Written by Rich Forestano Wednesday, 12 December 2012 12:13
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.”