First Lieutenant Orville Emil Bloch, Medal of Honour, the Hero of Piancaldoli

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the editorial team
research and text by Daniele Baggiani

Premise

In September 1944 Orville Emil Bloch is a 29-year-old US Army officer. His story deserves to be told as one of the two (only) Medals of Honor - the highest American honor for acts of heroism - awarded for war deeds connected to the Gothic Line and Giogo Pass Battles. However, its action remains little known. Here we retrace the profile and deeds of this soldier who fought with valor on our territory, during the clashes following the breakthrough of the Gotica after September 18, 1944, when the German troops were retreating on the hills between Firenzuola and the Passo della Raticosa. It is worth reporting on these fights, the acts of heroism and the career of this valiant commander of the 338th Infantry Regiment of '85th “Custer” US Army division, survived the conflict and became a career soldier. Many interesting details emerge from the war deeds. The story comes to life.

Orville E. Bloch indossa la Medal of Honour
Orville E. Bloch wears the Medal of Honor

Before the WW2

On February 10, 1915, in Big Falls, Wisconsin, Orville was born in a family of German immigrants, to Emil and Ottilie (Konopatzke) Bloch. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Steele, ND, where Emil found work as an auto mechanic. For the next 20 years, Bloch's family lives between Streeter and Jamestown. Emil worked primarily as a meat merchant. When Orville became old enough, he helped his father slaughter animals and cut meat. They then moved to Streeter, North Dakota, to a German neighborhood.

Orville Bloch was small for his age, reaching his greatest height at 5 feet 3 inches (160 cm). His nickname was “Weeny”. However, he had a solid physique and a sporting attitude. He played on his high school basketball and football teams.

During the Depression he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. At camp, a counselor encouraged Bloch to go to college. He only had $55, but a lot of faith. North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University) accepted and helped him get a loan. His college efforts were interrupted several times when he ran out of money.

In 1940 he dropped out of college and worked at a Piggly Wiggly store in Rochester, Minnesota. In January 1942 he was only two credits away from graduating in agricultural economics, but he did not have the funds to complete it. Orville Bloch graduated in May 1942, earning a Bachelor of Science, major: Agricultural Economy.

Recruitment and training

  • With World War II underway, after Pearl Harbor, he sought a commission in the army. All services rejected it because it was too low. He was an inch under the minimum height requirement.

  • After several rejections by the Navy and Marine Corps, Orville Bloch enlisted in the Army as a private on February 20, 1942.

  • His ambition paid off. He moved up the ranks to become an officer. After basic and advanced training, he entered Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, with a waiver for his height. He completed the course on October 22, 1942, and was commissioned Second Lieutenant.

  • Second Lieutenant Bloch was assigned to the 85thth Infantry Division, which trained for 11 months at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.
  • The division departed on Christmas Eve 1943 for North Africa, completing training for amphibious landings.
  • In March 1944, elements of the division landed in Naples, Italy. First Lieutenant Bloch was assigned to Company E, 338th Infantry Regiment, 85th Infantry Division, 5th  Army.

The retreating enemy is still fighting, beyond Firenzuola

Once the conquest of the Giogo Pass was concluded on September 18, in the following days the column of men and vehicles of the 5thth American Army proceeded in the direction of Firenzuola and beyond. The retreating Germans organized a series of effective defensive positions on the heights between the Raticosa Pass and Piancaldoli, giving rise to a strong resistance. The German Divisions were routed but not disorganized. Kesselring having masterfully prepared, as usual, the retreat to defensive positions in line. The next day, exactly the September 19, at 4 pm, the first American infantry units were in Firenzuola. Upon entering, the soldiers moved with caution among the gutted and mined buildings, where the streets could barely be made out under the rubble that covered the soil.

The German interdiction was organized quickly. While the bulk of the forces climbed northwards on the ridge between Firenzuola and La Raticosa, in the line from Covigliaio to Brento Sànico and Piancaldoli, a series of fire centers tried to slow down the rapid advance of the Americans from west towards east and the Santerno Valley. It was in one of these fierce battles that Orville Emil Bloch stood out for his courage. On September 22, 1944, First Lieutenant Bloch led three soldiers in an attack against a German defense on top of a hill, in the "Il Poggio" area, near Piancaldoli, which had blocked the American attack.

Before reporting on this action, let's retrace the various phases of the American advance after the conquest of the Giogo Pass. The Firenzuola basin was conquered on September 21, after a furious aerial bombardment, which combined with the already heavy bombardment of September 12, which anticipated the offensive against the Gothic Line.

The town, fortunately already evacuated on 10 September, is almost completely destroyed, including the beautiful 14th Century town hall in "pietra serena". Three American Divisions, the 34th, 91st and 85th, are thrown beyond the hills of Firenzuola, on the border between Tuscany and Emilia. The German counterattack with artillery fire is countered by a smoke screen created by the chemical company, while the engineers begin to lay the first Bailey bridges over the Santerno. The 88th “Blue Devils” Division is in charge of Gen. Keyes to advance towards Imola. On the night of September 21, in the rain, the vanguards of the 88th division advanced towards Castel del Rio, encountering little resistance. To the north of Firenzuola there was fighting, with the Germans retreating, who however resisted until September 29, when the Raticosa pass was taken. The fastest advancement of 5th Armata will be along the Santerno valley, northeast of Firenzuola. Castel del Rio is the first municipality in the Province of Bologna to be liberated, on 27 September 1944. Those days between 21st and 29th September 1944 were hectic. The Americans seek the definitive breakthrough towards Bologna, while the Germans prepare for a fierce resistance. The climate will reward the German army.

On October 2, after a massive artillery bombardment on the German defenses and a tough house-to-house battle, the town of Monghidoro will be liberated, which will be symbolically annexed by General Clark to the district of Los Angeles. The main routes seem open to the Allies for a rapid conquest of Bologna and the Po Valley. But the Germans retreated northwards in an orderly manner, according to long-prepared plans, entrenching themselves in every place of the lower Apennines which was advantageous for defence, in particular along the transverse chain of the Pliocene buttress. The rainy climate of autumn 1944 and the winter that arrived early in the Apennines - together with the Allied successes in France and Holland - blocked operations until the spring of 1945. The winter passed in waiting, transforming the advance into a war of position.

The action of Orville Bloch

On 22 September 1944 the 85th Division continues its rapid advance north, beyond Firenzuola. First Lieutenant Bloch's Platoon is part of the attack Battalion tasked with conquering three hills overlooking Piancaldoli. Intense enemy fire blocked any movement, which would have caused heavy casualties to the advancing allies. The German strongholds and MG positions on the connecting road had to be dismantled.

Lieutenant Bloch thought up a tactic to neutralize the German defenses on the hill ahead of his platoon. Accompanied by only three volunteers, Lieutenant Bloch ascended approximately 160 meters of rocky terrain, until he reached a sheltered position on the hill. From here he and his men could see a group of stone buildings on the top of the hill (in the Il Poggio area), 20 meters ahead, which constituted an effective German fire centre. The defense entrusted by Kesselring to these centers of fire risked slowing down the American advance. The opposite side of the hill where the German positions were located was a sheer wall, which prevented an attack by large forces. Bloch and his three volunteers managed to scale the sheer wall and surprised the defenders.

The action took place in the locality "Il Poggio", a hamlet of Piancaldoli, on the border with Emilia Romagna, on the road to Belvedere and Sassoleone. The family members returned to the scene of the action; and there are also some original photos of site of the clash.

Medal of Honour

  • Presentation Date & Details: February 6, 1945 | Firenzuola, Italy, presented by Liutenant General Lucian K. Truscott.
  • Born: February 10, 1915, Big Falls, Waupaca County, WI, USA.
  • Died: May 28, 1983, Manson, WA, USA.
  • Buried:Evergreen Washelli memorial Park (MH), Seattle, WA, USA.
He always said to me, so many men performed acts of valor and never got recognized for it. I was just doing my job.

— ROBIN BLOCK, son of World War II Medal of Honor Recipient Orville Bloch

Citation

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. First Lt. Bloch undertook the task of wiping out five enemy machine-gun nests that had held up the advance in that particular sector for one day. Gathering three volunteers from his platoon, the patrol snaked their way to a big rock, behind which a group of three buildings and five machine-gun nests were located. Leaving the three men behind the rock, he attacked the first machine-gun nest alone charging into furious automatic fire, kicking over the machine gun and capturing the machine-gun crew of five. Pulling the pin from a grenade, he held it ready in his hand and dashed into the face of withering automatic fire toward this second machine-gun nest located at the corner of an adjacent building 15 yards distant. When within 20 feet of the machine gun he hurled the grenade, wounding the machine gunner, the other two members of the crew fleeing into a door of the house. Calling one of his volunteer group to accompany him, they advanced to the opposite end of the house, there contacting a machine-gun crew of five running toward this house. First Lt. Bloch and his men opened fire on the enemy crew, forcing them to abandon this machine gun and ammunition and flee into the same house. Without a moment’s hesitation, 1st Lt. Bloch, unassisted, rushed through the door into a hail of small-arms fire, firing his carbine from the hip, and captured the seven occupants, wounding three of them. First Lt. Bloch with his men then proceeded to a third house where they discovered an abandoned enemy machine gun and detected another enemy machine-gun nest at the next corner of the building. The crew of six spotted 1st Lt. Bloch the instant he saw them. Without a moment’s hesitation he dashed toward them. The enemy fired pistols wildly in his direction and vanished through a door of the house, 1st Lt. Bloch following them through the door, firing his carbine from the hip, wounding two of the enemy and capturing six. Altogether 1st Lt. Bloch had singlehandedly captured 19 prisoners, wounding six of them and eliminating a total of five enemy machine-gun nests. His gallant and heroic actions saved his company many casualties and permitted them to continue the attack with new inspiration and vigor.

Citazione

Per notevole senso del dovere e intrepidità a rischio della vita al di là del dovere. Dapprima il tenente Bloch assunse il compito di annientare cinque postazioni di mitragliatrici nemiche che avevano bloccato per un giorno l’avanzata in quel particolare settore (Firenzuola). Riunendo tre volontari del suo plotone, ha costituito una pattuglia che si è diretta verso una grande roccia dietro la quale si trovava un gruppo di tre edifici e cinque nidi di mitragliatrici. Lasciando i tre uomini dietro la roccia, attaccò da solo il primo nido di mitragliatrici caricando con un furioso fuoco automatico, bloccando la mitragliatrice e catturando i cinque mitragliatori. Tolta la sicura da una granata, la tenne pronta in mano e si lanciò in faccia al fuoco automatico verso il secondo nido di mitragliatrici situato all’angolo di un edificio adiacente, a 15 metri di distanza. Giunto nel raggio di 20 metri dal mitragliatore scagliò la granata, ferendo il mitragliere; gli altri due membri del gruppo di fuoco fuggirono verso una porta dell’abitazione. Chiamando a sé uno del suo gruppo di volontari di pattuglia, Orville Bloch e il suo soldato avanzarono verso l’estremità opposta della casa, entrando in contatto con una squadra di cinque mitragliatrici. Per prima cosa il tenente Bloch e i suoi uomini aprirono il fuoco contro il nemico, costringendolo ad abbandonare la mitragliatrice e le munizioni, fuggendo dalla casa. Senza un attimo di esitazione, il Tenente Bloch, da solo, si precipitò attraverso la porta mentre imperversava il fuoco delle armi leggere; egli sparò con la sua carabina e catturò i sette occupanti, ferendone tre. Successivamente il Tenente Bloch e i suoi uomini si sono recati in una terza casa, dove hanno scoperto una mitragliatrice nemica abbandonata e hanno individuato un altro nido di mitragliatrici all’angolo opposto dell’edificio. La squadra nemica individuò il Tenente Bloch, il quale immediatamente si precipitò verso di loro. Il nemico sparò selvaggiamente con le pistole nella sua direzione, nascondendosi nella casa; ma il Tenente Bloch li seguì sparando con il suo fucile e ferendo due nemici, mentre altri sei furono catturati. Complessivamente il Tenente Bloch catturò da solo 19 prigionieri e ferì sei soldati tedeschi, eliminando in totale cinque postazioni di mitragliatrici nemiche. Le sue azioni coraggiose ed eroiche salvarono al vita a molti uomini della sua Compagnia, permettendo loro di continuare l’attacco con rinnovato slancio e vigore.

Orville's Bloch military career

  • After the war Bloch remained in the army and rose to 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 the end of open hostilities in Korea in 1953, he was sent to the headquarters of the 3th Army in Atlanta.
  • Bloch was later assigned to the Caribbean Command in the Panama Canal Zone.
  • In 1956 he was sent to Seattle and appointed advisor to the 41st Armyth Washington National Guard Infantry Division. While there, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
  • “A serious heart condition” kept Bloch out of Vietnam.
  • Before being discharged from the army, he was promoted to Colonel on 31 January 1970.
  • Orville would have been promoted to Brigadier General, but due to poor health he retired with the rank of Colonel in 1970 after twenty-eight years of service.

His legacy

  • In 1959, Bloch was inducted into the Infantry Officer's Candidate School Hall of Fame at Fort Benning.
  • In 1961 he received an award for his accomplishments as a senior advisor to the Army's G3 (combat operations) while stationed in Washington, DC.
  • In 1960 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.
  • After 1970 he settled in Richmond Beach near Seattle. He and his family owned an apple orchard on Lake Chelan. He was known for delivering apples to schools in financial difficulty.
  • He died in the affection of his loved ones, who remember him in various touching interviews, on May 28, 1983, at the age of 68.
  • In 2014, Joint Base Lewis-McChord named a street in his honor.

Burial

Orville Emil Bloch is buried in Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park in Seattle, Washington; Section W, lot 0215, grave 1.

Bibliography

  • Army Website, Medal of Honor Recipients, WWII 
  • The National Archives, Access to Archival Databases, Enlistment Records
  • Find a Grave, Memorials
  • Donald K. and Helen L. Ross, Washington State Men of Valor (Burley, Washington: Coffee Break Press, 1980);
  • “National Guard Adviser Named,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 4, 1956, p. 19;
  • “Seattleites Parade at Inauguration,” Ibid., January 21, 1957, p. 6;
  • “War Heroes To Be Feted at White House,” Ibid., April 25, 1963, p. 5;
  • “Sunburnt Soldiers Sweat Out Training,” Ibid., June 21, 1968, p. 4;
  • “Loyalty Day Ceremonies To Be Held at Ingraham,” Ibid., 1975, p. 25;
  • “No Gas? There’s Plenty To Do Close to Home,” Ibid., May 23, 1979, p. 43;
  • Don Duncan, “A Final Tribute to Orville Bloch,” Ibid., June 3, 1983, p. 50.
Medal of Honour recipient ORVILLE E. BLOCH
First Lieutenant Orville Emil Bloch Historical Marker. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Patriots & Patriotism First Lieutenant Orville Emil Bloch Memorial image. Click for full size. Photographed By Cosmos Mariner, August 27, 2023 2. First Lieutenant Orville Emil Bloch Memorial • War, World II. In addition, it is included in the Medal of Honor Recipients series list. A significant historical date for this entry is September 22, 1944.
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