Oracio “Ray” Vaz, a World War II veteran from Mineola who fought in the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, and the Battle of the Bulge, and helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp, died on Saturday at the age of 97.
As a 19-year-old, Vaz was a private in the 359th Infantry Regiment of the 90th Division when he landed on D-Day. He was shot on Utah Beach and spent four months in the hospital. After recuperating, Vaz rejoined his unit, which was involved in the Battle of France, and was injured in combat a second time.
After returning to his unit again, Vaz helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp.
For his efforts, Vaz was awarded two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star, among others. In 2012, 68 years after fighting for his country, Vaz received the awards.
A Mineola resident since 1927, Vaz left Mineola High School during his junior year at 17 years old to enlist, joining his older brother in the service.
Decades later, his daughter Caryl Vaz-Salesi, then a school teacher in Mineola, noticed her father was not on any lists of graduates and was curious as to why because he was eligible for an honorary degree. District officials at the time suggested presenting him with a diploma at that year’s graduation or a Board of Education meeting, but Vaz would not accept.
“It kind of tells you he didn’t want to make a big deal about it,” said Vaz-Salesi, who accepted the degree on his behalf. “I’ve seen articles over the years of veterans accepting their diplomas later on, but he just didn’t want to be in the spotlight like that.”
Sharing his experiences was not something that Vaz did often outside his VFW post, his daughter said. Growing up, she was aware of his service, but not about his swimming during the Normandy Invasion when he didn’t know how, helping liberate concentration camps or where the shrapnel came from that disabled and stopped him from raising his right arm.
Much of that changed when Vaz-Salesi invited him once a year to speak to her sixth-grade class about his experiences, where with her students she heard stories he had not told her before.
“One year when he came in, the students had only prior information based on what I described,” Vaz-Salesi said. “When I heard he was in the office, I went to get him and by the time we left the elevator, they lined down the hallway alongside the walls and saluted him as he made his way into the classroom. It was very touching.”
Vaz-Salesi said her father shared stories and answered questions from students, describing his time digging and huddling in foxholes, and throwing grenades in the night at what the soldiers thought were enemies, only to find the next morning multiple cows lying in the field.
“I called my siblings and asked if they even knew about this,” Vaz-Salesi said. “Some of the stories were very interesting.”
One topic he never did speak about was liberating Buchenwald. After spending weeks there helping the survivors get fed and relocated, he would sometimes break down into tears thinking about it when asked or wake up in the middle of the night from nightmares based on his experiences.
Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Vaz came to Mineola when he was three months old. His father, Antonio Vaz, was one of the founders and builders of the Mineola Portuguese Club.
When Vaz returned to Mineola after the war, Vaz-Salesi said, his family said he could take time before fully getting onto his feet. One of the jobs he had was helping build the Northern State Parkway before ultimately finding a career selling kitchen appliances.
A moment of silence was held for him at the Jan. 20 North Hempstead Town Board meeting, where Councilman Dennis Walsh, a former Mineola trustee, spoke about him.
“Ray was a true American Hero,” Walsh said of his friend. “He did many great things in the Mineola community.”
Similar sentiments were shared by Tony Lubrano, owner of Piccola Bussola on Jericho Turnpike and former president of the Mineola Chamber of Commerce.
Lubrano got to know Vaz and other veterans in the area while hosting meetings and celebrations from Mineola’s VFW Post 1305 and through his work with Warriors for a Cause, of which he is chairman.
The restaurant owner shared a story involving his staff members when during a holiday party for the post on a December Sunday, he overheard talk about which football player was the toughest. Lubrano decided to introduce them to Vaz, which befuddled some of them because they thought they were only looking at an older man.
“I said to them ‘let me show you someone who’s the toughest person you’re ever going to meet,’” Lubrano said. “He was not exactly a tall, muscular fellow now or even in his younger years, but after he described for us what he did for this country they thanked him for his service, shook his hand and said what an honor it was to meet him.”
More recently, Vaz was able to get a COVID-19 vaccination earlier than most as a veteran in his mid-90s. Vaz-Salesi commented how much of a challenge it was going to be to transport him to the Javits Center in Manhattan, which was where he was designated to go.
Lubrano reached out to his network and was able to help organize transportation for Vaz to the center, where he saw the veteran treated like a hero.
“As luck would have it, the U.S. Army was organizing everything and helping everyone get through the process of getting their shots,” Lubrano said. “His daughter Caryl called me almost in awe of the way he was treated upon seeing him enter in a wheelchair, donning his Army jacket and hat. She said that they saluted him and took him almost literally by the hand and walked him through the day to make sure he was OK.”
Lubrano said that Vaz, along with every veteran, should be treated the way he was that day.
“Mr. Vaz had a debt that we cannot repay,” Lubrano said. “He deserves anything we can do to help.”
A mass for Vaz was held Monday at Corpus Christi Church in Mineola and interment was in Pinelawn Cemetery in Farmingdale.
Vaz was predeceased by his wife of 68 years, Ann. He is survived by his children Caryl, Anthony and Suzzanne, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.