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A TRIBUTE: Nicholas Oresko, the nation’s oldest living Medal of Honor recipient at 96, died tonight at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. Scott McNiff, a Westwood police officer, was among the last to see him. This is his account of that visit, as told to CLIFFVIEW PILOT Publisher/Editor Jerry DeMarco.
Just hours ago, a group of soldiers, police officers, state troopers and others stood in a circle, holding hands, beside the bedside of our nation’s oldest living Medal of Honor recipient.
He was about to go into surgery for a fractured femur.
At his age, it was very risky. So we held hands. And we prayed.
My friend John Escobar, an Englewood firefighter, told me that his chief had asked for people to come help cheer Nick up. I brought our friend Ciarin O’Donnell.
I also brought with me a box of cards that one of our officers asked the kids at Brookside School in Westwood to make for Nick. There was a giant picture of Captain America on one of them. It said: “Mr Oresko, you are Our Captain America.”
It was the first time I’d ever met Mr. Oresko.
There was a small group of us there with him in Room 2614. There was a state trooper in uniform, a soldier, a soldier’s wife who was at the hospital who stopped in.
Nick had no family. Just the current and former service men and women, police, firefighters and others who visited this week after learning he’d broken his leg.
Next to his bed was his Medal of Honor (photo, top).
A DVD player was hooked up to the television. It played this video:
Nick was born on January 18, 1917 in Bayonne. He joined the United States Army in March 1942. He received the United States military’s highest decoration for his actions on January 23, 1945 during World War II.
That day, near Tettingen, Germany, Nick single-handedly defeated a German bunker, was seriously wounded, and then destroyed a second bunker despite his injuries during the Battle of the Bulge. President Truman gave him the medal during a ceremony at the White House.
When Barney F. Hajiro died in January 2011, Nick became the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient. He had moved to Cresskill assisted living facility by then.
Nick was barely conscious and able to speak earlier today, but he knew we were all there. He acknowledged people as best he could. You’d say something to him and he’d squeeze your hand.
“I wish there was something I could do for him,” the trooper said at one point. You could hear his throat tighten.
“You already did,” someone else said. “You’re here.”
Pretty soon, it was time.
A clergyman from the hospital asked us to clasp hands. We all prayed that Nick would make it through.
Then someone announced: “Fall in.”
They put the medal on his chest and we fell in behind, following him to the door of the operating room.
There he was, once again leading uniformed personnel, bravely going somewhere he might not return from.
It’s very humbling. After two decades on the road, nothing hits you that hard that often. You get used to it somehow.
But standing next to a man like that….
All I could think was: He is truly a national treasure.
POSTSCRIPT: I heard that Nick passed around 6:30 tonight. The Englewood Fire Department was getting ready to escort his body to the funeral home.
I am devastated. But I am grateful that he did not die alone.
We will be with Nick until he is laid to rest.
I am sure that Army Staff Sgt. Timothy McGill will then be there to salute him at the gates of Heaven.
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