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Profiles in courage: The area's other Medal of Honor winners

Vietnam, 25 years later

Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

These Western Pennsylvanians received the Medal of Honor for bravery in Vietnam.


With enemy fire tearing up a group of trapped Marines, Pfc. Ralph E. Dias flung himself against a machine gun bunker in the Que Son Mountains on Nov. 12, 1969.

  Ralph E. Dias

The native of Shelocta, Indiana County, charged across open ground but was wounded by snipers.

Dias, 19, sought shelter behind a rock. Again, he exposed himself to fire, and again he was wounded.

Determined to help his men, Dias crawled 50 feet to a spot from where he could lob grenades, but none met its mark.

Dias again headed for the open, where he was shot yet once more. He tossed a last grenade. This time, his aim was true. Dias was killed by a final round of enemy fire, but he had destroyed the machine gun emplacement.


He was a hotshot Navy pilot who had endured a close call on April 20, 1967. Lt. Cmdr. Michael J. Estocin of Turtle Creek led an air strike against power plants in Haiphong, single-handedly destroying three surface-to-air missile sites.

  Michael J. Estocin

Although struck by anti-aircraft fire, Estocin continued to direct his squadron's attacks and warn them of missile threats. He narrowly averted disaster by making a fiery landing aboard the USS Ticonderoga.

Despite being burned, Estocin convinced his commanders to let him out of sick bay the following week for another offensive on the fuel facilities in Haiphong.

On April 26, one day shy of Estocin's 36th birthday, his aircraft was damaged by a missile. He regained control of the burning plane long enough to launch his own missiles. Estocin was last seen sitting erect in his plane as it disappeared under clouds. He has never been found.


The battle of the A Shau Valley wasn't going well in July 1969. Army Staff Sgt. John G. Gertsch watched his wounded platoon leader fall and become an easy target for enemy fire.

  John G. Gertsch

Gertsch, 24, a New Jersey native who had lived in Troy Hill, rushed forward and dragged his comrade to safety.

Taking command of the platoon, Gertsch led a successful counterattack. Skirmishes continued to flare over four days, and during one, Gertsch made a charge that enabled his men to rescue two wounded soldiers.

Another onslaught severely injured Gertsch, but he continued to command. Gertsch spotted a soldier treating a wounded officer. Seeing that both were about to be killed, Gertsch rushed forward and put himself between his comrades and the enemy. He died on July 19 while the wounded officer was being moved to safety.


U.S. Marine Capt. James A. Graham, a Wilkinsburg native, was in the vanguard of an assault force crossing a wide rice paddy on June 2, 1967, when his company came under heavy fire from mortars and two concealed machine guns.

  James A. Graham

Pinned down, Graham formed an assault squad and forced the enemy to abandon the first machine gun position, allowing the soldiers to retreat to a safer spot.

In fighting that afternoon, Graham, 26, killed 15 enemy soldiers. Unable to wipe out the second machine gun nest, Graham chose to stay with a fellow Marine whose injuries were so severe he could not be moved.

Graham's last radio transmission reported that he was being overrun by 25 enemy soldiers. He died while protecting himself and the wounded man.


William D. Morgan of Mt. Lebanon was a squad leader who fully exercised his responsibility for his fellow Marines.

William D. Morgan 

While attacking a heavily fortified bunker in Quang Tri Province on Feb. 25, 1969, two of Morgan's wounded platoon members fell in a position exposed to enemy fire.

Attempts to rescue them were foiled by automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

Cpl. Morgan picked his way through dense undergrowth to a road that passed in front of the main source of the hostile fire. Morgan, 21, shouted words of encouragement to the wounded even as he charged the bunker as a diversion.

Morgan drew enemy fire and was killed, but his actions allowed the squad to rescue the wounded Marines and swarm over the North Vietnamese bunker.


One of two living Vietnam-era Medal of Honor winners from Western Pennsylvania, Etna native Michael J. Novosel saved the lives of 29 soldiers in Kien Tuong Province Oct. 2, 1969.

  Michael J. Novosel

Novosel, then 47, was a chief warrant officer in the Army and commander of a medical evacuation helicopter. He maneuvered the chopper into an enemy training area where a group of friendly South Vietnamese soldiers was pinned down.

Flying without cover under intense machine gun fire, Novosel and his crew rescued one of the soldiers. He directed the helicopter to circle low to attract the attention of the injured and rally them.

Novosel continued to ferry back and forth while under fire between the wounded soldiers and the special forces camp, where they were dropped off.

Toward mission's end, Novosel spotted a wounded soldier near an enemy bunker. He hovered the helicopter backward, and as the soldier was pulled aboard, the enemy opened fire. A bullet hit Novosel in the leg and shrapnel bit into his hand. He briefly lost control of the helicopter but recovered and escaped, having saved 29 soldiers during 15 separate extractions.

Novosel, who now lives in Alabama, was shot down three times on his tour in Vietnam, during which he evacuated 7,700 Vietnamese civilians and wounded soldiers.


U.S. Army rifleman Pfc. William D. Port and his platoon were moving to cut off reported enemy movement in the Que Son Valley on Jan. 12, 1968 when they came under heavy fire.

As the platoon withdrew, Port, 26, of Petersburg, Mercer County, was wounded in the hand. He ignored his injury and enemy fire to help a hurt comrade back to the platoon's perimeter.

The assault continued. Port and three fellow soldiers were behind an embankment when a grenade landed among them. Port shouted a warning and dove toward the grenade, shielding his comrades from the explosion.


At 20, Lance Cpl. Billy Prom was leading a Marine Corps machine gun squad that came under fire while returning from a reconnaissance operation near An Hoa.

William R. Prom 

Prom, a Pittsburgh native, grabbed a machine gun and began firing, advancing so he could cover the soldiers tending to the wounded. Continuing to move forward, Prom routed the enemy and the men regrouped.

A short time later, Prom and his fellow soldiers again came under fire. Prom moved to protect an injured comrade.

By then, Prom was wounded himself, so badly he couldn't fire his weapon. Nevertheless, Prom moved to within a few yards of the North Vietnamese troops. There, he stood in full view of the enemy and directed the Marines' fire. Prom was killed, but his actions allowed U.S. troops to win the battle without losing any more men.


Even when he was injured, Army Pfc. David F. Winder, a senior medical aidman, didn't hesitate to help other wounded soldiers.

Winder, 23, of Edinboro, was in a sweep of a freshly cut rice paddy when his unit came under assault from an entrenched force.

Hearing cries from the wounded, the unarmed Winder started to crawl toward the nearest casualty across a long swath of bullet-swept terrain. On the way, Winder was wounded. But that didn't stop him from reaching the casualty and treating him.

Winder was wounded again as he tried to reach a second soldier. Winder attempted to move again. When he was within 30 feet of the injured soldier, Winder was killed. His unit, inspired by his courage, rallied to stage a successful counterattack.

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