From the Butcher Shop to the Army
Orville Bloch was born in Big Falls, Wisconsin, and moved with his family to Streeter, North Dakota, when he was 4 years old. He was part of a large family with nine children. He worked in his father's butcher shop and took the skills he learned there to work at Swift's Packing House in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He was solidly built, and in high school played football and basketball, despite his short height.
During the Depression he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. At the camp, a counselor encouraged Bloch to go to college. He had only $55, but a great deal of confidence. North Dakota Agricultural College, now North Dakota State University, accepted him and helped him get a loan. His college effort was interrupted several times when he ran out of money. In 1940 he left college and worked at a Rochester, Minnesota, Piggly Wiggly store. By January 1942, he was only two credits short of graduating in agricultural economics, but lacked the funds to complete his degree. Later, he would receive his diploma. With World War II underway, he sought a commission in the military. All the services turned him down, as he was too short. At five feet and three inches, he was one inch short of the minimum height requirement.
Unable to obtain a commission, Orville Bloch joined the army as a private on February 20, 1942. Following basic and advanced training he entered the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, with a waiver for his height. He completed the course on October 22, 1942, and was commissioned a second lieutenant.
Defending the Hilltop and Forcing German Surrender
Second Lieutenant Bloch went to the 85th Infantry Division, which trained for 11 months at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The division shipped out on Christmas Eve, 1943 for North Africa. It had another two months of training in amphibious landings. In March 1944, elements of the division landed at Naples, Italy. First Lieutenant Bloch was assigned to Company E, 338th Infantry Regiment, 85th Infantry Division.
On March 27, 1944, the division started a drive north from Naples to liberate northern Italy. The 85th Infantry Division encountered stiff resistance and fought a number of tough battles before reaching Rome on June 4. It was a battered division and so was withdrawn from combat for recuperation and training. On September 13, 1944, the division was ordered to attack the strong German line, known as the Gothic Line. The division advance included a necessary breakthrough at the town of Firenzuola, Italy. On September 21, the division broke through this strongpoint.
On September 22, 1944, the division continued its advance. First Lieutenant Bloch's platoon was part of a battalion attack force charged with taking three hills. It was pinned down by intense enemy fire, and any movement would cause the platoon heavy casualties. Lieutenant Bloch sought a tactic to neutralize the German defenses on the hill in front of his platoon. With three volunteers, Lieutenant Bloch crawled up some 160 yards of rocky terrain to a sheltered position on the hill. They could see stone buildings on the hilltop 20 yards ahead that constituted the effective German defense. It was a brilliant defense that blocked the American advance. The reverse slope of the hill was a sheer cliff that prevented a large-force attack. Bloch and his three volunteers were able to scale the cliff and surprise the defenders.
Lieutenant Bloch jumped over a stone wall and fired into a machine gun nest, wounding a gunner. The other German soldiers quickly surrendered. The prisoners were removed and Bloch started a search of the stone buildings. In the first building he encountered, he threw a grenade into a machine gun position. The grenade failed to explode. A firefight followed between him and the gun crew. The enemy gunners managed to escape while he and one of his volunteers fired into the building and hit a machine gunner. While at the window attacking the gun crew, another machine gun crew came walking toward them, unaware of the firefight. Bloch and his comrade fired at the surprised crew and wounded several of them.
The survivors fled into the building where the other machine gun crew was hiding. Bloch charged into the building and yelled in German, which he spoke, for those inside to surrender or die. They followed his orders and surrendered. Of the 11 who surrendered, four were wounded. Several others were found dead in the building. Bloch and his men captured more German soldiers in the next building. Suddenly, German forces from other hilltop defenses began to surrender. With the hilltop secure, Bloch's small force had captured 70 enemies and destroyed five machine gun nests. He and his volunteers all escaped injury. The capture of the hilltop prevented loss of life and allowed the American advance.
The Medal of Honor and Continuing Service
At a regimental review on February 6, 1945, Lieutenant General Lucian Truscott (1895-1965), Commander Fifth Army, presented the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant Orville Bloch. After the ceremony, Medal of Honor recipient Bloch showed reporters the hilltop and how he and three platoon members captured it. A short time after the award ceremony, the army flew him back to his hometown for a victory celebration. He spent time with teacher Beverly Asplund (1921-2014) of Wilton, North Dakota. From the North Dakota celebration, he went to Fort Benning, Georgia, as an instructor at the infantry school. In June 1945, Beverly came to Fort Benning to marry him. They would have four children.
Orville Bloch left the service in late 1945 but found civilian life unsatisfying. He returned to the army and as a captain was assigned to the Far East Command headquarters in Tokyo. In 1951 he was promoted to major and served in the Korean War. Major Bloch had assignments to Atlanta, Georgia, and the Panama Canal Zone. In 1956 he was assigned to Washington state as an adviser to the 41st Infantry Division, Washington National Guard, and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In that same year, he was admitted to the Infantry Officer Candidate Scholl Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Georgia, which recognizes those with exceptional service.
In 1961 he was called to Washington, D.C., to serve in the White House as a military adviser. He was not sent to Vietnam due to a heart condition. In 1969 he was promoted to colonel and served with the Washington National Guard. Officers serving with him expected that "Orv" Bloch would be promoted to brigadier general. However, on January 31, 1970, his heart problems caused him to retire.
Bloch and his family purchased a home at Richmond Beach in Seattle, and an apple orchard at Lake Chelan. Orv Bloch divided his time between the Seattle home and the apple orchard.
Orville Bloch died on May 28, 1983, and was buried in Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park Cemetery in Seattle. Six other Medal of Honor recipients from Washington attended his funeral. In 2014, Joint Base Lewis-McChord named a street in his honor.