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Mineola Man Gets What’s Rightfully His After Six Decades

World War II veteran finally receives medals, recounts D-Day invasion, other battles

The 18-year-old soldier sat aboard a boat clenching his rifle just 300 yards from Utah Beach, which was being bombarded by both sides of World War II. With five days of food and equipment, he and the other young men on the boat were about to make their mark on one of the most important moments in world history.

Neither he nor the other members of 359th Infantry of the 90th Division knew the true gravity of the situation as they approached the beach. He plunged into the water prepared to make his way to the beach, but there was a significant obstacle in his path: he didn’t know how to swim.

“I jumped off the landing craft and went straight down…over my head,” recalled Oracio (Ray) Vaz, 88, a Mineola resident and participant in the D-Day Invasion in Normandy. “I can’t swim. Luckily, I had a Mae West [a life jacket]. I put that on and took my helmet off, lost my rifle. At that time, I felt for my life. I paddled my way in and picked up a rifle off the ground.”

As he recalled the battle, tears dripped down his right cheek. With his eyes welling up, Vaz said it was a frightening sight, though he thanked God for not landing at Omaha Beach, which is recognized as ground zero of the famous landing.

 “You’re thinking as a kid. I had no fear whatsoever initially,” said Vaz. We were on the boat; they were watching the bombardment of the beaches and planes overhead…you have no idea what’s going to happen. You’re too young.”

He can still feel the terror; the memories etched in his psyche. Until recently wouldn’t want to talk about a fateful day in June 1944, when he was just a teenager nor would he acknowledge that he was supposed to be awarded for his duties. He hated the thought of it.

“When I got out of the service, I never talked about this to anybody,” Vaz said inside his Hampton Street home. Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy presented his World War II medals to him at her Garden City office on Dec. 3. “I never talked about my experiences. I don’t know why.”

McCarthy attained Vaz’s Combat Infantry Badge Award for the 1st Infantry, European-African-Middle Eastern campaign medal and arrowhead, the honorable service lapel button, the WWII victory medal, his second Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. It wasn’t until urgings by members of VFW Post 1305 that Vaz considered obtaining his medals.

“They were asking me about the medals,” Vaz stated. “I’m not the kind of guy to show off. Then one day they came over during one of the meetings and they told all I had to do was call Carolyn McCarthy and she’d order them. You know who deserves these medals? The people who were left behind.”

McCarthy commended Vaz for his humbleness and didn’t hesitate to issue the order. “Mr. Vaz is one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation,” she said. “He served in one of the most legendary battles in world history, and that makes him a living legend.  We’re honored to thank him for his service and his sacrifices in any way we can.” 

His daughter Caryl, a sixth-grade Mineola Middle School teacher, got him to open up about his wartime days to students and still does to this day. Students still send him thank you letters.

“She started to talk to me about going to teach the kids about World War II,” Vaz stated. “I’ve been going for the last eight years.”

And what a story it is to tell. How many people can say that they are not only an eyewitness to one of the world’s defining moments, but an active participant in it?

Vaz arrived in England in May 1944 and said, at first, all he did was march, do drills and prepare for what may happen. Vaz knew something was up, but couldn’t put his finger on it.

“About a week before D-Day, we were up on the northern part of England,” Vaz said gesturing to the open air. “We got on trucks and they took us down to Southampton in England. They took us into a big tent. That tent was every bit as half the size of a football field and they had MPs (military police) every 20 or 30 feet.”

When Vaz reached the end of the tent, a big screen filled the back wall…it was a map of southern France. His superiors were vague, but the message was clear.

“They said D-Day’s coming up and we can’t tell you when and we’ll tell you where you’re going to land,” Vaz said. “But everything was fictitious. They didn’t want us to know anything before D-Day.”

Vaz would escape unscathed from his first night on patrol. However, it was not without a night if terror.

“We took hand grenades and threw them over the hedgerow,” Vaz recounts. “The next morning we realized we killed a bunch of cows. We thought they were Germans.”

The next night, he was not so fortunate. He would be shot by a German sniper, but would not be kept down for long. He returned to his outfit on July 30, 1944; his 19th birthday. This incident garnered Vaz his first Purple Heart.

He suffered another injury while patrolling a village along the Moselle River that September. While inspecting a large out-house, a medic named Luna came and told him they were under attack. They hid in the structure, but the former kitchen appliance salesman couldn’t avoid being hit again.

“All I saw was a red flash,” said Vaz. “It knocked me out. I woke up and daylight was coming. I didn’t feel any pain but I felt wet. My arm and leg was bloody. Luna, he didn’t get it and he was sitting right next to me [in the out-house].”

Because Vaz was recovering in the hospital, he missed the Battle of the Bulge. Parts of the shrapnel are still in his arm today.

After two scares with death, Vaz returned to battle and liberated one of the first and largest concentration camps in Buchenwald. Three days before the liberation, he was told of what he may see…the ovens are what made him cringe.

“You could smell the death…it was inhuman,” Vaz said, fighting back tears. “When I got to the ovens, there wasn’t a soldier there that wasn’t crying. People laying on the ground…people begging.”

He married his wife Ann 60 years ago and have three children. She herself never knew of the struggles Ray endured before and after the war.

“Because I was very young when I met him, so it took a lot of years before we married,” she said, sitting across from Ray at their kitchen table. I was 20. We weren’t talking about the war at all. It was a lot of years later when he would mention things and we would talk about it. I feel he does deserve [the medals] whether he does or not.”

News

A contingent of 80 Mineola runners embarked on their first trek to lower Manhattan last year for the Tunnel To Towers 5K Run through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel toward the World Trade Center site. This year, the United Mavericks, a networking group of local business people that support local charities and causes, are gearing up surpass that number.

Mavericks reps say they’re half way to gathering 1,000 people to run in the event’s 13th year on Saturday, Sept. 28.

 

The run honors a fireman Stephen Siller, who was enjoying a day off planning to play golf before he learned the Twin Towers were hit by two airplanes during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He was one of the 343 firefighters who died when the towers collapsed.

As the night sky fell on Memorial Park last Thursday, Mineola residents and officials paused to remember the almost 3,000 lives that were lost in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

 

Mayor Scott Strauss, a former NYPD EMS worker and 9/11 first responder, was one of the many who rushed into Manhattan after the attacks, searching the rubble for survivors. He was part of the rescue effort that saved the lives of Port Authority Police officers Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin.


Sports

Though it had already hosted the series of lacrosse games during the regular season this past spring, Chaminade High School’s new Gold Star Stadium was officially christened on Saturday, Sept. 6, named in honor of the 56 alumni who had perished during combat.

 

“Tradition holds that when one dies in the service a gold star is given to the family,” said Chaminade President Bro. Thomas Cleary. “Our 56 Gold Star Alumni are honored for their selflessness, courage, and integrity.”

Although the expectations for the 2014 Mineola Mustangs boy’s varsity soccer season may be somewhat measured, the team enters the season with the goal of a berth in the Nassau County playoffs. The team is young and inexperienced but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

 

There is considerable talent on the horizon. There are only four starting seniors and five sophomores on the roster. Four year starting senior forward Daniel Pardo returns (19 goals in three seasons) as does senior standout goalkeeper Andrew Pereira.


Calendar

Town Zoning Meeting - September 17

International Night - September 18

Bereavement Support Group - September 19


Columns

1959: The Year The Music Stopped Playing
Written by Michael A. Miller, mmillercolumn@gmail.com

The Eccentric Heiress Of ‘Empty Mansions’
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