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Medal of Honor Monday: Army Master Sgt. Nicholas Oresko

When Army Master Sgt. Nicholas Oresko talked about the most pivotal actions he took during World War II, he often made it clear that the hardest part was the fact that he was alone. 

"You don't know what it feels like to be alone in a situation like that," he said during a Library of Congress Veterans History Project interview in the early 2000s.  

A person in a business suit shakes hands with a soldier.
Army Master Sgt. Nicholas Oresko
President Harry S. Truman shakes the hand of Army Master Sgt. Nicholas Oresko after presenting him with the Medal of Honor for actions he took during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, Oct. 12, 1945.
Photo By: Congressional Medal of Honor Society
VIRIN: 451012-O-D0439-048

Despite being by himself in frigid Germany during a late-war enemy counterattack, Oresko pushed on anyway, singlehandedly clearing the way for his company to take their objective. That valor and bravery earned him the Medal of Honor.  

Oresko was born Jan. 18, 1917, in Bayonne, New Jersey, to an American mother and a father who was a Russian immigrant. Despite being only 5'4", Oresko said he loved to play sports growing up. When he was young, Charles Lindbergh was one of his heroes, which made him want to be a pilot for a time.  

Before the war, Oresko worked in the shipping department for Standard Oil. He was drafted into the Army in March 1942, about three months after he'd married his girlfriend, Jean Strang. He was initially assigned to the 77th Infantry Division but was later switched to the 1st Battalion, 302nd Infantry, 94th Infantry Division.  

By late summer of 1944, Oresko's division was deployed to France. He told the Veterans History Project that they were meant to be a reserve unit, but at the start of the Battle of the Bulge – Hitler's last major attack that surprised the Allies – they were shipped to the front lines in Germany.  

People walk in a line through a snowy street past damaged buildings.
Ammunition Train
Soldiers of the 94th Infantry Division form ammunition train to carry shells to the front during attacks on Nennig, Germany, January 1945.
Photo By: Army/National Archives
VIRIN: 230118-A-D0439-061Y

Oresko was a platoon leader for Company C during the frigid days of early 1945. His platoon had attacked enemy positions in the town of Tettingen, Germany, twice over two days and had been pushed back both times. For their next attempt, instead of using artillery to announce themselves, battalion leaders ordered a sneak attack.  

In the early-morning hours of Jan. 23, 1945, Oresko ordered his men to begin the attack, but no one moved. He said he issued the order a second time, and they again didn't move, so he started toward the enemy without them.  

"I felt so alone," Oresko said. "I looked up at the sky and said, 'Lord I know I'm going to die. Let's just make it fast.'"  

He said a cold wave went over him and that he went numb, moving by instinct at that point.  

"I stepped out of the trenches by myself, step by step through the snow, and the Germans didn't see me," he said.  

His fellow soldiers finally started to follow him, but they were about 50 feet behind him when the Germans noticed the movement and opened fire, pinning the unit down.  

Oresko, however, had still gone unnoticed. He knew he would have to take out the closest machine gun nest to help his soldiers, so he kept moving in stealth until he was close enough to throw a grenade into the enemy bunker. He rushed into it after it went off, using his rifle to take out the surviving occupants.  

People in white bed sheets walk through snow to blend in.
Luxembourg Walk
Three members of an American patrol cross a snow-covered Luxembourg field on a scouting mission. White bedsheets camouflage them in the snow during the Battle of the Bulge, Dec. 30, 1944.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 441230-A-D0439-026Y

A second machine gun nest opened fire on Oresko, knocking him down and seriously injuring his hip.  

"As I started to walk, I could feel warm stuff coming down my leg," he remembered. "I kept trudging ahead and figured, 'Oh well. I'm going to die anyway, so what difference does it make?'" 

While bleeding, Oresko said he crawled past a booby trap that barely missed him, then laid in an indentation in the snow for a bit. He said the enemy must have thought he was dead because they began firing at his troops from a nearby bunker. Oresko couldn't move backward into the firefight, and in front of him lay the enemy bunker. In that moment, he knew what he had to do.  

Grabbing some grenades and pulling the pin on one, he sneaked up to the machine gun at that bunker and dropped the live grenade in. After it went off, he again jumped into the trench and used his rifle to wipe out the remaining enemy soldiers manning it. 

Oresko was credited with killing 12 Germans in his solo attack that made it possible for his company to take control of the enemy position. It was only when he knew they'd succeeded that he allowed his fellow soldiers to evacuate him.  

Weak from blood loss, Oresko was sent to a hospital to recover. He was eventually put on limited duty until he was discharged in November 1945. He said he never saw the members of his platoon again.  

Fifteen people stand at attention in two rows around a crowd on a lawn.
Army Ground Forces
Fifteen members of the Army Ground Forces stand on the White House lawn after being presented the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman, Oct. 12, 1945. From left to right: Sgt. Christos H. Karaberis, Sgt. Freeman Horner, Cpl. Desmond T. Doss, Cpl. Clarence B. Craft, Capt. James M. Burt, Cpl. Melvin E. Biddle, Cpl. Edward A. Bennett, Cpl. Thomas E. Atkins, Pfc. William A. Soderman, 2nd Lt. Edward A. Silk, Sgt. Cleto Rodriguez, Sgt. Nicholas Oresko, Sgt. Dexter J. Kerstetter and Sgt. Thomas J. Kelly.
Photo By: Harry S. Truman Library & Museum
VIRIN: 451012-O-D0439-049Y

On Oct. 12, 1945, Oresko received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman during a White House ceremony. Fourteen other soldiers also received the nation's highest honor that day. 

Oresko and his wife moved to Tenafly, New Jersey, and they had a son named Robert. Oresko initially returned to his previous job, but when he found out Medal of Honor recipients could get a job with the Department of Veterans Affairs without a civil service test, he jumped at the chance, working for the department for 32 years.  

"It was a joy," Oresko said of his post-war career, which included speaking gigs at schools. "That part of my life was rewarding."  

He told the Asbury Park Press in 1978 that he and his wife traveled to Germany and France at some point, and he was able to show her some of the areas in which he fought. He said they also often visited London, where their son lived and worked.  

Medal of Honor recipient Nicholas Oresko of Tenafly, N.J., and his friend Genevieve Doocey attend a Salute to Veterans hosted by then Vice President-elect Dick Cheney at the George Washington University Smith Center in Washington D.C. The pre-inaugural event Jan. 19, 2001, was just one honoring 100 living Medal of Honor heroes. Oresko, a World War II veteran, has attended all the nation's presidential inaugurations since Dwight D. Eisenhower became president. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.
Medal of Honor Recipient Nicholas Oresko
Medal of Honor recipient Nicholas Oresko of Tenafly, N.J., and his friend Genevieve Doocey attend a Salute to Veterans hosted by then Vice President-elect Dick Cheney at the George Washington University Smith Center in Washington D.C. The pre-inaugural event Jan. 19, 2001, was just one honoring 100 living Medal of Honor heroes.

Oresko died on Oct. 4, 2013, after complications from surgery for a broken leg – the same leg that was injured during his Medal of Honor actions. At the time of his death, the 96-year-old was the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient.  

Oresko's wife died in 1980 and his son died in 2013, so he had no family to join him when he went to the hospital for the surgery. According to his obituary in the Northern Valley Suburbanite newspaper out of Englewood, New Jersey, Oresko was accompanied by veterans and service members who stayed by his side the entire time. 

Oresko is buried in George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus, New Jersey.  

His memory will certainly not be forgotten. In 2010, a school in his native Bayonne was named in Oresko's honor. In 2018, the Army Reserve's 94th Training Division at Fort Gregg-Adams, Virginia, named a new training center after him. That same year, a park and monument in Tenafly were built in Oresko's honor.   

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.

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