John Lee Levitow, an AC-47 gunship loadmaster, became the lowest ranking Airman ever to receive the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism during wartime.
Born in Hartford, Conn., Levitow attended Glastonbury High School, and originally intended to join the U.S. Navy. He changed his mind and joined the Air Force - never looking back. He was first trained in civil engineering, then he cross-trained into the loadmaster career field. After flying with C-130s out of McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., he was sent to Vietnam.
The day was Feb. 24, 1969 and Levitow was asked to fill in for the regular loadmaster on an AC-47. He was handling Mark 24 magnesium flares aboard "Spooky 71" when his pilot threw the AC-47 and its eight-man crew into a turn to engage Viet Cong whose muzzle flashes were visible outside Long Binh Army Base. The aircraft, an armed version of the C-47 Skytrain transport, had been flying a night mission in the Tan Son Nhut Air Base area when Long Binh came under attack. Levitow would set the ejection and ignition controls and pass a flare to the gunner, who attached it to a lanyard. On the pilot's command, the gunner would simultaneously pull the safety pin and toss the flare through the open cargo door. Ten seconds after the three-foot-long, 27 pound metal tube was released, an explosive charge deployed a parachute. In another 10 seconds, the magnesium flare would ignite, quickly reaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit and illuminating the countryside with two million candlepower intensity. Each flare would burn for more than a minute.
Suddenly, Spooky 71 was jarred by a tremendous explosion and bathed in a blinding flash of light. A North Vietnamese Army 82-millimeter mortar shell had landed on top of the right wing and exploded inside the wing frame. The blast raked the fuselage with flying shrapnel. Everyone in the back of Spooky 71 was wounded, including Levitow who was hit by shrapnel that "felt like a two-by-four."
Despite his wounds, he came to the rescue of a fellow crewmember who was perilously close to the open cargo door. As he dragged his buddy back toward the center of the cabin, Levitow saw something even worse: a loose, burning Mark 24 magnesium flare had been knocked free in the fuselage and was rolling amid ammunition cans that contained 19,000 rounds of live ammunition.
Through a haze of pain and shock, Levitow, with 40 shrapnel wounds in his legs, side and back, realized he was the closest crewmember to the flare. Fighting a 30-degree bank, Levitow crawled to the flare, but was unable to grasp it to pick it up. He threw himself bodily upon the burning flare. Hugging it to his body, he dragged himself back to the rear of the aircraft, leaving a trail of blood behind. Not knowing how long the flare had been burning, he hurled it through the open cargo door. At that instant, the flare separated and ignited in the air, but clear of the aircraft. When the aircraft finally returned to the base, the extent of the damage became apparent. The AC-47 had more than 3,500 holes in the wings and fuselage, one measuring more than 3 feet long.
The pilot later reconstructed what happened by the blood pattern Levitow had left on the floor of the aircraft.
Levitow spent about two-and-a-half months in a hospital and was sent back to Vietnam for another tour of duty, and flew 20 more missions. He was returned to the United States to receive the Medal of Honor from President Nixon in ceremonies at the White House on Armed Forces Day, May 14, 1970. After receiving the Medal of Honor, Levitow was told by a member of the Air Staff that the only people to whom he was required to render a salute were Medal of Honor recipients who were of higher rank than himself -- all of them since he was the lowest-ranking one.
His citation reads:..."For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sergeant Levitow (then A1c), U.S. Air Force, distinguished himself by exceptional heroism while assigned as a loadmaster aboard an AC-47 aircraft flying a night mission in support of Long Binh Army post. Sergeant Levitow's aircraft was struck by a hostile mortar round. The resulting explosion ripped a hole 2 feet in diameter through the wing and fragments made over 3,500 holes in the fuselage. All occupants of the cargo compartment were wounded and helplessly slammed against the floor and fuselage. The explosion tore an activated flare from the grasp of a crewmember who had been launching flares to provide illumination for Army ground troops engaged in combat. Sergeant Levitow, though stunned by the concussion of the blast and suffering from over 40 fragment wounds in the back and legs, staggered to his feet and turned to assist the man nearest to him who had been knocked down and was bleeding heavily. As he was moving his wounded comrade forward and away from the opened cargo compartment door, he saw the smoking flare ahead of him in the aisle. Realizing the danger involved and completely disregarding his own wounds, Sergeant. Levitow started toward the burning flare. The aircraft was partially out of control and the flare was rolling wildly from side to side. Sergeant. Levitow struggled forward despite the loss of blood from his many wounds and the partial loss of feeling in his right leg. Unable to grasp the rolling flare with his hands, he threw himself bodily upon the burning flare. Hugging the deadly device to his body, he dragged himself back to the rear of the aircraft and hurled the flare through the open cargo door. At that instant the flare separated and ignited in the air, but clear of the aircraft. Sergeant. Levitow, by his selfless and heroic actions, saved the aircraft and its entire crew from certain death and destruction. Sergeant Levitow's gallantry, his profound concern for his fellowmen, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country."
He was promoted to sergeant before his discharge from the Air Force fours years later, Levitow spent more than 22 years devoted to veterans' affairs. On Jan. 22, 1998, in Long Beach, Calif., Air Mobility Command and the Boeing Company struck a resounding chord for the Air Force enlisted rank with the naming of a C-17 Globemaster II as "The Spirit of John Levitow."
He worked for the state of Connecticut designing veterans program until his death on Nov. 8, 2000, after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was buried Nov. 17 at Arlington National Cemetery with military honors.
In his memory, the Levitow Honor Graduate Award is present to the top professional military education graduate from Air Force Airman Leadership Schools. The 737th Training Group headquarters building at Lackland AFB, Texas, has also been named in his honor. He was the
Airlift-tanker Association's "Hall of Fame" inductee for 1998 and a
C-17 Globemaster III was named for him on January 23, 1998, "The Spirit of
John L. Levitow".
1968 in Viet Nam
John L. Levitow was assigned to the 63rd Military Airlift Wing and the 14th Military Airlift Squadron at Norton AFB, California, in August 1969. He served as a C-141 Starlifter loadmaster at Norton AFB until he received an honorable discharge on April 3, 1970. Sgt Levitow was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon at the White House on May 14, 1970. John Levitow died on November 8, 2000, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.