Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Michael Joseph Novosel Sr. served in three wars, including a stint in which he flew side-by-side with his son. He was the last World War II pilot to actively fly in the military, and he’s so revered across the services that he recently became the new namesake of a storied military base. With all these accolades, it’s no surprise that he also earned the Medal of Honor.
Novosel was born on Sept. 3, 1922, in Etna, Pennsylvania. Since his parents emigrated from Yugoslavia and only spoke Croatian, Novosel said he didn’t begin to learn English until he started school. He did well, however, and graduated high school in 1940.
Less than a year later, in February 1941, 18-year-old Novosel joined the Army Air Corps so he could further his education and pay back the U.S. for welcoming his family with open arms. The young man wanted to work on aircraft, but the Army assigned him to administration work unit his fellow soldiers convinced him to apply for the Air Corps cadet program. He did and, despite being just a shade under the height requirement of 5-foot 4-inches, he was accepted.
Learning to Fly, And Drive
Shortly after that, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the U.S. went to war. Novosel and his fellow cadets were fast-tracked to flight school, but instead of being sent to the front after graduation from flight school, he was sent to Laredo Army Airfield in Texas to serve as a B-24 Liberator instructor. While he was there, Novosel gained invaluable flight time and experience in the cockpit.
Novosel eventually moved to Maxwell Army Air Field —now Maxwell Air Force Base— in Alabama to join the B-29 Superfortress program. He was then sent to the Pacific, where he flew four combat missions before World War II ended. He also got to fly in the massive formation over the USS Missouri during Japan’s surrender signing, then took part in further missions dropping supplies to U.S. prisoners in the war’s immediate aftermath. Novosel spent the rest of 1945 in Okinawa, where he flew more missions and finally learned to drive a car.
“Here I was, a B-29 aircraft commander — a squadron commander at that. I’d flown five different trainers, three pursuits, four transports and four bombers. But I couldn’t drive a simple automobile,” Novosel wrote in his autobiography titled, “Dustoff: The Memoir of an Army Aviator.”
Novosel transitioned into the newly formed Air Force in 1947 and finally returned stateside that October. He married his childhood sweetheart, Ethel Mae Graham, shortly thereafter. They went on to have four children.
Novosel was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, when he was caught in the force reduction of 1950 and discharged. However, civilian life didn’t suit him, so he rejoined the Air Force in 1951 to serve in a noncombat role in Korea. When that war ended, he joined the Air Force Reserve, where he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1955.
During his Reserve years, Novosel also worked as a commercial airline pilot. At some point, he was diagnosed with glaucoma that doctors said could lead to blindness. He was worried he would lose his civilian job, so in 1963, shortly after President John F. Kennedy Jr. was assassinated, he decided to rejoin the active-duty military, which had different standards than commercial aviation. Novosel also wanted to share his knowledge with young military aviators as the U.S. got more involved in Vietnam, according to Billy Croslow, an Army aviation historian.
The Army During Vietnam
The Air Force denied Novosel’s request to rejoin the service, so in 1964, he joined the Army to help alleviate its need for combat helicopter pilots. But instead of training young pilots, Novosel was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina — now Fort Liberty — to serve as a chief warrant officer with Green Berets in the 6th Special Forces Group. And even though he had 20 years of military flying experience, he was told he had to get a new official aeronautic rating at one of the Army’s flight schools. So, Novosel was sent to Fort Wolters, Texas, with young pilots who were still learning the ropes.
“I was old enough to be the father of most people in the place,” Novosel said in his memoir.
He eventually caught a break and was quickly designated an Army aviator. He reported to Fort Bragg in early September 1964 and flew missions in the Dominican Republic with his new unit in 1965. He was there when he learned he’d be going to Vietnam.
“When I volunteered for active duty with Army aviation, I believed that my considerable experience would be put to use training Army aviators,” Novosel wrote in his memoir. “I never thought I’d be sent to Vietnam as a combatant, certainly not at my age.”
But those were his orders, so that’s what he did, landing in the country in January 1966. He was assigned to the 283rd Medical Detachment, an aeromedical evacuation “Dustoff” unit, which was a designation that became the universal call sign for all medevac units in the country. Not surprisingly, Novosel was the most experienced aviator in the unit and quickly became a leader who earned his fellow soldiers’ trust.
According to Croslow, Novosel also had a lot of instrument flight experience – something no one else in the unit had but was critical to medevac missions. Novosel was able to teach that skill to a lot of the younger pilots while there.
“A lot of times there was severe weather that gunships and troop transports wouldn’t necessarily fly in, but medevac always had to fly,” Croslow explained. “While people had instrument ratings and all of that, [Novosel] had a great deal of experience in it. Driving a B-29 to deliver ordnance thousands of miles away is an instrument-heavy business.”
The missions were dangerous, though, and the Dustoff units lost a lot of pilots.
Novosel returned home after a yearlong deployment, but he went back to Vietnam voluntarily in 1969, this time with the 82nd Medical Detachment, which was also a Dustoff unit. Croslow said Novosel took the assignment after having turned down a much safer one flying the fixed-wing P-2V Neptune.
Leave No One Behind
On Oct. 2, 1969, Novosel and his UH-1 Huey aircrew had been flying for about seven hours when they got a call to rescue a group of wounded Vietnamese soldiers who were pinned down by the Viet Cong. Without hesitating, Novosel steered his helicopter toward the stranded soldiers, who were in a heavily fortified enemy training area.
Novosel had to maneuver through machine-gun fire without any cover to find the wounded soldiers. There was no way to communicate with them, so he had to circle around the battle area several times, flying at a low level under constant fire to attract the attention of the scattered friendly troops until they finally realized they needed to assemble for evacuation.
Novosel and his crew were forced out of the battle area six times by enemy fire, but each time, they returned, coming back from a different direction to land and extract more and more men.
Toward the end of the mission, Novosel went in to get a wounded soldier who was spotted near an enemy bunker. Novosel knew he would attract a hail of enemy fire, but he went for it anyway, hovering backward to pull the man onboard. As his crew did so, the helicopter was hit by close-range automatic weapons fire, damaging the aircraft and hitting Novosel in the right leg and hand. The pilot momentarily lost control of the helicopter but quickly recovered and moved out of the area.
Throughout the whole ordeal, Novosel went in 15 times, dodging extremely hazardous conditions to extract wounded personnel. His selfless actions saved the lives of 29 soldiers.
A Father/Son Duo
In December of 1969, Novosel learned that his son, Michael Jr., had also earned his wings as an aviator and was to be sent to Vietnam to join his father’s unit. The pair became the first father/son duo of the war to fly together in the same combat unit. Novosel said he had to rescue his son’s unit once, only to have the rescue reciprocated a week later.
“Seven days after I saved them, that’s when I got shot down. And who comes to rescue me? My son,” Novosel said in a 2002 Library of Congress interview.
By the time Novosel returned to the U.S., he’d flown 2,543 missions that helped evacuate 5,589 wounded personnel, Army records showed.
Novosel went back to Fort Bragg to serve as the aviation officer for the Army’s demonstration team, the Golden Knights. While there, he received a letter from his son, who was still in Vietnam, that said that the senior Novosel had been recommended for the Medal of Honor.
“It was difficult to grasp the immensity of the situation,” Novosel said in his memoir. “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.”
Novosel received the nation’s highest honor for valor from President Richard M. Nixon on June 15, 1971, during a White House ceremony. His family attended with him.
A Base Renamed
After serving with the Golden Knights, Novosel was assigned to the Army Warrant Officer Career College as an author and lecturer and was in charge of the international relations desk. He then took a year-long assignment to Korea in the summer of 1976 before finishing his career as a safety officer at Fort Rucker in Alabama, which was recently renamed Fort Novosel in his honor.
While at Rucker, Novosel said he was talked into taking the 10-day air assault course — even though he was 62 – by a general who was having trouble getting younger officers and non-commissioned officers to sign up. The general told Novosel he wanted to “shame them” into doing it.
Novosel obliged, and he passed, pinning on his air assault badge shortly before he retired on Nov. 30, 1984. That same day, a main road on the post was named for him.
Novosel retired to Fort Walton, Florida, but his family also had a home in Enterprise, Alabama, just west of Fort Rucker. He published his memoir in 1999 and spent a lot of time doing speaking engagements about his life and career.
Novosel died April 2, 2006, after being hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for liver cancer complications, according to his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obituary. The 83-year-old is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Novosel has been honored in many ways since his death, including via a bronze bust of his likeness that’s on display at the Spaatz Center’s Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base. However, no honor may be greater than the recent redesignation of Fort Novosel earlier this year.
The post is the home of Army aviation, so it’s a fitting tribute. Novosel’s medal is now housed in the U.S. Army Aviation Museum on the post.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Source: Department of Defense