(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third and final part of a series on CW4 Michael J. Novosel Sr., who will become the post’s namesake when it is redesignated in April.)
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- It was with the 82nd Medical Detachment that Novosel would earn the Medal of Honor during a mission Oct. 10, 1969, during Operation Python. While flying in support of the operation, Novosel and his crew had been flying missions for about seven hours when a call came in at about 4 p.m. about surrounded Vietnamese soldiers under heavy fire from the Viet Cong.
In “Dustoff: The Memoir of an Army Aviator,” CW4 Michael J. Novosel titles the chapter about the event he earned the Medal of Honor for as “An Impossible Mission.” But he and his crew overcame the odds and saved the lives of 29 Vietnamese soldiers who were pretty much counted as losses by most on the ground Oct. 10, 1969.
The following is his MOH citation.
CWO Michael J. Novosel Sr. MOH citation
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. CWO Novosel, 82d Medical Detachment, distinguished himself while serving as commander of a medical evacuation helicopter. He unhesitatingly maneuvered his helicopter into a heavily fortified and defended enemy training area where a group of wounded Vietnamese soldiers were pinned down by a large enemy force. Flying without gunship or other cover and exposed to intense machine-gun fire, CWO Novosel was able to locate and rescue a wounded soldier. Since all communications with the beleaguered troops had been lost, he repeatedly circled the battle area, flying at low level under continuous heavy fire, to attract the attention of the scattered friendly troops. This display of courage visibly raised their morale, as they recognized this as a signal to assemble for evacuation. On six occasions he and his crew were forced out of the battle area by the intense enemy fire, only to circle and return from another direction to land and extract additional troops. Near the end of the mission, a wounded soldier was spotted close to an enemy bunker. Fully realizing that he would attract a hail of enemy fire, CWO Novosel nevertheless attempted the extraction by hovering the helicopter backward. As the man was pulled on board, enemy automatic weapons opened fire at close-range, damaged the aircraft and wounded CWO Novosel. He momentarily lost control of the aircraft, but quickly recovered and departed under the withering enemy fire. 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. The extraordinary heroism displayed by CWO Novosel was an inspiration to his comrades in arms and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the U.S. Army.
Novosel knew he and his crew had done an amazing thing during the mission, and he intended to put them all in for Silver Stars. But he was told to expect them to be downgraded to Distinguished Flying Crosses.
“The recommendation for awarding the Silver Stars was in the administrative pipeline,” he wrote. “I had no idea how it would be received and forgot about it. There were more important matters to attend to.” There were more and more wounded out there every day, and Novosel and his team needed to get them to safety.
In December 1969, senior learned that Michael J. Novosel Jr., at age 20, had earned his aviator wings and would be headed for Vietnam.
“I was proud to have my son follow in my footsteps,” he wrote, adding that a little later he received a call from the area where Soldiers first entered the country. It was the aviation assignments officer who told the elder Novosel that his son was in country and was asking to be assigned to the 82nd. The officer wanted to make sure senior was OK with that before making it happen.
“Certainly, send him right down,” the elder Novosel told the officer. “I hadn’t seen Mike in almost a year, when I was returning to Vietnam and he was going into flight training. It would be good to see him again. But the situation raised problems not encountered by any combatants I’d known. We would be the only father and son pilot ever assigned to the same unit and flying together in combat.”
Although many in the unit were happy about the Novosels serving together, others worried about favoritism and the like. But father and son worked together to make it work – even by rescuing each other.
After the elder flew in to rescue junior and his crew after their aircraft became incapacitated, he chided his son, “You told me that your mother said for you to be careful while you’re here. What’s the matter, don’t you listen to her anymore?”
Six days later, on a mission where his co-pilot reminded him that his son was next up that day, the elder Novosel jokingly said “I hope they watch themselves. I can’t be rescuing them every day.”
A little while later, the junior Novosel was swooping in to pick up dad and his crew after their aircraft had lost its tail rotor assembly.
After hearing over the radio that his son and his crew were on their way to rescue him, Novosel told his crew, “That’s all I need to really screw up my day. I’ll never hear the last of this. They’re not going to let me forget it, especially after I made them buy me drinks for picking them up last week. What a revolting development.”
Soon it was time for Novosel senior to head back stateside. He had flown 2,038 hours of combat on 2,543 missions and evacuated 5,589 wounded.
“As admirable a record as the figures implied, they would always be barren numbers,” he wrote. “They could never show how much misery I had seen, how many cries of pain I had heard, and how many deaths I witnessed. They could never address man’s inhumanity to man. They can’t describe the overpowering loneliness experienced during the moments of reflection upon home and family. The figures didn’t – couldn’t – list the times I cursed the war and all its misery.”
His next assignment was at Fort Bragg once again, but this time with the Golden Knights as the demonstration team’s aviation officer. It was there that he received a letter from his son, still in Vietnam, letting him know he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor.
“It was difficult to grasp the immensity of the situation,” he wrote. “I knew that it couldn’t be some fiction that Mike had made up. It was true, but I still couldn’t believe it. This was a historic first: There never had been an occasion during any war that a Soldier could write to his father, a fellow combatant, and tell him that the theater commander had recommended him for the Medal of Honor.”
President Richard Nixon presented the MOH to Novosel in June 1971 at the White House.
Novosel left the Golden Knights in September 1972 for a safety engineering course at the University of Southern California before being assigned to the U.S. Army Warrant Officer Career College. At the WOCC, he served as an author and lecturer, and was placed in charge of the international relations desk until the summer of 1976 when he was alerted for an overseas assignment.
He opted for a one-year assignment to Korea as a safety officer with the 2nd Infantry Division with a return to Fort Rucker, where he finished his career as a safety officer with the Directorate of Evaluation and Standardization.
While at Fort Rucker, after a quarterly three-mile fun run, Maj. Gen. Bobby Maddox, then-commanding general of Fort Rucker, asked him, “How was the run, Mike?” Novosel recalled.
“Not bad, general, but I noticed that even though you set an easy pace, some troops fell out and didn’t complete the run. At their age, they should be able to do better,” he replied.
The general agreed, and then asked Novosel to take the air assault course.
“General, do you realize I’ll soon be 62 years old? I’ll be eligible for Social Security,” Novosel replied.
The general said he understood, but he was having trouble getting young officers and NCOs to volunteer for the course. “I want to shame them into taking it. I know you can do it. Before you retire, I want to pin the air assault badge on your uniform.”
Novosel agreed to do it, and in his words, “I became a dope on a rope.” After successfully completing the 10-day course, the general pinned the air assault badge on Novosel the next day.
Novosel retired from the Army Nov. 30, 1984, at Fort Rucker, and even had a main road on post named after him that same day. He was the last combat pilot of WWII still actively flying in the military. “As I looked over the troops, the inevitable question occurred to me: Did I really deserve this honor? I was a Soldier, an Army aviator who did what he was paid to do. When given a mission, I pursued it to its ultimate conclusion. I believed that was the way it was supposed to be, that all Soldiers viewed their responsibilities in a like manner.”
When he took to the microphone at the retirement ceremony, he talked about how good the military had been to him and his family, the many relationships he’d made and also recounted some of the challenges, perils and horrors of war that he faced.
“It was my privilege to serve in Vietnam,” he said. “I am proud of that service. It was there that Army aviators produced a record of achievement unequaled in any war. It was not in the character of those young men to say, ‘It can’t be done.’ Instead, their answer was, ‘Can do.’
“Those Soldiers have given you today’s Army Aviation. Serve it well.
“Now, as the shadows grow long and the hour late, I know that I have been around somewhat longer than the law allows. It’s time for me to depart. But before my service book is closed, I hope someone slips in a page that says he was a good Soldier.”
That page says a lot more than that. Novosel was the epitome of Army Aviation, and the perfect choice as the namesake of this post.
Part 1: Perfect Choice: Post’s namesake ‘the epitome of Army Aviation’
Part 2: Perfect Choice — Part 2: Post’s namesake ‘the epitome of Army Aviation’
Part 3: Perfect Choice — Part 3: Post’s namesake ‘the epitome of Army Aviation’ - CW4 Michael J. Novosel Sr.