Joe Novak knows what military sacrifice means.
“My father was killed in Korea, at the Chosin Reservoir,” says the Harrisburg native. “I was 6 or 7 months old.” His stepfather saw service at Omaha Beach, at Normandy, during World War II with the Mighty 98th.
And Novak, born in 1951, joined the United States Marine Corps at 16. It wasn’t long before he found himself in Vietnam, where has was assigned as a demolitionist. As a sergeant, Novak served with 1st Marine Division, 1st Battalion, 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, attached to 1st Recon.
Due to his demolition work, Novak earned the nickname “Rocket Recon” from his fellow Marines. He later shorted it to “Recon,” and he’s still known by that name today. But the name “Rocket Recon” lives on as the name of a cabin cruiser he just restored.
Novak, who today remains active with the Vietnam Veterans of America Michael J. Novosel Medal of Honor Capital Area Chapter 542, Harrisburg, also participates in the Central Pennsylvania Vietnam Round Table, a lecture and discussion group.
His work with the 542 is a tribute to a war that some Americans—even veterans of the conflict—might prefer to forget. Novak keeps the legacy alive. It started when he joined the Marine Corps, and he remembers spending his 17th birthday at Parris Island, the famed and fearsome Marine boot camp.
“I landed in ’Nam two days before Christmas 1969,” Novak remembers. It was a trip he made by way of San Diego’s Camp Pendleton and Okinawa, Japan.
Novak’s job was to destroy enemy targets.
“My team was credited with blowing up a Viet Cong hospital,” Novak says.
What his team destroyed wasn’t a traditional hospital full of nurses and children. It was more of a place where the Viet Cong patched up their wounded, and it shared a mountain with an ammunition dump. Novak says he’s not sure anyone was even in the enemy medical facility the day the Marines took it out, but the ammo dump that was stored in it had to go. This demolition made the pages of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes in June 1970.
Such control of weaponry would seem to give Novak an upper hand in the war. But it didn’t in a land where nothing or nobody seemed to be what they were.
“You didn’t know who you were fighting,” recalls Novak. “You’ve got little kids strapped with ammo.”
One way to relax for those who served in all branches of the military was to see the famous USO shows, starring the likes of Bob Hope and Ann Margret.
“I never got to see any of that!” Novak says with a laugh. He never even went on rest and relaxation leaves. He preferred duty over playtime, sticking with his comrades.
It seems hard to believe, but “R and R” had risks of its own. Some soldiers went to places such as Tokyo or Sydney and got into trouble, either by going absent without leave or meeting up with crime that left them dead.
Novak did visit Vietnam’s famous China Beach, where you were allowed to carry a weapon. The biggest hazard there, he says, was keeping sand out of your gun.
Novak was wounded a few times, and one time didn’t even involve bullets—at first. The young Marine was felled by malaria.
“They sent a basket, for a jungle extraction,” Novak says. The basket lifted him into a helicopter that would take him to the hospital ship USS Sanctuary.
“[Then] the chopper got hit!” Novak says, but the helicopter made it to the ship.
The crew of the Sanctuary were expecting a sick man, and instead, “here comes this Marine, all full of holes,” he jokes. He had to have shrapnel removed, which is still coming to the surface and being removed to this day.
Another time Novak was wounded, “[We were] somewhere we weren’t supposed to be,” he says, alluding to secret missions in enemy territory. Novak had a close call with a rocket while he was working on a demolition container called FoGas.
“A rocket landed,” he remembers, “and it blew me away.” It was the event that sent him back to the States.
Novak’s trip home was a complicated one.
Due to his wounds, he was transported stateside to Walter Reed Army Medical Center near Washington, D.C., in 1970, and later to a veterans’ hospital in Philadelphia that Novak refers to as “The Morgue.”
At one point, Novak was actually listed as “killed in action,” which caused his family great distress.
He spent months in a body cast. Novak wanted to continue to serve, but ultimately, he was honorably discharged in Washington in 1973 after a two-year medical leave.
There were other painful sides to coming home from Vietnam. Novak remembers the stateside criticism of the conflict.
“I was known as a bum [because of my service],” Novak says.
In addition, Novak had been exposed to Agent Orange, a poisonous defoliant used to clear jungles, but it afflicted many American soldiers as well. To this day, Novak still gets treatments for skin issues and severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
“In sun and snow, I actually bleed,” he says of his skin.
Though he’s looking forward to his trips on his cabin cruiser, Novak has to either remain shaded or go night fishing with his buddies on board.
Novak has visited Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, though it took him a while to do it.
“I couldn’t go until 1995,” he says.
Today, he visits with fellow veterans, and “I’ve got eight names on ‘the Wall,’” meaning eight fallen comrades whose names are inscribed on the monument.
At home, a hilltop house in a quiet setting outside Harrisburg, Novak has a room dedicated to the war, filled with memorabilia from Vietnam.
Novak is retired and devotes his time to Chapter 542.
“After the war, it was hard to find a job,” he admits. But he eventually went to work for Uniroyal and then he went into the property-maintenance business.
He sees a parallel between Vietnam and today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where hostile action can come from anywhere.
“The world hasn’t changed much,” Novak says with regret.
But he sees a positive in the way those who serve are treated today.
“It’s totally different. Today, the people are backing the veteran or the soldier,” Novak says.
Though he still deals with shrapnel pain, PTSD, and the aftereffects of Agent Orange, Novak says, “It’s a long road, but I refuse to give up … It’s been a long road, and it ain’t over.” )))