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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published February 23 2013

Eriksmoen: North Dakotan called ‘one-man army’ for WWII heroics

On Sept. 22, 1944, an Army officer from south-central North Dakota singlehandedly wiped out five German machine gun nests and captured 19 prisoners.

For his action, 1st Lt. Orville Bloch was awarded the nation’s highest wartime award, the Medal of Honor. A newspaper reporter referred to him as “a one-man army.”

Bloch was born Feb. 10, 1915, in Big Falls, Wis., to Emil and Ottilie (Konopatzke) Bloch. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Steele, N.D., where Emil found work as an automobile mechanic.

For the next 20 years, the Blochs alternated between residences in Streeter and Jamestown, and Emil worked primarily as a meat dealer. When Orville became old enough, he helped his father butcher the animals and cut the meat.

Orville Bloch was small for his age, achieving full height at 5 feet 3 inches. His nickname was “Weenie.” However, he was solidly “built like the proverbial fireplug,” and “starred on his high school basketball and football teams.”

Following graduation, he enrolled at the North Dakota Agricultural College, now North Dakota State University. Bloch was an active member of the livestock judging team and the Saddle and Sirloin club. He was an officer of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and starred on the fraternity softball team. He must have also done some work in the theater because, on his enlistment form in 1942, Bloch listed his profession as “actor.”

Bloch graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics after the second quarter of the 1941-42 academic year. Pearl Harbor had just been bombed, and he tried to enlist for officer training, but was turned down by the Army, Marines, and Navy because he was too short.

Bloch went to Fort Snelling in Minnesota and, on Feb. 20, 1942, enlisted as a private and was placed in the warrant officer training program. He was recognized for his leadership ability, so the height requirement was waived and he attended Officer’s Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga.

Bloch graduated on Oct. 22, commissioned as second lieutenant and assigned to Company E of the 338th Infantry in the 85th Division. The 85th was known as the “Custer Division.” After further training in Louisiana and California, and at Fort Dix, N.J., soldiers in the 85th were sent to northwest Africa on Dec. 24, 1943. By then, Bloch had been promoted to first lieutenant.

On March 27, 1944, the division arrived in Naples, Italy, with the objective of driving the German army north of the Po River in northern Italy.

After a series of fierce battles, the 85th entered Rome on June 4. After rehabilitation and more training, the 85th attacked the mountain defenses of what was known as the Gothic Line on Sept. 13.

A key city in breaking the Gothic Line was Firenzuola, which the 85th took on Sept. 21. The next day, as the division was about to continue its northern advancement, some undetected Germans near Firenzuola began firing on Bloch’s platoon. It was then that he displayed remarkable heroic action by destroying the machine gun emplacements and capturing the remaining Germans. Five months later, on Feb. 10, 1945, Bloch was awarded the Medal of Honor.

On Oct. 24, the 85th reached Mount Mezzano, which overlooked the Po River Valley, the division’s objective. After a series of heavy battles, the Gothic Line was broken and the Po River was crossed on April 24, 1945.

After the war, Bloch stayed in the Army and reached the rank of captain. He was stationed at the Far East Command headquarters, located in Tokyo, Japan. When the Korean conflict began in 1951, Bloch was promoted to major. After open hostilities in Korea ended in 1953, he was sent to the 3rd Army headquarters in Atlanta.

Bloch was later assigned to the Caribbean Command in the Panama Canal Zone. In 1956, he was sent to Seattle and named Army adviser to the 41st Infantry Division of the Washington National Guard. While there, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

In 1959, Bloch was enshrined in the Hall of Fame at the Infantry Officer’s Candidate School in Fort Benning and, in 1961, was given an award for his achievement as senior adviser of the Army’s G3 (combat operations) while stationed in Washington, D.C. The next year, he was elected vice president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society of America. In 1965, Bloch received the Alumni Achievement Award from NDSU, his alma mater.

“A serious heart ailment” kept Bloch out of Vietnam. Before being released from the Army on Jan. 31, 1970, he was promoted to colonel. Bloch started an apple orchard business in Manson, near Seattle, and his major passion was delivering apples “to financially strapped schools.”

In 1978, Gov. Art Link presented Bloch with the North Dakota Legion of Merit. When Bloch learned that the Streeter school was struggling financially, he loaded up his old Ford pickup with apples from his orchard and personally drove to the school for delivery. Not long after this grueling drive, he had a heart attack and died on May 28, 1983.

Bloch was memorialized in August 1993 when the building of the U.S. Army’s Battle Projection Group, where wartime commanders are trained in Chicago, was named for him and three other Medal of Honor recipients.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.


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