LIFE-LONG MIDDLEBURY resident Charlie Novak was presented on Sunday with a belated bronze service star in recognition of his service in the Pacific during World War II.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — It was 62 years ago that an Army medic all but laughed at the notion of recommending Charlie Novak for a Purple Heart for a shoulder wound he received in 1945 during an air raid on the island of Leyte in the Philippines during World War II.
Novak, a Middlebury native, never really felt slighted by the medic’s actions.
“I kind of got a kick out of it,” Novak, now 86, said last week.
Well, the United States government last month made up for any shortchanging of recognition for Novak and more than 70 soldiers who served with him in the 317th Troop Carrier Group of the U.S. Army Air Force. In a belated move that has yet to be fully explained, the U.S. military last month awarded Novak and his comrades the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with Bronze Service Star Attachment, in recognition of their actions during WWII in the Pacific.
Gov. James Douglas formally presented Novak with the award, along with two other medals, at a special ceremony at the Middlebury American Legion headquarters on Wilson Road on Sunday, Oct. 28.
“I’m very proud,” Novak said, his voice brimming with emotion as he looked down at the shiny medal that was more than a half-century overdue.
“I have some good memories, but also some bad memories, because a lot of good guys were killed,” he said.
His military journey began in 1941 in a rather unconventional fashion.
Novak, then 19, had taken a job in Springfield with Johnson Lampson, a manufacturer of drill machines and turret lathes. Novak was assigned the job of drilling holes into the components that were assembled into the turret lathes.
He worked 12 hours per day for seven-day stretches (with the ensuing two days off) at what was then a very nice wage of 50 cents per hour.
After three months on the job, Novak decided to take a day off. He had a date for the junior prom. It proved to be a very costly outing.
“When I went back to work the next day, I found out I’d been fired,” Novak said.
When his employer tried to negotiate terms for his rehiring, Novak told him where he could stick the job.
“I said, ‘You can’t make me do anything I don’t want to do,’” Novak recalled. “I said, ‘I never liked Springfield anyway.’”
He decided that day to make a dramatic change in his line of work.
“On my way home, I stopped in Rutland to talk to a military recruiter,” Novak said.
He knew he would likely face a substantial hurdle in being accepted. That’s because Novak a few years prior had lost four fingers on his right hand in a printing press accident at the old Middlebury Register newspaper.
Thankfully, Uncle Sam — and his recruiters and physicians in Rutland — knew that Novak was up to the challenge in spite of his missing fingers.
“The doctor asked me if I could fire a gun,” Novak said. “I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘If you can fire a gun and pass the physical, you’re in.’”
He did, and found himself whisked away to Fort Devins, in Massachusetts, for basic training. It was there that he was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Force, which required additional training in Atlantic City, N.J.; Chanute Field in Illinois; and Maxton Air Force Base (AFB) in North Carolina. During these stops, Novak was taught how to rig parachutes and repair airplanes, among other things.
It was at Maxton AFB that Novak and others were organized into the 40th Troop Carrier squadron of the 317th Troop Carrier Group. He went on to military installations in Bowling Green, Ky., and San Francisco before shipping out to the Pacific.
By this time, Japanese forces had attacked Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941), ushering the United States into WWII. So it was with a sense of anticipation and anxiety that Novak and his mates set to sea.
“We didn’t know where we were going,” Novak said. “We were told nothing.”
The troops spent 30 days on the high seas in an army transport ship, escorted by a cruiser and a destroyer.
“I was (seasick) for six or seven days,” Novak said. “I couldn’t eat.”
He would eat later on — and in style. While most other soldiers were eating nasty eggs, Novak got leftovers from the officer’s mess, because he took a job washing dishes.
“It was seventh heaven,” Novak said with a smile.
After a couple of weeks at sea, the soldiers finally solved the mystery of their imminent destination.
“We got to the Great Barrier Reef, and then we knew we were going to Australia,” Novak recalled.
The 40th joined around 150,000 other troops that had amassed near the community of Townsville in Queensland, Australia. Novak and his crew spent several months at the base, eating, drinking, sleeping and waiting for supplies to arrive, while training for the rough days that lay ahead.
“It was ungodly hot; horrible,” Novak said, though he acknowledged the soldiers were kept well-fed. They had ready access to beef and drink.
“We ate meat three times a day,” Novak said. “We ate and ate.”
The war hit home for Novak and the 40th when they were finally sent to Port Moresby in Papua, New Guinea, in 1944.
“Then we really got into it,” Novak said of U.S. contact with Japanese forces, who had established bases in Papua New Guinea and small islands throughout the Pacific.
Novak was made a crew chief, specializing in repairs to the C-47 Skytrain airplane, which would become key in transporting troops and equipment to combat zones during WWII. He would also occasionally fly on the planes as they “hopped” from island to island — hence the 317th Troop Carrier Group’s nickname of “jungle skippers.”
“We transported paratroopers, handled bombs — anything that was required, because everything was done by plane or boat over there,” Novak recalled. “Island hopping was the prevalent thing. If you couldn’t do it by air, you did it by the water.”
In essence, Novak and his fellow soldiers began carrying through the strategy of Gen. Douglas MacArthur: Bypass an occupied island, hit the next, bypass another, hit the next, thereby taking the battle to some of the enemy while cutting off supplies to the rest.
“He would starve them out,” Novak said of MacArthur’s plan.
The Skytrains and their pilots, at tremendous risk, dropped troops and supplies on remote battlefields to eventually break the backs of the enemy.
“We hit just about every island — Dutch New Guinea, Guadalcanal, Corregidor, Okinawa — everywhere,” Novak recalled. “You moved with the force. You saw all the country you wanted, and then some.”
It was Novak’s job to make sure the Skytrains would stay in the air. Worn engine parts were replaced; 100-hour inspections were performed; bullet holes were plugged; and fluids were leveled off.
“Everyone had to work together,” Novak said.
Soldiers not only worked together, but also had to be self-reliant.
“All you had for protection was a .45 or a rifle,” Novak said. “You were on your own.”
And being a jungle skipper mechanic did not ensure a great measure of safety. Charlie Novak was on the island of Leyte in the Philippines during an air raid 1945.
“There was vicious gunfire,” Novak recalled.
Before he could find cover, Novak was hit in the shoulder by a hunk of shrapnel. Though he was bleeding, the Army medic who examined him wasn’t keen on putting him up for a Purple Heart.
“The medic mocked me,” Novak said. “He never put (mention of the injury) in my records.”
While Novak may never get his Purple Heart, he did get his Bronze Service Star, along with a Vermont Veterans Medal and a Vermont Distinguished Service Medal from Gov. Douglas on Oct. 28. Observers said it was an emotional ceremony.
Novak’s niece, Jean Hadley, attended a special Oct. 5 ceremony at Scott Air Force Base in St. Louis to receive the Bronze Service Star on her uncle’s behalf.
Hadley, who grew up in Middlebury but now lives in Connecticut, is also very emotional about the award and what it means not only to her uncle, but for what it symbolizes for all those who served in WWII.
“It certainly opened my mind to what patriotism is all about,” Hadley said. “People don’t realize what those guys went through. If they think freedom comes cheap, they are very mistaken.”