OCTOBER 11, 2015
Oresco was nation’s oldest Medal of Honor recipient
The Bayonne native, the nation’s oldest Medal of Honor recipient when he died Oct. 4 at age 96 at an Englewood hospital, was buried Thursday with military honors reserved for the highest-ranking officers and enlisted soldiers with the highest award for bravery.
His public memorial at Bergen Community College’s Anna Maria Ciccone Theatre in Paramus drew hundreds of mourners, from three-star generals and fellow Medal of Honor recipients to children who attended the elementary school named in his honor in his hometown.
His casket, carried in a “deuce and a half” World War II Army truck, traveled along Paramus Road from an earlier private service to the college auditorium.
“Today is a difficult day … today is also a day of pride,” Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, told the audience of 300 in the Ciccone Theatre. “We celebrate his tremendous legacy.”
World War II hero Oresko singlehandedly wiped out two enemy bunkers and killed a dozen Germans using grenades and his M-1 rifle…
Oresko “was the kind of man you were better off for having met,” Caslen said, describing the former Army master sergeant as selfless, with an indomitable spirit.
Though not large in build or height, Caslen said, Oresko was a man who displayed courage on the battlefield, going out alone to disable the enemy’s bunkers when his platoon was pinned down by German machine gun fire.
“He led by example,” Caslen said.
“He is an outstanding example of dedication.”
A letter sent by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno praised Oresko for symbolizing “what is best about our soldiers and our Army.”
“By honoring Master Sergeant Oresko’s actions, we honor all of the heroes who have sacrificed for this nation, along with every service member who has raised their right hand to defend this country and defend our ideals,” Odierno wrote.
Oresko died of complications from surgery for a broken right femur, the same leg in which he was wounded on Jan. 23, 1945, near Tettingen, Germany, during the Battle of the Bulge. Serving with Company C of the 302nd Infantry Regiment, 94th Infantry Division, Oresko singlehandedly wiped out two enemy bunkers and killed a dozen Germans using grenades and his M-1 rifle.
Navy veteran Jim Zaconie never met Oresko, but felt compelled to attend Thursday’s memorial to honor a hero.
“It’s the brotherhood of the veterans and he was at the top of the list,” said Zaconie, 65, of Washington Township. “We have to show our respect.”
Thursday’s honors included two private ceremonies before Oresko’s flag-draped black metal and silver casket was brought from Annunciation Roman Catholic Church on Midland Avenue in Paramus to Bergen Community College in the same type of Army truck that would have transported Oresko in World War II.
The truck was driven by its owner, Jerry Nolan of Harrington Park, who restores World War II vehicles as a hobby.
“It’s incredible to honor a veteran, a Medal of Honor [recipient],” Nolan said. “It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
” The procession onto the campus passed under a 100-foot by 40-foot American flag flanked by firetrucks from Wyckoff and Englewood.
In an interview with The Record in 2012, Oresko described his fear and how he did not expect to survive after failing to knock out the German bunkers and taking heavy fire.
“We attacked their positions several times, and we got beaten back,” Oresko said. “It’s terrible. It scares the hell out of you. So we figured this time, let’s sneak up on them. Instead of getting prepared with artillery fire, let’s just go as it gets dark and sneak up on them and then attack ’em.”
“I looked up to heaven and said, ‘Lord, I know I’m going to die, please make it fast,’” he said.
He took out one machine gun by tossing a grenade into a bunker, then rushing it with his M-1 to kill any surviving Germans, according to the citation. Another machine gun opened fire, seriously wounding Oresko in the hip. Under fire, he crawled back to retrieve grenades he had dropped, then advanced on the dug-in machine gun and took it out with a grenade and rifle fire.
“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.”
Oresko was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman at a White House ceremony on Oct. 30, 1945. On Wednesday, Governor Christie ordered flags lowered to half-staff for one week starting Thursday, the day of Oresko’s funeral.
Fellow Medal of Honor recipients who attended the memorial were retired Marine Col. Harvey “Barney” Barnum, retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs, retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Kelley and retired Air Force 1st. Lt. James Fleming.
Barnum eulogized Oresko, a founding member of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, not as someone who thought of himself as a hero, but as someone devoted to children and education, often visiting students in Bayonne.
Oresko lived in Tenafly and spent his last years in an assisted living facility in Cresskill. But some of the students at K-8 Nicholas Oresko School met him when they performed in the band at his 95th and 96th birthday parties in Clifton and Cresskill.
“He was wise, always funny, and knew the right thing to say,” said Katie Boyle, 13, who smiled when she recalled his advice to them. “He would say, ‘You can do more than you think you can.’ And that inspired me to run for student council.”
The final tribute to Oresko was at Paramus’ George Washington Memorial Park, where the Police Pipes and Drums of Bergen County played “Amazing Grace,” followed by a salute fired by seven soldiers and then a bugler’s taps. Oresko was buried next to his wife, Jean, who died in 1980. His son, Robert, died in 2010.
“The passing of Master Sergeant Oresko is a loss felt not only in North Jersey but among his Army family,” said Army Capt. Chris Carbone, a family friend. “My battalion … based in Djibouti, Africa, sent prayers and video wishes |for Master Sergeant Oresko and received daily updates on his status.
“Upon his passing, there was a feeling of loss within the unit, even halfway around the world, as soldiers realized that we had lost a true hero and amazing soldier.”