Edward Renna

Edward Renna ()

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Edward Renna was stationed in Aviano before all but a handful of those currently serving on base were born.

One of the first American airmen to call Aviano home, the 67-year-old will be a guest speaker when the base holds its Veterans Day ceremony a day early on Wednesday.

Like many older veterans, Renna said he’s concerned that Veterans Day has become a footnote in today’s society.

“A lot of people forget about Veterans Day,” he said. “Everyone could tell you when Christmas is. But I bet not many could tell you when Veterans Day is. Just ask them in April.”

Part of that may be due to a general lack of knowledge of — or enthusiasm for — history. But Renna’s more than willing to tell today’s airmen about what life was like on base, in the military and in Italy during his three-year tour that began on Nov. 25, 1954.

He arrived as a 17-year-old airman second class, after serving a year in the Illinois Air National Guard. He and about 450 other airmen in the 629th Air Control and Warning Squadron called Aviano home for the winter until they moved to Campo Formido near Udine in the spring.

They were among the first Americans to be stationed — even temporarily — at Aviano. The base will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Americans stationed on base in February.

The 629th’s mission was similar to what the 603rd Air Control Squadron, based in Aviano, does today. It had a pair of C-47 transport planes assigned to it and they were stationed at Aviano. But 1950s technology wouldn’t allow the unit to be stationed at Aviano and control airplanes landing there. Renna said there was a gap in the radar system that made it unreliable for aircraft within 30 to 50 miles of where it was set up. So, in order to control aircraft coming into Aviano, they had to be stationed in Udine.

Italy was still facing tough economic times, Renna said. Very few people had cars, so the Americans driving jeeps around didn’t face much traffic — other than bicycles and Vespas. There were no fences around the base. Heavily armed Italian soldiers patrolled the streets of the surrounding cities around the clock.

There were still American forces to the east in Trieste, an open city wanted by both Italy and Yugoslavia.

“I remember sitting at a bar next to the fence that separated Italy and Yugoslavia,” he says. “And seeing guards go by that were Americans and they were carrying .45s.”

That’s something that airmen in the 629th didn’t do much. He said Italian forces protected the American facilities — much like they do today — and there were only two people who regularly carried weapons while the unit was based in Udine.

While attending a dance with an Italian soldier, Renna — an Italian-American who didn’t speak the language until serving in country — saw a young girl across the dance floor. He asked her to dance in his halting Italian and she refused at first. But Fran, 14 at the time, eventually consented. Two years later, she agreed to marry him and move to the States when the 629th disbanded, giving way to the Italians that they had helped train.

Almost 48 years (and five children) later, the two own an engineering and contracting business in Florida.

Renna says this may be his final trip to Aviano, citing concerns from his doctor that long travel hurts his health.

So, in his remarks Wednesday, he’ll effectively be saying hello to a lot of airmen and goodbye to a place he once called home.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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