Decorated Veteran Michael J. Novosel

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Michael J. Novosel, 83, an Army medical evacuation pilot who received the Medal of Honor for leading a daring Vietnam War rescue mission, died April 2 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He had colon cancer.

Mr. Novosel, a veteran of two earlier wars, was 47 and recently diagnosed with glaucoma at the time of the rescue. A former commercial pilot, he said he had returned to active duty as a patriotic response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Figuring he would train pilots, he instead was spirited to Vietnam. He held the rank of chief warrant officer when he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the military's highest recognition for valor. At the time, he was serving in the 82nd Medical Detachment in Kien Tuong Province on Oct. 2, 1969.

That day, he commanded his Bell UH-1 Huey to a heavily guarded enemy training area to rescue wounded South Vietnamese soldiers. Without a U.S. gunship to cover him, he searched close to the tall elephant grass teaming with enemy snipers to find the wounded Allied soldiers.

"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," his Medal of Honor citation said. "This display of courage visibly raised their morale, as they recognized this as a signal to assemble for evacuation."

Compelled to leave the area because of the ferocity of the enemy fire, he returned many times to find the injured soldiers. He once maneuvered the helicopter backward to pick up a South Vietnamese casualty near an enemy bunker and, under intense automatic weapon fire, Mr. Novosel was wounded in the right leg and hand.

Although he briefly lost control of the chopper, he was able to maneuver to safety. He was credited with saving 29 lives that day.

President Richard M. Nixon presented Mr. Novosel with the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony June 15, 1971.

"When I look back and realize that I flew 2,543 missions -- each one dedicated to saving lives -- I wonder what was more important about that one occasion than all the others," Mr. Novosel told Soldiers magazine in 2003.

"There were times when I'd saved 50 to 60 lives at a time," he said. "But this day I saved only 29. Only 29 -- that clues you in on the thought process that goes along with doing this kind of work."

Michael J. Novosel -- the initial stood for nothing -- was born in Etna, Pa., on Sept. 3, 1922. His parents emigrated from what is now Croatia, and his father ran a shoemaking business.

Mr. Novosel enlisted at 19 as an aviation cadet in the Army Air Corps. He was accepted although he was a quarter-inch under the minimum height (he was officially listed as 5 foot 4). During World War II, he captained a B-29 bomber, known as a Superfortress, in the Pacific.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company