Dustoff: The Memoir of an Army Aviatorby Michael J. Novosel
MICHAEL NOVOSEL IS A MAN WITH JUST AS MUCH “RIGHT STUFF” AS ANY ASTRONAUT—AND A MEDAL OF HONOR TO BOOT.
Michael Novosel never set out to be a hero. In fact, it looked like he might never see military action. After fast-talking his way into the aviation cadet program (he was too short to pass the physical) and earning his wings, he became a/b>… See more details below
MICHAEL NOVOSEL IS A MAN WITH JUST AS MUCH “RIGHT STUFF” AS ANY ASTRONAUT—AND A MEDAL OF HONOR TO BOOT.
Michael Novosel never set out to be a hero. In fact, it looked like he might never see military action. After fast-talking his way into the aviation cadet program (he was too short to pass the physical) and earning his wings, he became a heavy-bomber instructor for the Army Air Corps. But it wasn’t until Germany’s defeat that the ace pilot finally saw combat. Assigned as a B-29 Super-fortress command pilot, he reached Tinian just before the Enola Gay took off to end World War II in the skies over Hiroshima.
Despite being a senior airline pilot, when the war in Vietnam started, Novosel applied again for active duty. The only thing that the air force was willing to give reserve lieutenant colonels like Novosel to fly, however, was a desk. Resigning his commission, he approached the army, which decided that flying dustoffs (medevac helicopters) in Vietnam was a perfect job for this seasoned aviator. With two tours, 2,038 hours of combat flight, 2,345 aerial missions that evacuated 5,589 wounded, and a Congressional Medal of Honor, it’s easy to see that Mike Novosel is a genuine, 24-karat American war hero.
Author Biography: Congressional Medal of Honor citation
for Michael J. Novosel
“Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) Novosel, 82d Medical Detachment 45th Medical Company, 68th Medical Group, distinguished himself on 2 October 1969 at Kien Tuong Province, Republic of Vietnam, 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 machinegun 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. . . . In all, fifteen extremely hazardous extractions were performed in order to remove wounded personnel. As a direct result of his selfless conduct, the lives of twenty-nine soldiers were saved. The extraordinary heroism displayed by CWO Novosel was an inspiration to his comrades in arms and reflects great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.”
Read an Excerpt
1A World of Turmoil
The 1940 graduating class of Etna High School was sent into a deeply troubled world where economies were shattered and nations struggled to climb out of the economic morass confronting them. Ancient animosities resurfaced and Europe, for the second time in the century, was embroiled in war.
Our nation still suffered the effects of the Great Depression, triggered by the crash of 1929. Many were unemployed, living on the dole, or getting assistance from friends or relatives. The minimum wage, if one could get it, was twenty-five cents an hour.
I lived in Etna, a small mill town in western Pennsylvania, and was a member of the 1940 graduating class. The future did not look encouraging, and jobs were scarce. I found one at the Wildwood Country Club as an assistant to the club pro, but it lasted only until October, when the course closed for the winter. Without employable skills or experience, I was unable to get another job.
The war in Europe continued to heat up, and most Americans felt we soon would be in it. Congress passed a draft law and, along with the efforts of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was hurriedly bolstering our armed forces. Our military forces were advertising the benefits of their training programs, and their pitches sounded attractive.
I decided to enlist. On February 7, 1941, ten months to the day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, I joined the U.S. Army Air Corps.
My early days in the air corps were enjoyable, although I suffered a setback in my plans. I wanted to be an airplane mechanic and fly. But the army had other plans, and I was sent to a school for administration specialists.
I made several new friends, amongthem Bill Ridley, from Oklahoma; Curvin Miller and Bill Reinsel, from Pennsylvania; and Felix Caplan, from New Jersey. After finishing the school, we were assigned to Sheppard Field in Texas.
Because of my position as chief payroll clerk, I acquired a complete set of army regulations. I discovered one dealing with the aviation cadet program and read and reread it un- til I knew everything about it. I met all requirements except height, which was five feet four inches. My service record listed me as five feet three and three-quarter inches. Curvin Miller measured me and said I’d grown an eighth of an inch since I’d enlisted. I had to grow a little more.
Ridley said he was going to apply for flight training and that I should also, even though I was a tad too short. “They might let you slide through,” he said. We applied.
Our barracks mates knew about our plans and decided to help me “grow.” Together they had an enormous amount of talent, initiative, and intelligence. They gave us moral support and a lot of help in other ways. Bill Reinsel, who was assigned to the dispensary, fed me a steady dose of vitamin A. He said it was necessary for good vision.
Miller said he read a magazine article claiming that the body was tallest in the morning right after waking. He said I should remain in bed as long as possible on the morning of my flight physical to maximize my height.
Ridley and I were scheduled for our flight physicals at 7:30 a.m. Miller suggested I shower before going to bed. That way I could remain in a horizontal position longer before reporting for the examination. I showered and hit the sack early.
The next morning Miller, who had organized a crew, made certain that I remained horizontal until I had to leave for the dispensary. While I lay in bed, they slipped me into my fatigues, put on my shoes and socks, and slid me onto a long, narrow board. Four of my mates carried me as I lay stretched out on the board.
I thought they were going to carry me all the way to the dispensary. If they did, surely some officer would see what amounted to a detail of soldiers carrying a stiff. He’d halt the parade and demand an explanation. Officers are funny that way.
The worst scenario would be a military policeman coming upon the scene. Surely he’d march us all to the stockade without asking for an explanation. Military policemen are funny that way too. But I was not aware how efficient my barracks mates were, or how much planning, cooperation, and coordination they were capable of. Felix Caplan, who worked in the motor pool, had conned the motor sergeant out of a three-quarter-ton truck. He’d parked in front of our barracks and was waiting for a load—me on my board.
Miller’s crew laid one end of the board on the bed of the truck, shoved the board forward until the tailgate would close, and drove to the dispensary. There they eased me and the board off the truck and proceeded to the physical examination section.
From the moment I was placed on the board, and even as I was unloaded and carried into the dispensary, I voiced my objections to the unceremonious proceedings. I feared we’d be discovered and called before the first sergeant or, even worse, the captain. We’d be court-martialed for sure. My complaints were ignored; my board bearers assured me that everything was all right and they would be gone as soon as my height had been measured.
As we entered the physical examination section, we were met by Bill Reinsel, who did not seem at all surprised to see me lying on the board carried by my barracks mates. Reinsel led the group into a room, where I was placed on the scales; I was vertical for the first time in hours. Reinsel told the attendant to measure my height first. “What do you get?” Reinsel asked anxiously. The medic doing the measuring said, “Five feet three and seven-eighths inches.”
There erupted an immediate chattering of disbelief followed almost in unison with profanity and regrets over having done all that work “for nothing.” Reinsel pleaded with the medic to change the measurement to five feet four inches. “Who will know?”
The medic was unmoved. He said he wasn’t about to make a false entry on an official document. The measurement would stand. There was nothing else to do except go on with the rest of the examination. At least I would know if I were otherwise qualified. I thanked the gang for helping. I could see that Miller was as disappointed as I. He was so sure that the information he had gleaned from the magazine article was a valid basis for his plan to make me “grow.” Besides, he had done a lot of work that didn’t get the results he wanted. The gang departed with their board.
Bill Ridley arrived for his appointment just as I was being measured. He heard the result and saw the disappointment on my face. “You can always try later when you grow some,” he said. “You’re only eighteen; you’ve got more growing to do.”
I passed the rest of the exam with flying colors, as did Ridley. But just as we were about to return to the squadron orderly room, Ridley and I were told to see the flight sur- geon. His was the last stop, and he was the ultimate pass-fail authority.
Ridley was sent in to see the doctor first. I began to get impatient, because I had a lot of work waiting for me. When Ridley finally came out, he had a big grin on his face. He didn’t have to tell me that he’d passed. Then I was called into the office.
The doctor was sitting at a small table looking over the results of my examination. I don’t know what doctors mean when they make funny humming sounds as they look over information vital to a person’s interest.
I nervously watched him scanning the examination results. I expected him to find that I was a tad too short and tell me to come back when I grew up. After what seemed an eternity, he looked at me. “According to this exam, you’re short of the minimum height requirement by an eighth of an inch.”
I blurted right out, “I think the medic who measured me made a mistake. I was measured by my friends in the barracks and they found me to be exactly five feet four.” Of course that wasn’t true, but I was desperate and would have said anything to salvage the situation. The flight surgeon had me stand; he looked me over and told me to turn around.
“How old are you, son?” he asked in a rather soft and relaxed manner.
“Eighteen,” I replied.
“Will you promise me you’ll grow another eighth of an inch?” he asked.
I came right back with a definite and cheery, “Yes, sir.”
I saw him make the appropriate correction on the physical record. I was officially five feet four inches tall. He told me that everything else was in order and that the record of the examination would be forwarded to the proper authorities.
The last thing he said was, “Don’t forget to grow some more.” With that, I gave him a snappy salute and was out of there.
On September 3, I celebrated my nineteenth birthday. It seemed like ages since I had taken my flight physical; I wondered what had happened to my cadet application. Finally, in mid-October, Ridley and I received word that we’d been accepted for flight training and orders would follow. When November passed without orders for flight school, I voiced my concern to Ridley about the delay. He reassured me we’d soon get them. Neither of us knew how accurate his prognosis was.
I was returning to the base on a Sunday morning when a convertible drove by with its radio blaring the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The next day, President Roosevelt addressed Congress, and we were officially at war. Not long after, Ridley and I received our orders transferring us to Kelly Field in Texas—and flight school.
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