Last Friday evening, a 96-year-old man passed away at Englewood Hospital. Everyone in his immediate family had predeceased him. But he was not alone when he died.
Veterans and active-duty service members from around the country had traveled to New Jersey specifically to ensure someone was with him. There were some two dozen standing watch on Friday. Others had been there every day since he had entered the hospital earlier in the week. And none of them knew him personally.
The gentleman who inspired such devotion from complete strangers was Nicholas Oresko of Cresskill, America’s oldest Medal of Honor recipient.
When Oresko was admitted for an operation to repair a broken leg (he died of complications from the surgery), one friend sent emails to inform others of his condition. They posted notices on social media sites, the word soon spread to other veterans and to U.S. Army bases around the world, and the visitors started arriving in Englewood.
“The kids held his hand and prayed with him,” a friend told reporters. Because of something that happened decades before they were born.
On Jan. 23, 1945, near Tettingen, Germany, during the Battle of the Bulge, Oresko — armed with only his rifle and grenades and despite being seriously wounded — singlehandedly took out two enemy machine-gun nests, saving his platoon.
The official commendation for Oresko’s Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, reads:
“Master Sgt. Oresko was a platoon leader with Company C [302nd Infantry Regiment, 94th Infantry Division] 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 point-blank rifle fire, killed all the hostile occupants who [had] 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, one-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 casualties.”
Jan. 23, 1945, was just five days after the Bayonne native’s 28th birthday.
In a 2012 interview published in The Record, Oresko recalled that before launching his solo attack, “I looked up to heaven and I said: ‘Lord, I know I am going to die. Make it fast, please’.”
And of his actions 67 years before, he said, “I think about that incident every day. It never leaves you. When you kill somebody, even though it’s combat, you remember it, or it remembers you.”
A funeral service for the man whom American troops and veterans never forgot is scheduled Thursday at 1 p.m. at Bergen County Community College in Paramus. Interment will be at George Washington Memorial Park, Paramus.
– Karen Zautyk