Part I: Strage del Cermis
March 1999 and my first deployment with the 494th Fighter Squadron – The Black Panthers – sent us to Aviano air base in Italy to support Operation Allied Force, the months long airstrikes into Kosovo. Already highly unpopular within European populace, it also coincided with the acquittal of the US Marine pilots who sliced a gondola cable in the Italian Cavalese ski resort killing twenty Italians known as the Massacre at Cermis. It was into that tinderbox we arrived.
Not the welcome one would expect from a NATO member but it wasn’t normal times. We were fortunately housed in a Best Western Hotel in downtown Pordenone because tent city on the base was a cesspool of overflowing porta potties, cold showers, primitive housing, and freezing temperatures. Daily we saw the protestors staged outside the gates. Signs saying “Fu** the USA” among other pejoratives is perhaps one of the few tamer ones I can (might) publish. On weekends violent protests shook the gates after we had already passed, protests that included physical clashes, Molotov cocktails, and other escalations of force. Eventually the Italian Carabinieri isolated the base from non-essential traffic while keep the rights of protestors to peacefully voice their message.
The drive from hotel to base remain fraught with danger. Under Threat Condition Charlie (Alpha best, Delta worst) we had to drive inconspicuously in unmarked vehicles, civilian clothes, and then change after arriving for our 12 hour shifts. Spies kept watch over us. What sort of spies and saboteurs we didn’t know, but our aircraft were ordered to execute a max climb after reaching the end of the runway on takeoff to prevent any hostile act while still low to the ground. Landings were delicate with fast and careful approaches.
We also battled communications warfare with spies located outside the base perimeters with listening devices and mobiles connected to their contacts in Kosovo. This combat required delicate changes to our radio communications. Code phrases replaced normal maintenance communication. One phrase I’ll never forget is “The chicken is in the tuba.” I have no idea what truth it once coded, but I’ll never forget that phrase just like I will never forget that deployment that at more than one occasion, I was sure I would never return alive.
This is just the beginning of a series of “Tales of a Black Panther” that I hope to continue. What to expect in Part II: “Killing a fellow Airman” (not a metaphor, but a bullet in the head – well almost).
Part I: Strage del Cermis