Zach Coco is a man on a mission — and time is not on his side.
The California-based photographer wants to photograph and interview as many surviving WWII veterans as he can.
“What I’m learning about the war and about our country in the past 100 years is so inspiring,” Coco, 30, tells PEOPLE. “Most of them were teenagers at the time and every time I learn about their life history it sounds like a movie script.
“This project has changed how I approach life, because our day-to-day issues pale in comparison to what these veterans have been through.”
Coco was inspired to start the project by his own U.S. Navy veteran grandfather, Anthony Coco, who served aboard the USS Rushmore.
“He passed away in 2014,” says Coco. “He was my hero growing up and it was a wake-up call when he died that he was part of an incredible generation that had so much respect for our freedom and without their sacrifices, we wouldn’t be here today.
“I wanted to find a way to give back and preserve their experiences.”
Coco has photographed around 40 people so far (below are a few of his subjects)— and hopes to honor many more.
Ray Chavez, 105
Chavez, who turned 105 last month, is the oldest known living Pearl Harbor survivor. PEOPLE interviewed him prior to the 75th anniversary at Pearl Harbor.
He lived near Pearl Harbor with his wife and young daughter at the time of the attack.
“He was in the Navy Reserves before being called to active duty, and he said if they called him again today he would be ready to go,” says Coco. “Working as a minesweeper on the USS Condor, he and his crew were searching the waters around the harbor in the early morning hours of December 7. He told me that they had spotted an enemy sub, but the boat he was on had no weapons and was in no position to engage the enemy. They reported it to the USS Ward, who eventually sunk that sub a few hours later, which was the first shot fired by the U.S. during the war. Ray survived that day, where thousands of his fellow sailors didn’t.
“He is living proof that you are never too old for anything — he still goes to the gym twice a week!”
ET ROBERTS, 93
Photographed here with Coco, Roberts was only 18 when he was drafted into the Army. He spent 17 months training for what would eventually be his part in the D-Day invasion.
“He landed with the second wave on Omaha Beach,” says Coco. “The details in which ET remembers the fateful day is unbelievable.”
“The water was all blood, there were body parts everywhere,” Roberts told Coco during their interview.
He eventually made it off the beach where thousands had died. About four weeks later, he was shot at from point blank range.
“He told, ‘Two went off my helmet, three went through my field jacket and one went into my shoulder, all I saw was fire,’ ” says Coco. “He was merely inches away from being killed.”
Sol Schwartz, 98
Schwartz, who served in the Air Force, spent almost the entirety of WWII as a Prisoner of War — and he was part of the infamous Bataan Death March that took place in 1942.
“He started his journey as a member of the Army Air Corps, stationed in the Philippines,” says Coco. “After months of being undersupplied, Sol was ordered to surrender to Japanese forces, to avoid total annihilation.”
He was forced to march over 60 miles, was given only one meal, and no water, according to Coco. And when they approached main roads on the march, anyone found carrying Japanese relics was immediately killed.
“He spent the next 42 months struggling to survive, fighting disease, starvation, torture, beatings and slave labor,” says Coco. “He was forced to work 12 hours per day, getting only one day off per month, while being fed only a handful of rice per day.
“I admire this man to the fullest. After everything that he went through he came out and still lived his life to the fullest. It encourages me to do the same. Such a sweet man.”
Sam Reiner, 93
“I asked him, ‘What was your job as a Marine?’ He paused for a second, stared me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I was trained to kill people,’ ” says Coco. “Sam is a straight shooter and very, very proud of his service. I appreciate him for being direct and not sugar coating anything.”
According to the photographer, Reiner was a member of the 1st Marines Division and was shipped out to the Pacific to help fight off the Japanese advance. He fought at Cape Gloucester where he was shot through the back of the neck on his 13th day in combat. After spending 31 days in the hospital, he should have been sent home for his wounds, but instead his papers were ripped up by his commanding officer and he was sent back to war.
“Sam overheard that anyone who was wounded twice would receive an automatic discharge and be sent back home and at the time, he thought, ‘If only I can sustain a minor injury, then I will be able to get out of this hell,’ ” says Coco. “During the Battle of Peleliu, Sam got his wish. He was firing at the enemy when a grenade exploded and shrapnel caught him in the neck. It was not life-threatening but enough to get him sent home. ‘Nobody wins in war’ Sam told me.
“I can’t argue that.”
Nicolas Huerta, 89
Huerta served in the Navy aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hancock.
“When referring to encountering enemy planes and engaging them in the sky, Nick said, ‘There were planes everywhere, it was chaos, you just tried to shoot anything that moved,’ ” says Coco. “The Hancock had been struck by multiple kamikaze attacks killing numerous crew members and damaging the ship.
“Luckily, Nick made it out unscathed.”
Yvonne Carson-Cardozo, 89
“It’s hard to imagine a smile could exist on a face that has seen so much ugliness,” Coco says of Carson-Cardozo. “I know to be grateful for what I have because of her.”
Carson-Cardozo deciphered and encoded secret military telegrams. At the tender age of 12, she escaped with her family from Belgium to evade Nazi invasion. After traveling through France, Spain and Jamaica, she joined the Dutch Indonesian Army where she worked for the Netherlands Forces Intelligence Services, according to Coco. Carson-Cardozo deciphered and encoded secret military telegrams for them.
When she returned to Belgium after the war, she found out that 50 of her family members (including her brother) were killed in Nazi concentration camps.
Henry Storino, 92
A Chicago native, Storino was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the 5th Army- Company F- 142nd infantry regiment, 36th Infantry ‘Texas’ division, according to Coco. During an intense fight during The Battle of Monte Casino, Storino was hit by shrapnel from an artillery shell.
Moments later, the enemy had made an advance. As Storino looked up from his foxhole, he had two Germans pointing guns at him, encouraging him to get up and get out.
“He had been captured,” says Coco. “He told me, ‘I was scared, I thought they were going to kill me.’ They stripped his weapon and supplies and lined him up with the other soldiers that had been captured.”
Henry would spend the next 14 month as Prisoner of War #2225.
Bernardo Lugo, 92
Lugo served in the 24th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. He volunteered himself to leave his unit and fight with the Filipino guerrillas against the Japanese.
“His selflessness is tough to find nowadays,” says Coco. “He very easily could have chosen someone else but put himself in harms way instead.”
The photographer plans to put all of his portraits into a book one day — but for now his main focus is speaking and photographing as many inspiring men and women as he can — while he can.