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Nation’s oldest Medal of Honor recipient marks 95th birthday


This news story was published on January 30, 2012.
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By Evonne Coutros, The Record (Hackensack N.J.) –

HACKENSACK, N.J. — The nation’s oldest Medal of Honor recipient, a World War II Army veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, will celebrate his 95th birthday at a party Sunday at a Clifton VFW Post in New Jersey.

Nicholas Oresko of Cresskill, a U.S. Army master sergeant and Purple Heart recipient who single-handedly wiped out two enemy bunkers near Tettington, Germany, on Jan. 23, 1945, will also commemorate the 67th anniversary of his heroism at the party at VFW Post 7165 on Valley Road.

Oresko’s birthday was Jan. 18, and each invitee has been asked to bring a younger person to hear the story of the hero platoon leader with Company C, 302nd Infantry, 94th Infantry Division.

Back in January 1945, when the 28-year-old Oresko and his unit were taking on heavy fire from the Germans, the situation looked grim.

“We attacked their positions several times, and we got beaten back,” he said. “It’s terrible. It scares the hell out of you.

“So we figured this time, let’s sneak up on them,” Oresko said. “Instead of getting prepared with artillery fire, let’s just go as it gets dark and sneak up on them and then attack ’em.”

Oresko started out solo — at 4:30 a.m. that cold winter morning. He assessed his chances.

“I looked up to heaven and said, ‘Lord, I know I’m going to die, please make it fast,’ ” he said.

Oresko realized that a machine gun in a nearby bunker must be eliminated, and he did so alone, according to the 1945 citation honoring his brave actions. Facing heavy gunfire, he tossed a grenade into the bunker, then rushed it with his M-1 rifle and killed any hostile forces who survived the explosion.

Another machine gun opened fire and knocked him down, seriously wounding Oresko in the hip, the citation says.

Oresko said he managed a slow crawl to another bunker.

“The machine gunner who shot me thought I was dead,” Oresko said. “I was able to move around, sneak around, so they didn’t see me. They saw me go down. They thought they’d killed me, but they didn’t. I slipped around and somehow got around, and they were in a bunch.”

Oresko crawled back for grenades he’d dropped from inside his jacket and advanced to an enemy dug-in machine gun. He crippled the gun with a grenade blast and wiped out the troops manning it with his rifle, the citation says.

“I got to the position to do what I was supposed to do, and I couldn’t because I had no grenades,” Oresko said. “I had to crawl back a couple of feet and pick up the grenades. I was almost afraid to do that, but I figured, what the hell?”

One danger was in the throw.

“I had to throw it,” he said. “I had a good aim. If it had hit anything else, the grenade would have gone off.”

Oresko is credited with killing 12 German soldiers. He refused to leave the area until he was sure his unit had completed the mission.

“They wanted to take me back to the hospital,” Oresko said. “I said no, let’s take the position first. I didn’t want to give it up after doing so much.”

The Medal of Honor was presented to Oresko at the White House on Oct. 30, 1945, by President Harry S. Truman. Oresko has attended every presidential inauguration since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s and served as the director of the Veterans Administration in Newark, N.J., for more than 30 years. The Bayonne, N.J., native who lived in Tenafly, N.J., for many years is also the recipient of the Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross.

“President Truman said to me, ‘I’d rather have the Medal of Honor than be president,’ ” Oresko said, “and I almost said to him — but I didn’t — ‘You wanna change?’ ”

Oresko was honored two years ago in Bayonne when a middle school was named in his honor.

It’s a bit harder for him to get around at age 95; he uses a walker. That hip still bothers him, but he’s comfortable in an assisted-living facility, he said.

“I made it once before when I was seriously wounded, and I figured, well, we’ll just take it day by day.”

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