Courage and heroism: John L. Levitow story

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Reggie Manning
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Editor's Note: This is part three of an eight-part series that highlights some of the men and women who have been influential in the early history of the United States Air Force. Part four will feature Maynard Smith.

Not only was he the only Air Force member to receive the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War, Airman 1st Class John L. Levitow is the lowest ranking recipient of the award to date. As an AC-47 loadmaster, Levitow was honored for his display of courage and exceptional heroism during wartime.

Born on Nov. 1, 1945, in Hartford, Conn., Levitow originally planned on pursuing a career in the Navy. He changed his mind and was initially trained in the civil engineer field, but later cross-trained to loadmaster as a career. Stationed at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., he answered the call of duty and was sent to serve his country in the Vietnam War.

On Feb. 24, 1969, Levitow stepped in for a fellow Airman as the loadmaster on an AC-47 gunship during a night mission over the besieged Army Base of Long Binh. While handling Mark 24 magnesium flares, his aircraft was severely damaged by a mortar round, injuring everyone in the cargo bay.

The aircraft, nicknamed 'Spooky 71,' was struck by a North Vietnamese Army 82-millimeter mortar shell in its right wing, causing an explosion that wounded Levitow with more than 40 shrapnel wounds.

With life-threatening inflictions, Levitow displayed courage when he spotted his crewmember down near the cargo door while trying to toss out a Mark 24 Flare. In the midst of dragging his wingman back towards the cabin, Levitow noticed the smoking flare rolling towards the fuselage within dangerous proximity of 19,000 rounds of live ammunition.

In the low end of a 30 degree bank, Levitow selflessly crawled towards the flare, hurled his body upon it, and made his way towards the cargo door.

With a Mark 24 Flare, there are two stages: Stage one, the ejection sequence, when the flare canister is preparing to expel out the 4,000 degree Fahrenheit flare. Stage two, the ignition sequence, happens about 20 seconds after the ejection and the flare ignites.

Despite his previous injuries and a sweltering flare cradled in his arms, Levitow heaved it out of the cargo door moments before it fully ignited.

Spooky 71 made it back to base safely, thanks to the courageous efforts of Levitow, with more than 3,500 holes in its structure. The pilot reconstructed Levitow's battle within the bay by the visible patterns of blood trails.

After two and a half months of recuperation, Levitow once again returned to the battle zone of Vietnam and completed more than 20 missions. He was returned to the United States to receive the Medal of Honor from President Nixon on Armed Forces Day, May 14, 1970. As an airman first class at the time of the events, Levitow is the lowest ranking member to ever receive the award.

"What I did was a conditioned response," Levitow said in 1998. "I just did it. The next thing I remembered was seeing the landing strip."

At the rank of sergeant, Levitow ended his active-duty career four years later, but still continued to serve. He devoted more than 22 years to Veterans Affairs, and later returned home to Connecticut to further develop and design veteran programs.

Long after receiving the nation's highest award for valor, Levitow's endeavors were honored again. In January 1998, in a ceremony at Long Beach, Calif., the Air Force named a C-17 Globemaster for him. The legend on the fuselage read: "The Spirit of Sgt. John L. Levitow."

Levitow died on Nov. 8, 2000, after a lengthy battle with cancer at the age of 55.

In his memory, the John L. Levitow Graduate Award is presented to the top performer during Airman Leadership Schools Air Force wide.

"This is the highest award achievable at all levels of EPME," said Tech Sgt. Jessie Cook, 341st Force Support Squadron ALS instructor. "It's named in honor of a man who received the Medal of Honor because of his selfless actions that truly epitomize our Air Force Core Values. We celebrate accomplishments such as his in remembrance of our rich heritage and in respect to those that have given so much for our country. Those that earn the Levitow Award have separated themselves from their peers through the examples they have set in class."

Levitow's legacy displays extreme valor and altruistic acts towards his fellow wingmen and the missions given to him. His courageous actions exemplify the true essence of the Air Force core values and Levitow will forever be known for the sacrifices he made for his beloved country.

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