James Vaccarella was treated like a celebrity Thursday at Niagara Falls High School.
The 93-year-old World War II Army veteran walked through two hallways filled with cheering students as he made his way to a classroom to share his memories of the Battle of the Bulge and helping to liberate a Nazi concentration camp.
Once in teacher Michael Esposito's 11th grade U.S. history class, Vaccarella told the students about his often-brutal experiences as a front-line combat medic in the 80th Division in 1944 and 1945.
"When you become a medical man, you become a humanitarian," Vaccarella told the teenagers. "I thought when I joined the medics, I'd be sitting in that office."
It didn't work out that way.
"Little did I know I'd have to be standing up all the time the shelling was going on," Vaccarella said.
The very first patient he treated in battle was a man who had lost one leg and part of the other. He said he never saw a worse injury in the war "except for the Holocaust."
Vaccarella said he always took care to check that bodies collected on the battlefield actually were dead.
"You'd be surprised how many guys were buried alive," Vaccarella told reporters. "I mean that. That's terrible."
His thoroughness paid off for one Holocaust victim when the 80th Division liberated Ebensee, a Nazi concentration camp in Austria, at the end of the war, and Vaccarella started opening doors.
"The men were piled as far as I could see like cords of wood," Vaccarella recalled. "The second door was (bodies in) acid. The third one was a furnace, and people were burning in the furnace. So I walked on further – and I'm the only one who's doing this, all the rest of the guys are waiting in the back, they couldn't be bothered with this – and I walked among the people and I started feeling pulses. And I said to my captain, 'This guy's alive.' "
The Battle of the Bulge was so-called because the German counterattack, launched Dec. 16, 1944, drove the Americans back to a line that looked like a curved bulge when plotted on a map. The Americans turned the tide after about three weeks of fighting in deep snow and subzero cold.
American infantry was on the lookout for Germans wearing American uniforms and speaking excellent English. "We had to change the password twice a day," Vaccarella said.
And if someone didn't know the password?
"They would shoot you on the spot," Vaccarella told the class. "Life meant nothing to anybody."
He told how his division "annihilated" a column of Germans in Luxembourg. "Our tanks ran right over the top of them," he said.
Vaccarella earned a Purple Heart when a building in which he was taking cover collapsed on him after a German shell struck nearby. He was back in the front line in less than a week.
Medics wore helmets with large crosses painted on them. "Who made a better target than me?" Vaccarella said.
But he could be rough, too. One day he saw a German doctor dressed in white, stepping out from cover, allegedly directing artillery fire on American positions. He told GIs to kill him.
"That poor medic must have had 40 bullets in him," Vaccarella said.
Vaccarella grew up in the North End of Niagara Falls, where, to hear him tell it, fistfights were as common as breathing. He got his revenge after the war.
"I was a little nasty when I came home," Vaccarella said. "I went around the block beating up everybody who'd hit me or hurt me."
He had joined the Army in March 1944 with little enthusiasm.
"I got drafted. They forced me in and I was the most unhappy soldier of all," Vaccarella said. "But I'll tell you one thing: I was the best medic there was. I did my job. Anybody who got treated by me got my best."
Vaccarella said he's been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. His attorney, Robert M. Restaino, who also is president of the Niagara Falls Board of Education, said he thinks Vaccarella has stories he won't tell.
In the meantime, Vaccarella said he plays golf and also plays in two bocce leagues in the Falls.
"It's very important. I got a first-hand perspective. He was there, and that was really great. I was really excited to meet him," Corry Jackson said.
Learning that Vaccarella still plays bocce, Jackson signed him up to take part in an upcoming bocce match pitting the students against teacher Esposito's team.
"If he was on Espo's team, I'd be worried. I want to beat my teacher," Corry said.
"My mother lived to 101. I know I'm going to pass her," Vaccarella said.