603rd Air Control Squadron Fallen Memorial Project

  • Published
  • By Maj. Thomas Wingard
  • U.S. Air Force

The 603rd Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron was activated on Dec. 31, 1945. It was re-activated on July 1, 1991, and re-designated as the 603rd Air Control Squadron on March 31, 1992. The 603rd ACS was assigned to Aviano Air Base, Italy, from April 1, 1994 until it was in-activated on Jan. 31, 2013.

My name is Maj. Tom Wingard and I was stationed at Aviano Air Base from 2001 to 2004 as part of the 603rd Air Control Squadron.  For the past four years I have been on a mission I feel the Aviano community should know about and have an opportunity to join. 

In 2003, the 603rd ACS (known as the Scorpions) dedicated a memorial honoring three 603rd ACS Airmen killed since the unit’s re-activation in 1991. The memorial was placed near the 603rd ACS compound. For years, this memorial served as a reminder of those we lost. Two additional Scorpions died after the dedication, Staff Sgt. Ricardo Duran Jr. and Airman 1st Class Antoine Holt, who was killed in a mortar attack during unit deployment to Iraq.  However, these names had not been added to the memorial. 

The 603rd ACS was de-activated in 2013. The unit colors were retired, equipment and personnel departed, but the memorial remained. As my Air Force career continued, it eventually brought me back to Europe with an assignment to the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, Hungary. During a trip to Aviano in 2016, I visited the vacant compound. What I found amongst weeds and overgrowth was that faded, forgotten stone we had dedicated all those years before. This troubled me and I continued to think about it after returning to Budapest. I reached out to retired Chief Master Sgt. Mike Ivey who had been one of the original creators of the memorial. He agreed we should preserve this memorial from a unit that meant so much to both of us. 

The next step in my mission was to contact the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio to gauge interest in displaying the memorial.  Special Events Coordinator Jane Leach provided guidance on the many hurdles I would need to negotiate to have the memorial displayed. I learned there was a lot of work to do. I needed the names for the two missing Scorpions, I needed permission to move the memorial and figure out how to get it to Ohio.

My first step was to contact the 31st Fighter Wing Historian Angelic Nelson to help with research while simultaneously coordinating with the then 606th ACS Commander Lt. Col. Aaron Gibney to request permission to remove the memorial.  The 606th ACS was in the early stages of relocating from Germany to occupy the compound.  Everyone I spoke with agreed this was a worthy project and I had the green light. 

Eventually I returned to Aviano and brought the 300 pound memorial back with me to Hungary. To add the missing names and deepen the existing engraving I hired Janos Kato, a Hungarian engraver that I coincidentally met while he was engraving the outgoing ambassador’s name on a marble slab in the embassy. My Hungarian is terrible so I enlisted the help of Mike Newberg, a colleague from my office, who translated and arranged the updating and improvements to the memorial with Janos. This was something I could never have accomplished on my own.

I still faced the problem of getting the hefty monument to Ohio. Fortunately, another embassy colleague saved the day. Maj. Dan Davis of the Ohio Air National Guard managed State Partnership relations between the U.S. and Hungary and is also a C-130 pilot. As luck would have it, the Ohio Air National Guard was participating in an exercise in the summer of 2017 and bringing their own aircraft.  I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the 179th Airlift Wing for transporting some very special cargo to Ohio. Ivey was retired now and living in Michigan so he drove to Mansfield, Ohio and the memorial was once again back in Scorpion hands. 

Meanwhile, I continued collecting documentation through Freedom of Information Act requests and Web surfing to satisfy requirements of the Museum. I was also searching for relatives of the five fallen Airmen. These deaths occurred from 1994 to 2005 so it promised to be a difficult task.

A lot goes into a project like this, but our persistence eventually paid off.  In March 2019 we received a Letter of Acceptance from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force announcing that the 603rd ACS Fallen Scorpion memorial will be on permanent display at the outdoor Memorial Park. The five fallen Scorpions honored on the memorial are: Senior Airman Christopher Croft, Airman 1st Class Shaun Anderson, 1st Lieutenant Michael Lacy, Airman 1st Class Antoine Holt and Staff Sgt. Ricardo Duran Jr. The dedication ceremony will occur on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, at 9:30 a.m. I was also able to contact all five families and we look forward to honoring their loved one’s sacrifice with them. This dedication is unique, as the memorial wasn’t specifically constructed for placement at the Museum like many others. It is a significant part of 603rd ACS, Aviano Air Base and Air Force history. 

Friends and family of the Scorpion Airmen are invited to attend the dedication ceremony in August at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Please register at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/603d-air-control-squadron-fallen-memorial-dedication-ceremony-tickets-61845304972 if you are able to join us.  We continue working with the Museum in hopes of streaming the ceremony live on Facebook for the many friends who still live at Aviano Air Base.