Stationed in Italy during the Vietnam War, Steven Decker had a remarkable vantage point on the 1968 crisis in Czechoslovakia as an air traffic controller at the U.S. Air Base in Aviano.
The middle of three children, Steven Decker was born in Chicago to Roy and Kathryn Tomasello Decker, who were living near North Avenue and Larrabee. When Decker was 3 years old, they moved to Logan Square, where he grew up living close to his Sicilian-born grandparents and his mother’s five siblings and their families.
On Sunday mornings, Decker awoke to the smell of sauce cooking in the kitchen. “My mother was a really great cook,” he says. “Pretty much everything she made or baked was always delicious.”
Decker attended Funston Grade School and Lane Technical High School. He graduated in 1966 during the Vietnam War and registered for the draft when he turned 18. Decker’s family is rich in military history. Eight generations back, his ancestor fought in the Revolutionary War. “I am an official Son of the American Revolution,” Decker says.
His father was a squad leader in Patton’s Third Army, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. “He always told me that I owed a military debt to the country,” says Decker. “I always planned on going.” Several uncles also served during WWII, and his mother and aunt worked in a munitions plant. “She said they polished bomb casings,” Decker says.
After speaking with recruiters from different military branches, Decker favored the Air Force. “I decided that when I got my draft notice, I would go enlist that day,” he says. In June 1967, Decker began a four-year term. He fondly remembers his father’s advice: “Go where they send you, do what they tell you and don’t volunteer for anything.”
Decker completed Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and was selected to go into air traffic control. He completed the four-month course at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, and thought for sure he was headed for Vietnam. “I guess my angels were smiling down on me because I was assigned to the NATO base at Aviano, Italy, for a three-year, five-month tour,” Decker says.
Located at the foothills of the Alps, Aviano is approximately 50 miles north of Venice and 60 miles from what was then the Yugoslavian border, which was a part of the Iron Curtain at the time. The base was continuously busy, with planes from every NATO country coming and going. “We were there to protect Italy and to have an Air Force presence there,” Decker says. “We had jet fighters and bombers and a lot of different aircraft, which made it really exciting and interesting.”
One of four air traffic controllers in the tower, Decker gave instructions to pilots to ensure safety and maintain air traffic flow. With the Alps at its back, the base was boxed in. “So we really kind of had to thread the needle every day,” Decker says. “Back then, we did not have radar in the tower. Our radar guys were downstairs in a trailer for ground control approach.”
One year, more than 200 emergencies were declared. These included airplanes lost in the mountains, planes catching fire on the runway, missiles hanging from jets returning from the practice gunnery range and emergency fuel declarations. “We once had a Russian MIG defect and land unannounced on our runway,” Decker says. The base was a straight shot from Yugoslavia, and the pilot made a run for it. “We looked up and there he was, coming in to land. ‘Oh, my God. Who’s that?’” Decker says, recalling the mutual reaction. “We stopped traffic from the other direction. He landed, rolled out, and our security guys took him, towed his plane into a hangar and locked it up.”
In August 1968, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia with a force of 250,000 ground troops, thousands of tanks and hundreds of airplanes from Soviet bloc countries to crack down on reformist tendencies in Prague. The Aviano base, about 400 miles from the Czech border, went on high alert. NATO sent in planes, and security guarded the tower. “I remember that time I worked the night shift, and when the sun came up, I could see airplanes parked everywhere, even at the base of the tower,” Decker says. “These were jet fighters, and they were armed to the teeth, and we were ready to go to war.” Despite vehement global opposition, the Soviet bloc troops settled in as an occupying force without the invasion escalating into armed international conflict.
Decker will never forget Nov. 14, 1969. He was working in the tower, preparing to close the base because it was “socked in” with fog and a dozen planes were in a holding pattern waiting to land. The last three were F4 Phantoms. Decker assigned them approaches, and they were all about a mile apart. The first fighter landed incorrectly, and the emergency barrier deployed to catch him, closing the runway to the remaining two, which were initially diverted to the Italian base in Istrana. The fighters were essentially lost in the fog and waiting for Italian controllers to pick them up on radar. “It was terrible,” says Decker. “The clock was ticking.”
The runway was finally cleared, and an Aviano radar controller was able to identify the aircraft. Both were dangerously low on fuel. Decker sent the crash crew to the end of the runway, and they all waited. The first plane landed safely, but the second plane, still about 20 miles out, declared emergency fuel. “Our controller very calmly gave the pilot altitudes and headings to fly to get him down safely,” says Decker. “We all held our breath — an hour of sheer terror had gone by — and I’m sure some of us prayed.”
Decker watched the end of the runway with binoculars, waiting for the fighter to settle over the landing lights and roll out, but that didn’t happen. The F4 crashed one mile from the end of the runway, but both pilots ejected and survived. “Even now, all these years later, I feel it in my stomach,” says Decker.
The tower handled thousands of landings, takeoffs and emergencies. “All of us controllers, we knew we had a special role to play, and you’re always aware of how important it was,” Decker says. “We had lives in our hands, all day, every day.”
Decker was discharged as Staff Sergeant in 1971. He returned to Chicago and applied with the Federal Aviation Administration to work at O’Hare or Midway Airport, but there was a two-year wait, so Decker went into real estate development. His growing family now includes six grandchildren.
Decker reflects on his time at Aviano. “I’m grateful to the Air Force. They saw potential in me when I was just a kid from Chicago. They trusted me, put their faith in me,” he says. “Now, when people say thank you for your service to me, I usually say I’m glad I served, and I wish I would have done more.
“I think everybody should serve — men and women alike — everybody should serve in the military, serve their country,” Decker concludes. “If they did, this would be a different country right now.”
Reprinted with permission from Fra Noi. (Copyright 2020) To learn more, click here.