Obituary: Michael J. Novosel / Medal of Honor winner dies at 83

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Etna native Michael J. Novosel, the fearless helicopter pilot who received the Medal of Honor for rescuing 29 wounded soldiers during a battle in Vietnam, has died.

  
Michael J. Novosel ... his bravery in Vietnam as a a helicopter pilot saved the lives of 29 soldiers during one mission.

He had been hospitalized at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for complications of liver cancer, said his longtime friend, Steve Truban of Etna. Mr. Novosel, who died on Sunday, was 83.

Mr. Novosel insisted on listing his height at "5 feet, 3 and seven-eighths of an inch" -- too short to qualify as a pilot when he enlisted in the Army Air Forces on Feb. 7, 1941. But Japan bombed Pearl Harbor 10 months later, creating instant demand for more war pilots. Suddenly, nobody cared that he was an eighth of an inch shorter than the Army's height requirement of 5 feet 4 inches.

Despite his diminutive stature, Mr. Novosel became a giant of the U.S. military. He flew bombers in World War II and transport planes in Korea. Then, after being diagnosed with glaucoma, he achieved legendary status as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

Though he fought in three wars, Mr. Novosel was not a career military man. He left the service after his first two wars to work in commercial aviation.

Mr. Novosel was flying for the old Southern Airlines in the 1960s when doctors told him he had glaucoma that could lead to blindness. He knew he would lose his job as a civilian pilot and said he could not stand the thought of becoming an airline baggage handler, even though he had a wife and four children to support.

He assessed his options and thought of President Kennedy's admonition that Americans should ask what they could do for their country. Inspired by Mr. Kennedy's words, he re-enlisted in the Army, this time to serve in the most unpopular of conflicts -- the war in Vietnam.

Again in need of combat pilots, the Army had different standards than the business world. Mr. Novosel's glaucoma would not be an obstacle if he wanted to fly in Vietnam.

"I knew I had the aviation skills to help. I thought I should do my part and volunteer," he said in a 1996 interview with the Post-Gazette.

Mr. Novosel received the rank of chief warrant officer with the 82nd Medical Detachment and took one of the most dangerous jobs on earth -- "dustoff" pilot. These Army airmen fly helicopters into battlefields and hover long enough to haul away injured soldiers.

He flew his most famous rescue mission in Kien Tuong Province on Oct. 2, 1969. Then 47, Mr. Novosel was old enough to be the father of just about everybody else involved in the battle.

His job was to pick up South Vietnamese soldiers who were hemmed in by a large force of attacking North Vietnamese.

"He unhesitatingly maneuvered his helicopter into a heavily fortified and defended enemy training area," says his Medal of Honor citation. " ... Flying without gunship or other cover and exposed to intense machine-gun fire, Chief Warrant Officer Novosel was able to locate and rescue a wounded soldier."

That was just the beginning of one of the most daring rescue operations in military history. Six times enemy fire drove Mr. Novosel and his crew from the battleground. He returned after every setback, flying low to lure the wounded soldiers to his helicopter.

After picking up a handful of injured men, he would fly them to the safety of a special forces camp. Then he returned again and again for more human cargo.

As darkness fell, Mr. Novosel spotted the last of the wounded soldiers near an enemy bunker. Taking an enormous risk, he backed his helicopter toward the man, hanging a few feet above the ground as enemy gunners took aim at him.

A sniper positioned about 30 yards from the helicopter fired at Mr. Novosel. The rifleman missed the kill shot, but his bullets ripped into Mr. Novosel's right leg, above and below the knee. Shrapnel tore into his right hand.

Mr. Novosel lost control of his helicopter for a second or two, but recovered as the wounded soldier came aboard. Then, with bullets still flying all around him, Mr. Novosel flew everybody to safety.

"In all, 15 extremely hazardous extractions were performed in order to remove wounded personnel. As a direct result of his selfless conduct, the lives of 29 soldiers were saved," says his Medal of Honor citation.

Mr. Novosel had little time to think about that moment. As a dustoff pilot, he flew 2,543 missions and rescued 5,589 wounded or stranded soldiers, according to Army records.

Even though he and his crew faced death many times, the mission at Kien Tuong Province stood out from the rest. Mr. Novosel asked that the regulars on his helicopter -- co-pilot, crew chief and medic -- be awarded the Silver Star for their icy professionalism. The others thought that Mr. Novosel deserved an even greater tribute.

President Nixon agreed. In 1971, he awarded Mr. Novosel the Medal of Honor, America's highest award for bravery.

Mr. Novosel's son, Michael Jr., also flew helicopters in Vietnam. They were the only father-son aviators in the same unit in combat, a fact that Mr. Nixon mentioned when they met. But the war, by then, was so unpopular that Mr. Novosel's story was largely overlooked.

Years later, after emotions had cooled, Mr. Novosel found Americans interested in his life's story. His calendar was jammed with appearances and speaking engagements. He also wrote a memoir, "Dustoff," which was published in 1999.

The son of a shoe repairman and a homemaker, Mr. Novosel grew up during the Great Depression. After graduating from Etna High School in 1940, he joined the Army in hopes of making a living. Once the height requirement was disposed of, his superiors found that the had a knack for flying under pressure.

"He never made an excuse for anything. He was the kind of guy you'd like to have beside you," Mr. Truban said.

After coming home from Vietnam, Mr. Novosel settled in Enterprise, Ala. A viewing of his body will be held there. He will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.


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