When 22-year-old Joe Macchio lay on a beach in Oro Bay, New Guinea, with fellow Army Air Corps. comrades in late 1944, he heard a sound emerging from the deep jungle behind the makeshift tent he called home.
Panicked, the men stood up and huddled together. A dark figure emerged from the bush. Bones, intertwined in his hair, stuck up in different directions. Paint covered his face. He held a spear for protection. His eyes fixated on the men. Having heard tales about the New Guinea natives around the campfire, Macchio and his comrades prepared for the worst.
“We heard they were cannibals,” Macchio, now 93, recalled, wide-eyed. “We also read so much of the National Geographic magazine in those days, and we thought they were cannibals.”
Finally, the indigenous man muttered a demand. “Cigarettes,” he said.
“We gave him a couple of cigarettes, and then he went on his way,” Macchio recounted. “But boy, we were scared. It wasn’t the war that scared me,” he added, laughing, “it was all the little things in it.”
An Italian abroad
Macchio was born on March 25, 1923, in the Bronx to Italian parents. His father, Rocco, served in World War I in 1917, at age 20. Joe was one of six children, and the third son.
He and his older brother, Mikey, tried to enlist in the military after hearing the news of the Pearl Harbor bombings on Dec. 7, 1941. “First thing everybody asked was, ‘Where’s Pearl Harbor?’” Joe remembered. “Nobody knew where it was. Then we learned it was in Hawaii. Everyone was in a panic. Everyone declared war.”
“My dad and Uncle Mikey wanted to enlist because they wanted to fight for our country,” said Jeanette Geyer, Macchio’s daughter. Mikey enlisted first, and Joe followed. But the military didn’t accept him.
“It was because I didn’t have 20/20 vision,” Macchio laughed. In 1943, he was drafted by the Army Air Corps. (which became the Air Force in 1947), and served on a radar equipment maintenance unit in the 547th Night Fighter Squadron in the South West Pacific theatre, tending to P-61 Night Fighters. Later that year he was deployed to New Guinea.
Sleeping in a tent that offered little protection from the changeable weather, Macchio caught pneumonia around Christmastime in 1943. “For two weeks I was fighting off pneumonia at the hospital,” he said. “When I recovered, my outfit was already deployed to a different location. I couldn’t find them, so I had to hitch a ride from place to place to find my outfit.”
From New Guinea, Macchio was sent to Banyak Island, in the Dutch East Indies, where the station hospital was located. Then he found his outfit in the Philippines by “hitching a ride on an airplane as far north as I could go safely from Banyak Island to Saipan Island to Leyte Island.”
His journey wasn’t finished, but Leyte Island, he said, was the closest he had ever been to battle. After landing there, Macchio was crossing the landing strip when he saw one plane coming in for landing, and another, on the opposite side of the strip, preparing to take off. “They crashed right above my head,” he said. “We all jumped in ditches. Five soldiers died that day. That was a close call for me.”
One night, he recalled, when the island was under attack by the Japanese, aircraft above him dropped bombs, and Macchio jumped into a ditch to avoid flying debris.
After the bombings, he resumed his journey and, green from air sickness, finally met up with his outfit at Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines. Once again they sheltered in a tent near the beach — and once again, a native approached them. He offered to build a hut for the men in exchange for a carton of cigarettes.
“My cousin made this book for him on his 90th birthday,” Geyer said, holding a family photo album full of pictures of Macchio in the Air Force, his parents’ wedding photo from the early 1920s, and his own wedding photo from June 4, 1950.
“Oh look, that’s them going to the bathroom,” Geyer laughed, pointing to a photo of Macchio and his comrades squatting over holes in the ground in the Philippines. “He tells us stories all the time. He has a remarkable memory.”
After Macchio was discharged on Feb. 4, 1946, he met and married Anna Mongelli. After he returned to the U.S., he said, “We went to Hollywood, and I made eye contact with [the actress] Ann Blyth. That’s why I married an Anna,” he joked.
Joe and Anna moved to East Meadow in 1956, where he applied to work at a radio company. Although he had three years of military training in the use of radar equipment, the radio company didn’t accept it. He eventually found a job at Histacount Corp., and worked in a pressroom for 40 years. Although his wife died in 2014, Macchio still lives in the same home he purchased 60 years ago.
“The men that died overseas are the heroes,” he said. “The ones who didn’t come back home are the heroes.”
“He’s our family hero,” Geyer said. “My three children adore him — everyone in the family adores him. He tells us his stories and he’s just everyone’s hero.”