Temperatures were in the 90's during the parade).( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Cathy Wojcik squirts her son Robert, 8, with water to keep him cool as they watch the parade in front of their house. "We're on the sunny side of the street," she said. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Carol McPhail (right) dances in front of her house with Joseph Kaminski (left), the captain of the Original Trilby String Band. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
The Irish Thunder Pipes and Drums from Montgomery County, play as they march in the parade. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Tori Rapko (far right) waves from a Pope John Paul II Regional Catholic School float. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Adolph "Hank" Slaveski, the parade Grand Marshal, waves during the parade. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Members of American Legion Posts place a wreath during a Memorial Service at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery before the parade began.( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Sarah Hynd, 12, dressed as Betsy Ross, walks in the parade. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Mayor Michael A. Nutter waves as he walks in the parade. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Lisa Wills of Washington Twp. weeps quietly as Taps is played during Memorial Day Services at Franklin G. Atkinson Memorial Park in Washington Twp. on May 30, 2011. Will's brother, Michael Kirkland, 20, was in the Navy only 6 months when he was killed in a car crash while servng our country. Kirkland, was honored with a plaque on Washington Twp's Memorial wall last year. ( Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer )
Susan Richards, standing in front of her house, waves during the parade. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer )
Claire Myslinski, 84, watches the parade. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer ).
Photo Gallery: Memorial Day 2011

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.

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

Edward Colimore, Inquirer Staff Writer

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