MINEOLA, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) – A local World War II veteran is finally honored for his brave service, 68 years after landing on the beaches of Normandy.

Ray Vaz of Mineola, Long Island fought Adolf Hitler’s forces in Gen. Patton’s Army, stormed the beaches of Normandy and helped liberate survivors of the infamous Buchenwald death camp.

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Vaz, 88, was belatedly presented with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star during an emotional ceremony with Rep. Carolyn McCarthy.

At the ceremony, Vaz recalled nearly drowning before making it ashore in Normandy on D-Day.

“You never forget. I thought that was the end of me, right then and there. I don’t know how to swim,” Vaz told CBS 2’s Jennifer McLogan.

Vaz pulled the string on his life vest but lost his rifle in the process, McLogan reported.

Vaz was then shot in the thigh by a German sniper but made it through Utah Beach.

Months later, enemy shrapnel exploded and became embedded in his arms and hands. But Vaz and his unit did not give in and said the allies got strength from one another.

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“I’m sure that helped bringing Hitler down and I would do it again,” Vaz said. “After seeing Buchenwald and the atrocities going on…I was there personally. The ovens, the people, the smell.”

Speaking at the ceremony about what he witnessed during the war, Vaz at times became so choked up with emotion that he could not continue.

“When you cry, it is actually a show of strength,” McCarthy told Vaz during the ceremony.

“He’s strong!” Vaz’s wife Ann added.

After returning from war, Vaz married his wife Ann and returned to get his high school degree. He then helped build the Mineola Portuguese Center and raise his family.

Vaz only recently began sharing the painful memories of war after his schoolteacher daughter invited him to speak to her class.

The young students were unaware there had been World Wars and now Vaz said he wants to continue passing on this oral history, McLogan reported.

Vaz said he is overwhelmed by his newly issued Bronze Star and Purple Heart and will never forget the ceremony.

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