At five-foot, seven-inches tall when he enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II, Nicholas Oresko always thought his lack of height might interfere with his dreams. He wanted to be everything from an airplane pilot to a firefighter, but he never imagined he would win the Congressional Medal of Honor, or that he would live to see a school in his hometown of Bayonne named after him.
The Bayonne Board of Education voted last July to rename the school in Oresko’s honor, and the official ceremony took place in late September. The occasion brought out dignitaries from every level of government as well as Bayonne veterans groups, all seeking to express their gratitude to the humble man who managed to do extraordinary things one cold day in January 1945.
“Lord, I know I’m going to die. Let’s just make it fast.” – Nicholas Oresko
Oresko served as a master sergeant during what is commonly called “The Battle of the Bulge” near Tettingen, Germany. He singlehandedly defeated an entrenched German bunker. Despite being wounded, he went on to defeat a second bunker. President Harry S. Truman awarded him the Medal of Honor on Oct. 30, 1945.
In a video presentation done on behalf of the World War II Museum in New Orleans, he remembers growing up in Bayonne and early on wanting to pursue a career in a number of things – fireman, boxer, and more. He wound up working in the shipping department for Standard Oil Company, based in Bayonne. When war broke out, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. After training, he shipped out to Europe, where he saw combat in France, and later, Germany. In January 1945, when the Allies were attempting to take a German stronghold near Tettington, his unit was ordered to the front line.
“We were supposed to take out two machine guns that were at the top of the hill looking down at us,” he said. “We couldn’t see them. But they saw us. Every time we attacked, we would lose some people.”
A hero’s prayer
Despite two days of bombardment by American artillery, the Germans remained unmoved. So on the third day, Oresko decided his company had to handle the situation. But when he started the attack, none of his men came with him.
“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 came over him, he said. He was numb, and not in his right mind.
“So I was alone. You can’t imagine what it means to be alone in a battlefield, with your men on the ground and the Germans in front of you. What do you do? You just keep plugging along step by step, and well, if I’m going to die for my country, I’m ready,” he said.
And then all hell broke loose. There was a lot of screaming, yelling, shooting, and confusion, but then he came back to reality. He thought they had missed him. His rifle belt and coat were full of bullet holes. But he had been knocked down. It wasn’t until he started to crawl that he noticed the blood running down his leg.
“I was wounded seriously,” he said. “Then it started to hurt.”
He got weaker, but kept trudging ahead until he found himself under the enemy emplacement. The Germans thought he was dead. So he figured he would throw a grenade in there. But when he felt his jacket for the grenades, he found them gone. He had dropped them while crawling there. So he went back and got some, threw the grenade into the bunker, then after the explosion, went up and began shooting. Then it was over.
“I couldn’t believe how quiet it was,” he recalled.
An officer in his unit later called his action the finest example of quick thinking and courage he had ever seen.
The name, and the deed, will live on
Oresko spent the next month in a hospital bed, and then was reassigned to a supply company in Le Havre, France, where he heard that he had been nominated to receive the Medal of Honor, only the second soldier from Bayonne to receive that distinction.
“Unfortunately, the title ‘hero’ gets thrown around a little too freely these days,” said Mayor Mark Smith during the elaborate ceremony that featured local, state, and federal dignitaries, school officials, and representatives from the dozen Bayonne veterans’ groups. “But in regards to Oresko, there is no question.”
In a stage crowded with dignitaries, Board of Education president Will Lawson unveiled a memorial plaque that will stand outside former P.S. No. 14.
“Never did I realize that my name would be on a school,” Oresko said during a brief speech, repeating words of wisdom that his mother had conveyed to him for the students to finish their education. “It is a wonderful feeling. In a number of years, I won’t be here, but my name will, which is great.”
While Mayor Smith is credited with submitting the suggestion that the school be named after Oresko, Smith said other people played a role, as well. Smith met Oresko last May during the Hoboken Memorial Day Parade, where the last living Medal of Honor recipient from Hudson County was honored.
Schools Superintendent Dr. Patricia L. McGeehan called Oresko an “exemplary role model.”
Oresko received gifts from a number of officials, including a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol from Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, representing Rep. Albio Sires. But Oresko seemed most moved by gifts given to him from students at the newly named school.
Smith called Oresko an ordinary man who walked the streets of Bayonne as a boy, and who answered the call of duty when war broke out.
“Oresko and millions of other Americans knew well at the time that our very way of life was under attack by the Axis forces,” Smith said.
America pitted young men like Oresko against the German war machine, Smith said, and it was by the courage of men like Oresko that the war machine failed.
“It is altogether fitting and proper that we name this beautiful school in honor of Nicholas Oresko,” Smith said. “We are forever in their debt – a debt we cannot repay to Nick Oresko and the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who, in their youth, faced down horrifying evil and ultimately overcame it – some at the price of their very lives.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.