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Annandale resident Dante Macario, 87, recently discovered that he is the last of his World War II B-24 bombing crew that flew into France on D-Day on June 6, 1944.

As a B-24 nose gunner in the U.S. Air Corps, Macario flew 30 missions during the war and earned four air medals.

“I was just a dumb, 18-year-old kid trying to do his part,” he said.

Macario, who has lived in Annandale since 1964, was an engineering student in his first semester at the University of Maryland in 1943.

He received a draft notice just days after his 18th birthday and was told that he would have to undergo two medical exams. He passed the first one and for the second one, drove his dad’s car to Upper Marlboro, Md., where he happened to notice there were four or five Greyhound buses idling outside.

Not thinking anything of it, he went inside for his second physical only to find out he was being inducted into the military right then and there.

“I went outside, put the car key under the mat of the car and called my father to tell him that he needed to come pick it up,” he said. “I was on my way to Fort Lee, Va. for basic training with nothing but the clothes on my back.”

When he arrived, Macario said he wasn’t even allowed to keep those.

“The Army back then wasn’t what it is today,” he said. “They handed your fatigues without any consideration about whether it fit you or not. What they gave me were way too big, and when I told them that, they said to swap with someone who might have gotten some that were too small. It took me three months of trading before I had enough clothes that fit me right.”

Macario said he applied for flight school but that a training accident that injured his eye prevented him from becoming a pilot.

He ended up as a nose gunner, not even his original preference as a top gunner, but since nose gunners were badly needed, he was given two days of training and became one. Soon, he was part of a B-24 flight crew headed for England.

In one of his first assignments, he said his crew flew a bombing support mission over France on D-Day as the Allies took the shore at Normandy on their way to Berlin.

“I didn’t fly out with the original group in the morning,” he said. “My crew went out behind enemy lines at about 3:30 that afternoon after the troops had landed. It was our job to bomb train tracks, bridges and intersections, anything that we could do to prevent the Germans from reaching our boys as they were making their way in.”

After the initial D-Day initiative, Macario said he flew several missions into Germany over strongly fortified cities such as Hamburg, Essen, Dortmund, and Dusseldorf.

One of his flight mates was a famous Hollywood actor who had enlisted in the war effort.

“Jimmy Stewart was a command pilot,” he said. “We all had a tremendous respect for him because he actually volunteered for the toughest missions.”

Gerald E. Lavey, 74, has lived two doors down from Macario in Annandale’s Camelot neighborhood for nearly 35 years.

“I always knew Dan was in the war,” he said. “But he never talked about it. I didn’t learn about the details of his service until the mid-1990s.”

Lavey said he discovered that Macario flew over the German town of Osnabruck — where Lavey’s wife is from — on the year that she was born.

“The fact that Dan survived these missions at all is miraculous considering the danger of just being on these ‘flying coffins,’ as the B-24 were dubbed, let alone flying them into combat,” Lavey said. “These aircraft leaked fuel profusely and any spark, such as the opening of a bomb door, could set them off. As many as four out of 10 of these planes blew up on their way to assigned missions before engaging enemy fire.”

Macario agreed.

“I was lucky as hell to make it out of there alive,” he said. “The fact that I survived 30 missions is akin to hitting a seven in craps — 10 times in a row.”

Macario said that in those 30 missions, he went through five planes that either caught fire or were hit by bullets and forced to land.

“One time over occupied southern France, we were hit by flak and our entire crew had to bail out,” he said. “I landed by parachute and had to walk behind enemy lines until I ran into our own guys advancing in.”

B-24 bombers also faced other intrinsic challenges, he said.

“We flew at 30,000 feet and would take off from England a thousand planes at a time,” he said. “The guns on the B-24 would freeze at high altitudes and we were told to randomly fire them to heat them and melt the frost so they would be ready to fire later. Well, we started noticing that some planes began falling out of the sky after hitting the 30,000 feet mark. It turns out we were all shooting each other down by firing those guns.”

As part of the 448th fighter group in the 8th Air Force, Macario said that during WWII the 8th Air Force lost more men than the total number of Marines in the Pacific theater.

“We had a crew of 10 in each B-24 and we would easily lose 10 planes in one mission,” he said. “That’s a lot of men added up over the course of the war.”

Today, as the last of his own crew of 10, Macario looks back at his military service with both pride and melancholy.

“We did our part and I’m the last one left to talk about it,” he said.

“I am really proud of my friend and neighbor,” said Lavey, who did not serve in the military because he said he was too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam.

“As you salute our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, don’t forget the veterans of World War II,” Lavey said. “Their legacy is too great to go unnoticed and unappreciated. They’re now old and not in uniform, but they are an integral part of that proud military history that has helped make this country great and safe and secure for all of us.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com