Decker had near-death experiences as naval flight surgeon

Don Decker spent two-and-a-half years serving the Navy in Florida following the Korean War. Although he never experienced combat, he still had a few close calls.

By Jared Janzen

HALSTEAD—Dr. Don Decker may have never seen combat during his two-and-a-half years as a flight surgeon with the U.S. Navy, but that doesn’t mean it was without excitement. The 90-year-old Halstead resident had a number of close shaves while stationed in Florida from 1957 to 1959.

“It was quite the experience,” he said. “I found out you can have some dangerous experiences even when you’re not in combat, just being in the service. It’s a little more dangerous when you’re flying, I guess.”

One day, Decker was on his way to catch a ride on a twin-engine Navy transport plane to log hours of flight time.

“I was just about as far as from here to across the street when I got a radio call,” he said, noting that the medical dispensary needed him for a semi-emergency. “So we turned around, and the plane took off, and about the time we got back to the dispensary—Boom. We looked up, and there’s a big black cloud.”

The plane that he nearly boarded had collided with another just after takeoff, killing everyone on both planes. As flight surgeon, Decker was involved in the search for survivors.

Don Decker stands outside his home wearing his 60-year-old uniform from his time as a flight surgeon in the Navy during the late 1950s.

“It was right on the shore, so they actually fell on the ocean,” he said. “Nothing floated ashore except one fighter pilot’s helmet. I’m not a particularly brave guy, but you just take those things in stride. When you’re young, you think nothing can happen to you.”

Another dangerous experience was when a civilian contractor had a heart attack aboard a minesweeper 50 miles from shore, so Decker was called to respond. Decker had to be lowered to the ship from a helicopter, which wasn’t an easy feat.

“The mast was approximately as tall as the cable to let me down,” he said. “It was windy, probably 40 to 50 mph winds, and it was bobbing around like a little ship does.”

He counts himself lucky that he didn’t hit the mast on his way down. He credits the skill of the pilot for lowering him to the ship without crashing him into the mast.

The patient was already dead from the heart attack by the time Decker arrived. He elected to return to shore by ship instead of boarding the helicopter again.

Decker was 26 years old when he was drafted into the military. He had been deferred during the Korean War so he could finish medical school at the University of Kansas, followed by a year’s internship at Wesley Hospital in Wichita.

“People in my class were deferred several years to finish medical school because the service thought we’d be worth more to them then,” he said. “It worked out to our advantage pretty well.”

Decker was drafted for two years, but he signed up for six extra months to attend the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Fla. This allowed him to become a flight surgeon, which meant he was tending the needs of military pilots.

During those six months, he spent six weeks learning some basics of how to fly and the rest of the time learning how to treat the visual, aural and cardiological needs of pilots.

“It’s the flight surgeon who decides whether or not they’re able to fly, so it was real good training,” Decker said. “It was pretty intensive. I thought medical school was intensive, and it was on par with medical school.”

Part of Decker’s training was to experience some of the emergency situations that a pilot may find himself in. He had to do the “Dilbert Dunker,” which meant escaping from the cockpit of an airplane sinking upside down in a large swimming pool.

He had to repeat this three times over because they had to swim out without touching the sides of the plane. This wasn’t any fun, he said.

He also did a simulation of being shot out of an airplane by ejection seat.

“It was a 40-millimeter mortar shell under you that shoots you out, and you had a big ramp under you,” he said. “[…] It went out on this ramp about 50 feet and stopped, but you got the feeling of what it was like to be shot. It was so fast, you hardly feel it. It was just, boom, and you’re up there.”

After his six months of training, he went off to begin his service at the aircraft carrier base at Mayport, Fla.

“It was nice duty, really,” he said. “I can’t complain. I was married, and we had a son born in Pensacola.”

Decker was the only flight surgeon at Mayport, but there were three or four other doctors there who tended to the needs of all the wives and children of the Navy men.

Don Decker, left, takes a photo with Lieutenant Commander Gus Bello next to a search and rescue helicopter. Decker learned how to fly during his years with the Navy.

Decker considered sticking with the Navy after his original term was up, but he didn’t like the idea of having to relocate every few years. Instead, he returned to KU Medical School to complete his residency for internal medicine and cardiology. After three-and-a-half years there, in 1963, he and his family moved to Halstead for him to work at Halstead Hospital.

“We were from a small town, and my wife wanted to live in a small town,” he said.

After leaving the Navy, Decker obtained a private pilot’s license. He never owned his own plane, but he flew for about 10 years before requirements at the time forced him to quit, since he was taking blood pressure medication.

Decker wasn’t the only veteran in his family. His two older brothers served in the army during World War II, one in China and the other in Sicily.

He also shared memories of the trip he and his wife, Alice, took to Europe in 1991 with World War II veteran Phil Dosien of Bentley and his wife, Joyce. Phil, who’s now 97, served in Italy during the war and was wounded in the leg. The two couples visited various sites in nine countries across Europe, including Auschwitz, the beaches of Normandy and several military cemeteries, including the one in Belgium where General George Patton was buried.

“The U.S. cemeteries are just immaculately maintained,” Decker said. “The German cemeteries are stark, black.”

Decker attends the Veterans Day program at Halstead Middle School every year and is looking forward to going again this week.

“I’m one of the few guys around who can still get into his uniform,” he said.

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