Oldest surviving Medal of Honor recipient dies at 96

(CBS News) PARAMUS, N.J. - A 96-year-old man who would have described himself as an ordinary guy passed away Friday in a New Jersey hospital. But Nicholas Oresko was surrounded by dozens of friends and admirers who knew he was anything but ordinary.

At the time of his death, Oresko was the oldest surviving recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Army Sgt. Nicholas Oresko received the U.S. military's highest honor for his bravery in combat.
Army Sgt. Nicholas Oresko received the U.S. military's highest honor for his bravery in combat.
CBS News

Oresko, an oil refinery worker from Bayonne, N.J., served with the U.S. Army during World War II. During the Battle of the Bulge in 1945, 28-year-old Sgt. Oresko was ordered to take a hill held by the the Germans. He later described what happened in a documentary about Medal of Honor recipients.

"Our job was take the two machine guns that were on the side of the hill somewhere, looking at us. We couldn't see them. But they saw us," he recalled.

After two costly attempts, his men refused to attack again. So the 5-foot-4-inch Oresko did it by himself.

"Now, you can't imagine how it is to be alone, in the 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 I'd say, 'Well, if I have to die for my country, I'm ready,'" Oresko said.

Oresko did not expect to survive. "I looked up at the sky, and I said, 'Lord, I know I'm going to die. Let's just make it fast.'"

Nicholas Oresko, shown wearing his medal, continued to have many admirers throughout his later years.
Nicholas Oresko, shown wearing his medal, continued to have many admirers throughout his later years.
CBS News

He managed to wipe out one machine-gun nest, but was wounded in the hip. He lay just below the second pillbox.

"So I said, 'All right, here we go,'" and reached for a grenade, Oresko said. "I counted to four, I pulled the pin, counted to four, threw it in. It exploded immediately, and I jumped in after it, started shooting. Whom the grenade didn't get, my rifle did. And then there was peace."

For his bravery in combat, Oresko was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest honor that can be given to U.S. military personnel.

But the war hero never made a big deal about his laurels. He was always "humble, humble, humble," said longtime friend Jack Carbone.

Oresko was "one of the most self-effacing people that you would ever want to meet," said another friend, Bob Jerome. "The last thing that he would ever want to be called was hero."

Oresko outlived his family, but at the end he was surrounded by friends as well as soldiers, firemen and cops -- just regular folks who admired him.

"We say he had no family, but he did have a family," said Carbone. "It was just a family he had not yet met.">

They wanted him to know that, unlike the day he charged the hill, he was not alone.

For information, visit the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.

  • Don Dahler

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