The German machine-gun bunkers were entrenched 50 feet above Nicholas Oresko’s Army platoon and had repelled his men with bursts of fire that frigid January in 1945; they had been pinned down for two days during the brutal Axis offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge.
On the third day, Master Sgt. Oresko — 5-foot-4, 28 years old, former New Jersey oil refinery laborer — decided his platoon again would attempt to sneak up on the Germans in the deep snow as the sky darkened.
“Let’s go!” he ordered.
No one followed.
It was 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 23, 1945, and the platoon was too tired or afraid to advance up the hill in western Germany.
“I looked up to heaven,” Master Sgt. Oresko said years later of his one-man assault, “and I said: ‘Lord, I know I am going to die. Make it fast, please.’ ”
He began moving. Thirty feet up, he looked back to see the first of his platoon trailing him. Then 20 feet more, and suddenly bullets began strafing him. As he closed in on the first bunker, he hurled a grenade and then rushed the opening, firing at all survivors of the blast.
He killed them all, but he was then struck by a machine-gun bullet, which entered his right hip. He fell into an enemy trench. “They saw me go down,” he later told the Newark Star-Ledger. “They thought they’d killed me, but they didn’t.”
The Germans began firing at the other Americans, which bought Master Sgt. Oresko time to find a grenade he had lost in the snow. He then crawled toward the second German bunker, lobbed a grenade into it and again shot down the survivors with his rifle. Despite severe wounds and loss of blood, he refused to be evacuated until the mission was completed.
He was credited with killing 12 Germans and minimizing casualties to his platoon.
For his actions that day, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor, in October 1945. Before his death on Oct. 4 at 96, Master Sgt. Oresko was believed to be the oldest surviving Medal of Honor recipient.
He was asked shortly after the war what propelled him to lead his one-man raid on a well-fortified enemy position.
“All hell breaks loose, you do something,” he said.
Nicholas Michael Oresko was born in Bayonne, N.J., on Jan. 18, 1917. His father was Russian, his mother American. He worked for Standard Oil of New Jersey before joining the Army in 1942.
After his discharge, he worked for the Veterans Administration for 32 years in New Jersey and retired as a supervisor.
He had no immediate survivors after the death of his wife, the former Jean Strang, in 1980, and their son, Robert Oresko, a noted scholar of Italy, in 2010.
Master Sgt. Oresko died at a hospital in Englewood, N.J., of complications from surgery on his right femur after a fall near his nursing home in Cresskill, N.J., said family friend Jack Carbone.
It was the same leg that was injured during the Battle of the Bulge.