BEAUMONT, Texas — Victor Lee Mackool's life has swung a wide arc from the World War II European Theater — where he survived savage fighting and witnessed the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp — to big band singing and a successful career in business.
The 87-year-old veteran was recently thanked for his military service with a Beaumont City Council proclamation presented in a room packed with friends and admirers.
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native and Florida transplant of Lebanese descent still had three months of high school left and a football scholarship to the University of Florida waiting when he got a letter from Uncle Sam.
His high school principal managed to get him deferred long enough to complete his senior year and graduate, but after that, it was off to U.S. Army basic training.
Mackool admitted his military career hit a snag early on when he decked an officer who cursed him for obeying an order from his superior officer. He was thrown in the brig and the officer demanded a court-martial, but all was smoothed over, Mackool said.
Mackool soon became a sergeant in the motor pool, but would later sign up with the 101st Airborne Division — mainly because the pay was better by $100 per month. Big money in those days.
"What the hell is the matter with you, are you crazy?" he remembers thinking later of his decision to take on the hazardous business of parachuting.
Mackool said he was 19 when he was dropped into Normandy during an operation in which 29,000 American soldiers lost their lives.
The 101st Airborne's job was to go behind enemy lines and clear the way for the Allied troops. They were successful, eventually. But first, they endured several days of hard fighting against the German forces.
"From there on, after we took out those machine gun nests, our troops just walked on in," Mackool said.
The smallest of his "band of brothers," Mackool said he carried the heaviest machine gun.
He said he later shattered sections of his leg and ruptured a spinal disc in a jump burdened by the .50-caliber weapon.
The 101st Airborne — nicknamed the Screaming Eagles for the bald eagle insignia they wore — went on after Normandy to fight on the frozen battlefields of the Battle of the Bulge.
Mackool and his unit were subsequently surrounded by German troops in Bastogne, Belgium, where they refused to surrender and held out until the 4th Armored Division, headed by Gen. George Patton, came to their aid.
"If it wasn't for Patton, I wouldn't be here," he said.
His unit also was involved in the liberation of Kaufering IV concentration camp, part of the Dachau complex in the Landsberg region of Germany. The soldiers had no idea what was in store for them, but they got a whiff it was bad a good way off.
The stench of rotting human flesh could be smelled from 50 miles away, according to Mackool.
None of his war experience marked him as much as seeing firsthand the horrors of Nazi atrocities.
"I wanted to get the hell out of there," he said of his feelings upon entering the camp. "It was so, so pathetic. Even the war wasn't that bad. That's how bad it was."
What he saw there scarred him for many years.
"I just went crazy after that," he said. "I took no prisoners — I blew away every German (soldier) I saw."
In the final days of the war in Europe, the 101st Airborne was occupied with chasing down Nazi war criminals amid Adolf Hitler's retreat in Berchtesgaden.
Mackool recalled senior Nazi official Hermann Goring's capture with glee.
Berchtesgaden and the Eagle's Nest retreat were beautiful, in stark contrast to what he had seen at the camps.
Mackool's unit was headed to train for service in the Pacific when the A-bomb was dropped and the war all but ended, sending him home.
For his military service, Mackool was awarded the Bronze Star and other honors and medals.
After coming home, Mackool underwent therapy to come to terms with his war experiences — particularly what he saw at the concentration camp.
"It took a good two years to straighten myself out," he said.
Even now, nightmares sometimes haunt him.
His wife, Nancy, said he never spoke about the war until after he saw "Saving Private Ryan."
He said that movie and the television show "Band of Brothers" gave accurate depictions of World War II.
One of the lasting effects of what he saw in Germany was an abiding sympathy and friendship for Jewish people that wasn't exactly natural to his Lebanese background.
"I was Arabic," he shrugged. "Jews and Lebanese didn't get along."
He settled in Miami, married and had a son, Charles, who died in 2008 at age 47. Mackool became successful in dry cleaning and carpet sales and moonlighted as a singer.
Mackool and his second wife, Nancy, moved to Beaumont 14 years ago to care for Nancy's father in his declining years. They share their home with seven cats.
He tells her she was lucky to have met him and she just smiles.
She teases him about his age: "He's older than dirt!"
But she swoops in and changes the subject when she sees — in subtle ways — that the memories of what he saw at Kaufering are becoming too much for him.
"I had quite a history," Mackool said. "I don't think I could do it again."
Information from: The Beaumont Enterprise, http://beaumontenterprise.com