Ray Vaz finally received his World War II medals Monday,...

Ray Vaz finally received his World War II medals Monday, including the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. (Dec. 3, 2012) Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

An 88-year-old Mineola man who finally got his World War II medals Monday, including the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, was overcome when asked how he was feeling.

"That I don't deserve this," Oracio Vaz said, in answer to the question, his voice breaking. "There are too many people . . ."

Vaz took off his glasses, wiped his eyes with a paper napkin and talked about his war experiences.

Vaz -- Ray to friends and family -- recalled landing at Utah Beach in Normandy on D-Day with the 359th Infantry of the 90th Division, being shot in the leg by a sniper on his second day in combat, and being evacuated to England. He spent a month in the hospital and returned to the front. Wounded again after crossing the Moselle River, he was again evacuated, but returned to Europe for a third and final tour.

"I never opened up until about eight or nine years ago," he said. "My parents died. They didn't know what I went through. My children are just starting to know now. I didn't feel that I had to tell anybody, but they convinced me."

After his discharge, he returned to Mineola and got a job selling kitchen cabinets and appliances wholesale. He married his sweetheart, Ann, and had three children.

He said he gave no thought to his medals over the years. He had got gotten his first Purple Heart in his hospital bed, but never got the second one, or the Bronze Star and various service ribbons.

He decided to ask for them after other veterans at his VFW Post 1305 urged him to do so. "I had never asked for anything. I never asked for a raise. I never asked for a promotion. I never asked for disability," Vaz, who is disabled from shrapnel wounds to his right arm, said.

He called the office of Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), who got the medals and presented them to him Monday. Sitting next to the congresswoman, Vaz alternately joked and choked up about his wartime experiences.

He remembered throwing grenades at an unseen enemy one night, only to find dead cows the next morning. He almost drowned coming ashore on D-Day, and helping liberate the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald in Germany, a scene that drove him to fury.

"We wanted to kill every German in sight for what we saw at Buchenwald," he said. "You've seen it; I was there in person."

After recounting the horror, Vaz slipped back to humor, joking that Ann had chased him for 19 years before they married. "Not 19," Ann said with a smile and mock indignation, "four."

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