Oracio (Ray) Vaz doesn’t like to talk about his time as a soldier in WWII, nor ask for assistance or help from others. That’s in part the reason it took over 60 years to receive his Bronze Star and second Purple Heart. The Mineola veteran was given the medals he earned as a WWII soldier by Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, D-Mineola, at a small ceremony on Monday afternoon at her Garden City office building.
“For 30 years, I did not want to, I never said a thing. My parents died, they did not know what I went through,” Vaz said.
“After a while, we find especially with our WWII veterans that it’s the family that starts asking because most of our veterans will never talk about their experiences or things like that,” McCarthy said. “There’s an oral history for those who go down to the Library of Congress and talk about their experiences. It’s also for our future veterans and what you have all gone through. When everybody was coming home, they just wanted to get out and get home so they never put in their paperwork.”
Vaz received the European-African-Middle Eastern campaign medal with 4-bronze service stars and arrowhead, the honorable service lapel button, the WWII victory medal, the Combat Infantry Badge Award for the 1st Infantry, his second Purple Heart for being wounded with shrapnel (yet he still continued to serve) and the Bronze Star.
“There are so many reasons they would never talk about their time in the service,” McCarthy said. “These are memories that never go away but these are memories that they don’t like to bring up. This is something for your children, this is something for your grandchildren.”
Vaz and his wife Ann have three daughters who live in New Jersey, Massapequa and New Hyde Park along with seven grandchildren.
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“I never really opened up until about eight or nine years ago. I didn’t feel that I had to tell anybody,” said Vaz, who wept at times during the ceremony.
It took a visit to the Mineola Middle School, where his daughter Caryl is a sixth grade teacher, for him to begin to open up. Vaz had brought a book about his unit, the the 359th regiment, with him for the students to see.
“There’s a million pictures in that book, a couple of them of Buchenwald, and I pass it around to the children and I have other photos that I acquired from the newspapers and I start by asking them what’s D-Day?”
One of the more frequent questions he gets asked about are foxholes.
“One fox hole we were in we were in it for three days,” he said. “The Germans had us covered from the high ground and you couldn’t get out during the day.”
The students also write letters to him after his talks.
“They love it, the kids love it and they write the nicest letters too,” Ann said.
It was a fellow member of the Mineola VFW that prompted Vaz to finally apply for his medals.
“Somebody told me ‘you never wear your medals?’ and i said ‘no, I never received (some of) them’,” he said, and was given the advice to contact McCarthy’s office.
“She said she’d be more than happy to get them and she did,” Vaz said of McCarthy. “I never thought about it until... after the VFW meeting, they were talking about do you want medals, how you can get them. When they said it was you, I said ‘oh, I have to go, I have to go.’ I vote for you all the time.”
Vaz had enlisted at 18, well before he graduated since the Army said they would guarantee he would receive his diploma certificate once he was discharged, but he never filled out that paperwork either.
“Years later, my daughter again, the teacher in the middle school finds out that he never actually got a diploma and she says ‘Daddy, I’m putting in for one, you’re going to get your diploma’,” Ann, Vaz’s wife of 60 years, said. “Well they wanted him to go to the graduation, he wouldn’t go. She had to go to a meeting and accept the diploma for him.”
Vaz, who is also disabled due to shrapnel in his arms and hands, also never asked the Army for a raise or for his disability payments, recalling how an officer had called him back before being discharged to fill out paperwork so he would receive the benefits.
“I had no idea what he was doing and he got me 10 percent disability,” he said, noting it has grown to 50 percent. “According to the doctors in England, they wanted me to go back (to the field) a third time and they courtmartialed me and they wanted to know why I dropped the rifle and a corporal was standing by, came over and kicked me in the butt and I picked it up and I said ‘if I had a bayonet, I’d shove it up your butt’. To this day, I can’t straighten my arm out.”
A member of the D-Day invasion, Vaz was one of the soldiers who landed at Utah beach in France.
“The landing craft that I was on, the engineer in the back steering the ship, he said ‘sorry guys, we can’t land on the beach because the landing beach up front are getting direct hits’ so they left us off almost the length of a football field with everything that we had,” he said, recalling he was in the rear of the landing craft because “the smallest guy to the back” and was last off the boat.
“When we left our big ship on D-Day, we had to have enough food for five days to carry and ammunition for five days. We had to carry a mortar shell on our leg, strapped to our leg and drop it off at the beach for the mortar people,” he said. “They dropped that ramp on the boat and you had to get out and I’m only 5’5”, in a helmet and all this weight and had five bandoliers – bandoliers are where they put all the ammunition – I said ‘oh my God,’ big guys are jumping off in front of me and they were going in there and I don’t know how to swim.”
Loaded with equipment, Vaz was also wearing what was known as a “Mae West,” an inflatable belt.
“We were told ‘you inflate that thing beforehand, you’ll be courtmartialed’ can you imagine that?” he said. “And all I’m thinking about is what that sergeant said ‘you’re gonna be courtmartialed if you use your life preserver.’ I jumped off and I went right to the bottom. I said ‘Ray,’ put on my Mae West, took my helmet off, lost my rifle, went to the top and I paddled my way in and I picked up a rifle on the beach and I went ahead. I thought that was the end of my right then and there, I don’t know how to swim. At 18 years old, you’re never afraid. But once you got on shore, it started to dawn on us that ‘hey, it could been me.’ Then we started to think a little bit differently.”
The first night he and a friend were at a hedgerow and heard noises on the other side during the night.
“So we’re taking hand grenades and throwing them over the hedgerow and they leave; he took a couple, I took a couple,” Vaz said. “The next morning we wake up and I’m peeking over the hedgerow – dead cows. We thought we were killing Germans.”
The next day, Vaz was shot in the thigh by a German sniper and later found himself in England receiving his first Purple Heart before returning to the battlefield fighting under General Patton in the Third Army.
“They come into the bed and they give you your Purple Heart. I feel I’m getting something that I really didn’t deserve. I went in with a million soldiers and why should I get something that the other million that went in didn’t?”
In September 1944 was when he suffered his debilitating injury at a village along the Moselle river one early morning at around 2:30 a.m. Vaz had gone to a large-sized outhouse after being ordered to check and guard the rear of the unit when a first aid man named Luna came in to the second stall saying they were being shelled.
“There was always a village we had to take, there was always something we had to take,” he recalled. “All I can remember is a flash in front of me, a big red flash. I woke up it was already starting to get daylight and I’m feeling around and I’ve got blood all over me.”
Luna had been able to put tourniquets on Vaz’s arms and legs and was helped down to a ship on the river which took him back to England once more.
“I got my first ride in an airplane, a C-47, it took me from Germany to France,” he said, pointing to some shrapnel still left in his body.
He was evacuated back to England for two months, missing the Battle of the Bulge, and also sent to another hospital in Belgium, who also could not help him.
Still, Vaz was returned to the battlefield a for a third experience, one of the most potent and lasting memories he would ever have when he and his unit saw Buchenwald, one of the German concentration camps.
“We had to do what we had to do,” Vaz said. “You’re a hero once, you don’t want to be a hero twice, but after you se Buchenwald, you want to be a hero no matter how many times you had to be. We wanted to kill every German in sight for what we saw at Buchenwald; the ovens, the people, the smell, three miles away you could smell the stench and that you never forget.”
When he returned home to the United States after being made an MP, Vaz worked with his father to found the Mineola Portuguese American Society as well as start a family of his own.