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I think you’re nuts, volunteering for combat again,” said Major Robert French to Warrant Officer Michael J. Novosel as the two helicopter pilots shared a ride in a Douglas DC-8 on the long transpacific flight to Vietnam in January 1966. “What’s the matter, trouble at home?”

As he thought that over, Novosel had to agree: “Being on that airplane, going to Vietnam at the ripe old age of forty-three, and leaving a wife with four children was not the most intelligent thing I’d ever done. More than twenty-three years had passed since I was in flight school in the early days of World War II. It was twenty-one years since I flew combat missions in 1945. I was flying to Vietnam at an age when most military folks think about retiring.

“On the other hand,” Novosel remarks in his autobiography, Dustoff: The Memoir of an Army Aviator (Presidio Press, Novato, Calif., 1999, $29.95), “there was the challenge of doing something different, something out of the ordinary. It was not my nature to admit that I was not qualified or was unable to perform because of my size or age.” When he had first tried to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps on February 7, 1941, Novosel discovered that the minimum height requirement was 5 feet 4 inches, and he was 5 feet 7/8 inches. By finding one person willing to overlook that eighth of an inch, he managed to get in. He went on to qualify in such aircraft as the Consolidated B-24 and Boeing B-29 four-engine bombers, in spite of a 5-foot-8-inch height requirement to fly those planes.

Although he spent most of World War II as an instructor and a test pilot, Novosel got to fly combat missions in B-29s with the Tinian-based 462nd Bomb Group from July through August 1945, and he also flew over the battleship Missouri on the day of the Japanese surrender. He had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and had qualified in helicopters when he decided to join the U.S. Army as a warrant officer and a medevac or “dustoff” pilot in 1965. On the way to Vietnam, he got one last look at the past as his plane flew over Tinian.

Ultimately, Novosel gave up trying to figure out why he’d volunteered and gave Bob French the best answer he could: “Crazy or not, I’m here because of my own free will. Maybe it wasn’t the wisest thing to ask for active duty during a war, but I did. I’ll have to live with that, and I’m prepared to see the situation to its conclusion, good or bad. By the way, the wife and I get along famously.”

Assigned to the 283rd Medical Detachment at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Novosel got accustomed to a war and a mission that were both different from those he had known in 1945. “It was not what I expected,” he wrote, “yet there was a certain allure to it. I was not inflicting casualties on the enemy but was offering assistance to our wounded and relieving them of the trauma of battle. I saw wounded men almost every day, heard their cries, and understood their agonies. The first traumatic amputation was a shock, but as time passed the commonality of the wound steeled me to the experience. I saw death so often that saving a life produced an emotional high.”

After completing one hazardous tour of duty picking up wounded troops under fire in Bell UH-1B Hueys, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Novosel returned for a second tour in Vietnam with the 82nd Medical Detachment at Soc Trang in 1969. At that time he was taking medication for glaucoma and was still in the Army on a waiver. It was during his second tour that the 47-year-old chopper jockey flew his most memorable mission. Coming to the aid of a battered ARVN unit in Kien Tuong province on October 2, 1969, Novosel and his three-man crew flew for 11 hours and made 15 separate extractions, often in the face of intense VC groundfire. During the last extraction, Novosel was wounded and momentarily lost control of his helicopter. When the Huey crew finally returned after sundown, they had saved 29 lives. Their company commander recommended all of them for the Silver Star, though he also told Novosel not to “be surprised if the award is downgraded to a Distinguished Flying Cross.”

By the time Novosel returned to the United States, he learned that his Silver Star had indeed been altered–at the recommendation of his commanding general in Vietnam, General Creighton W. Abrams. On June 15, 1970, Mike Novosel stood at attention, accompanied by his wife, Ethel, and his children, John, Jean, Patty and Michael, Jr.–the latter of whom had just completed a tour in Vietnam in his father’s unit–as President Richard M. Nixon awarded him the Medal of Honor.

The story of how Novosel received the Medal of Honor is only one of the fascinating details that make Dustoff a remarkable read, and it is much to Mike Novosel’s credit that he tells it well, with honesty and occasional humor. His career is an inspiration to anyone who has ever needed to overcome an obstacle to achieve a desired goal, but Novosel is also enough of a raconteur to serve up a lively and universally engrossing account. Amid a steadily growing quantity of personal memoirs of the Vietnam War, Dustoff is likely to remain one of the standouts.

By Jon Guttman