On February 24, 1969, Airman First Class John L. Levitow flew a combat mission as a Loadmaster on patrol over South Vietnam on an AC-47 Dragon gunship. His aircraft was flying a night mission in the area of Tan Son Nhut AB when the Army base at Long Binh came under heavy mortar attack. The aircraft was diverted to aid in the defense of this besieged outpost.
When Spooky 71 was struck by mortar fire that fateful night, putting the aircraft in immenint danger, Airman Levitow, by his selfless and heroic actions, saved the aircraft and the entire crew from certain death and destruction. Airman Levitow’s gallantry and profound concern for his fellow man at risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Air Force and reflect immense credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States of America.
Airman Levitow was awarded the Medal of Honor for his selfless heroism that saved his fellow crewmembers and the gunship. The presentation was made by President Richard M. Nixon at the White House on May 14, 1970.
Airman Levitow was subsequently promoted to Sergeant and completed his enlistment with the United States Air Force. In recognition of his heroic action, the USAF Noncommissioned Officer Academies have named their most prestigious award for scholarship and leadership in his honor.
After his discharge, Sgt Levitow moved back to Connecticut in pursuit of his civilian career. However, he has never forgotten his fellow military comrades and continues his support through work with the Veterans Affairs department.
It is with great pride that Sgt Levitow is nominated to the Airlift/Tanker Hall of Fame to represent his peers, the enlisted force, and the Loadmasters of the United States Air Force.
Saving Spooky 71
On the evening of 24 February 1969, an AC-47 with the call sign “Spooky 71” lifted off the runway at Bien Hoa Air Base. As the Gooney Bird climbed into the clear night sky, her eight-man crew prepared for a long combat air patrol mission in the Saigon area. In the cargo compartment, the crew’s loadmaster, Airman First Class John L. Levitow, was airborne on his 180th combat mission.
One of John’s responsibilities on the gunship was handling the Mark 24 flares. He would set the ejection and ignition controls and pass the flare to the gunner, Airman Ellis C. Owen, who attached it to a lanyard. On the pilot’s command, Owen would simultaneously pull the safety pin and toss the flare through the open cargo door.
The Mark 24 looked innocent enough. It was a three-foot-long metal tube weighing 27 pounds. Ten seconds after release an explosive charge deployed a parachute. In another ten seconds the magnesium flare would ignite, quickly reaching a temperature of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit and illuminating the countryside with two million candle-power. Drifting slowly beneath its chute, each flare would burn for over a minute.
The Vietcong guerrillas, peasants by day and terrorists by night, were denied the protection of darkness when Spook was about.
Spooky 71 and her crew had been airborne for 4 1/2 hours when the pilot, Major Ken Carpenter, received word of enemy action around Bien Hoa. As Carpenter wheeled the Gooney Bird back toward its home field, he and his copilot saw muzzle flashes from the perimeter of the Long Binh Army Base below. The Vietcong were busy here, also.
The gunship circled in an orbit centered around the muzzle flashes. In two lightning-quick attacks with mini-guns chattering, she slammed 3,000 rounds of ammunition into the enemy positions. Spooky 71 received an urgent request to remain in the vicinity to provide illumination for friendly ground forces. Obviously, the area around Long Binh was the new hot spot.
Major Carpenter received a second call requesting illumination in an area two miles south of Long Binh. As the aircraft swung to the south, the pilots saw flashes from a heavy mortar barrage ahead. The crew in the cargo compartment followed the sounds of the action. Later, John Levitow recalled, “Every once in a while, you’d hear a muffled noise when a mortar hit. You could hear the engines on the aircraft, the noise of the guns firing and the pilot giving instructions.”
Suddenly, Spooky 71 was jarred by a tremendous explosion and bathed in a blinding flash of light. The crew would learn later that 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.
In the cockpit the pilots struggled to bring the lurching Gooney Bird under control. They had been momentarily blinded, and the navigator, Major William Platt recalls, “Even in the navigation compartment, the flash lit up the inside of the aircraft like daylight. The aircraft veered sharply to the right and down.” Though the situation was desperate in the cockpit, it was even worse in the cargo compartment.
Sergeant Edward Fuzie, who was wounded in the back and neck, remembers, “I saw Sergeant Baer, Airman Owen, and Airman Levitow go down right away. Baer was covered with blood.
John Levitow thought one of the mini-guns had exploded. In his words, “But when I was actually hit, the shrapnel felt like a two-by-four, or a large piece of wood which had been struck against my side. It stung me. I really didn’t know what it was.”
Airman Owen was the first to realize that the Spooky crew was still in mortal danger. “I had the lanyard on one flare hooked up, and my finger was through the safety pin ring. When we were hit, all three of us were thrown to the floor. The flare, my finger still through the safety pin ring, was knocked out of my hand. The safety pin was pulled and the flare rolled on the aircraft floor, fully armed!”
Major Carpenter learned via the intercom that everyone in the back was wounded and a live flare was loose in the plane, In the meantime, John Levitow came to the aid 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, John saw the flare.
The canister rolled crazily amidst the ammunition cans which contained over 19,000 rounds of live ammunition. In less than 20 seconds the AC-47 would become a flaming torch, plunging its crew to destruction in the night sky. John had no way of knowing how many seconds remained. The beating the flare had already taken could have damaged the timer, causing ignition before the 20 seconds had elapsed. He was weak from loss of blood and numb from the 40 wounds on his right side. But John knew he was the closest to the flare.
Time and again the smoking tube eluded his grasp as the aircraft pitched and rolled. In desperation, he threw himself on the flare and painfully dragged it toward the cargo door, leaving a trail of blood behind. The seconds ticked by. With a final superhuman effort John heaved the flare through the door. It barely cleared the aircraft before igniting in an incandescent blaze.
Major Carpenter recalls, “I had the aircraft in a 30-degree bank and how Levitow ever managed to get to the flare and throw it out, I’ll never know.” As he finally brought the ship back to straight and level flight, Major Carpenter headed toward Bien Hoa. He radioed for an ambulance and a medical evacuation helicopter to meet the gunship.
Major Carpenter spoke later about John Levitow and the Gooney Bird. “After the mission I was able to reconstruct what happened by the blood trail left by John. He collapsed after throwing the flare overboard and was evacuated to the base hospital immediately upon landing. In my experience, I have never seen such a courageous act performed under such adverse circumstances. The entire eight-man crew owes their lives to John, and his quick reactions surely saved the aircraft. It was not possible to bail out as we had two seriously injured men aboard, one of them John Levitow. How the plane ever flew back to the base, I’ll never know. How a plane with over 3,500 holes in the wings and fuselage stayed airborne defies description. One hole measured 3 feet, 1/4 inches.”
Return to duty
Levitow spent about two-and-a-half months in the hospital and was sent back to Vietnam for another tour of duty. He had flown a couple of missions when he received word th was being considered for the Medal of Honor and then got word he was being sent back to the United States.
In May of 1970, Sgt. John Levitow became the youngest and lowest ranking individual to ever receive the Medal of Honor when he was decorated for his actions by President Nixon. Sgt. Levitow left the Air Force shortly thereafter.
While visting Scott AFB, Illinois, in July of 1989, Levitow recalled, “It (being a Medal of Honor recipient) was a lot of responsibility and I was young. I would have made every promotion, gotten all the good assignemnts, gotten hand-picked jobs and (would have) been invited to all the important social events. My co-workers would’ve hated me.
“When I received my assignment to the 14th Military AIrlift Squadron, (Norton AFB, California), I heard some of the people in the squadron were afraid I was going to be an arrogant, spiled brat, ” he said.
“The Spirit of John Levitow”
On 23 January 1998, in Long Beach, California, Air Mobility Command and the Boeing Company struck a resounding chord for the Air Force enlisted force with the naming of a C-17 after the Air Force’s most well-known enlisted Medal of Honor recipient.
Gen. Walter Kross, AMC commander, and John L. Levitow pulled the masking away from aircraft P-37 to reveal its new name the Spirit of John Levitow to a crowd of more than 300 people. The C-17 is the first to be named for an enlisted person.
“I am a firm believer that I do represent the enlisted corps,” he said. “Sometimes they do go unrecognized and they do feel that way. I hope it’s a strong aircraft and lasts as long as that AC-47 gunship I was on February 24, 1969. That airplane was 22 years older than I was at the time of the incident.”
Kross noted Levitow’s heroism in and out of the Air Force. “We can easily call Sgt. John Levitow a hero, but he has continuously requested that he doesn’t want to be known as a hero, that his life amounts to much more than those 10 heroic minutes,” he said. Kross went on to mention Levitow’s service before the incident, spotlighting the unsung efforts of enlisted airmen everywhere, and Levitow’s work after he separated from the service. Levitow spent more than 22 years of his life devoted to veterans’ affairs and currently works for the state of Connecticut designing veterans programs.
“He has given so much to thousands of American men and women in the United States Air Force uniform, and even some who don’t wear the uniform. He has shaped their lives,” Kross said. “When we unveil the words on the side of this C-17, we’re talking about the spirit of heroism, the spirit of sacrifice and the spirit of very, very high standards and courage.”
The naming ceremony also gave AMC’s Year of the Enlisted Force program some time in the spotlight. With more than 25 initiatives on the board, the Spirit of John L. Levitow might be the most noticeable, but Kross said there is more to come.
“It’s the most visible item for all the passion and excellence our enlisted men and women bring to global air mobility and what they do every day for mankind,” Kross said. “Nothing and I repeat nothing happens in the Air Force (or) Air Mobility Command without the dedication, enthusiasm and sacrifice of our enlisted force. Not an aircraft launches. Not a pallet moves. Not a passenger is processed. No one’s family gets protected. Not a patient cared for without the world’s best enlisted force.
“We want to improve the careers and lives of all the enlisted members on our air mobility team,” he added.
Also during the ceremony, Dr. David Spong, vice president and general manager of the C-17 program for Boeing, spoke of the partnership between Boeing and the Air Force in creating the C-17 and the naming of the jet itself.
“Today’s events exemplify why we build the C-17,” Spong said. “The men and women of our armed forces and of our allies deserve the very best equipment possible when they go into harm’s way. We make quality ‘job one’ and men like John Levitow are the reason.
“The quality we build into each C-17 Globemaster III might mean someone’s life. There can’t be any better reason than that,” Spong said.
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 winners who were of higher rank than himself all of them since he was the lowest-ranking recipient.
Saying, “I’m plain folks and I feel funny when people try to put me up on a pedistal. I’m not a flashy guy,” Levitow recalled that after receiving the Medal of Honor his father told him to not get cocky because he was “yesterday’s news.”
John L. Levitow will never be yeaterday’s news to the men and women of the U. S. Air Force, to them he will live forever as true Air Force hero.