John Levitow, 55, Airman Honored for Bravery, Dies

By Richard Goldstein,, November 24, 2000

John L. Levitow, the only Air Force enlisted man to be awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War, died Nov. 8 at his home in Rocky Hill, Conn. He was 55.

The cause was cancer, his family said.

On the night of Feb. 24, 1969, Airman First Class Levitow was serving as loadmaster of an AC-47 gunship circling over the besieged United States Army base at Long Binh. The plane was firing thousands of rounds of ammunition at enemy forces and dropping magnesium flares to illuminate their positions for the American ground troops.

Airman Levitow, on his 181st combat sortie, was responsible for removing the flares from a rack, setting their controls and passing them to a gunner who would pull the safety pins, then throw the flares out a cargo door. The flares, attached to parachutes, ignited in midair 20 seconds later.

In the fifth hour of the mission, a Vietcong mortar hit the plane's right wing and exploded, opening a hole two feet in diameter and sending shrapnel through the aircraft's skin.

Airman Levitow was hit by 40 pieces of shrapnel in his back and legs and was stunned from the blast's concussion. "It felt like a large piece of wood struck my side," he would recall.

The other four crewmen in the cargo compartment were also wounded as the pilot struggled to keep the plane under control.

The gunner, Airman Ellis Owen, was about to toss a flare out the cargo door when he was wounded. The flare, fully armed and capable of burning through the plane's metal skin if it ignited, fell from his grasp.

As Airman Levitow was moving another wounded crewman away from the open cargo door, he saw the smoking flare rolling wildly from side to side among thousands of rounds of ammunition. An explosion seemed imminent.

Airman Levitow reached three times for three-foot-long, 27-pound metal tube holding the flare, but it slipped from his grasp each time. Finally, he threw himself on it, hugged it to his body and dragged it to the open door, trailing blood from his wounds and having lost partial feeling in his right leg.

He heaved the flare outside the door. A second or so later it ignited, but it was clear of the aircraft.

The pilot, Maj. Kenneth Carpenter, made a safe landing at the Bien Hoa air base with more than 3,500 shrapnel holes in the fuselage.

"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," Major Carpenter said.

After being treated for his injuries, Airman Levitow flew an additional 20 combat missions. He was discharged from the Air Force in August 1969 as a sergeant and received the Medal of Honor from President Richard M. Nixon at the White House on May 14, 1970. The citation stated that he "saved the aircraft and its entire crew from certain death and destruction."

John Lee Levitow, a native of Hartford, worked for federal and state veterans' agencies for more than two decades after leaving the Air Force. He was the legislative liaison and director of planning for the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs at the time of his death.

He is survived by a son, John Jr., of Charlotte, N.C.; a daughter, Corrie Wilson, of Cromwell, Conn.; his mother, Marion Levitow, of South Windsor, Conn.; a sister, Mary-Lee Constatino, of East Hartford, Conn., and a grandson.

Long after receiving the nation's highest award for valor, Mr. Levitow was honored again.

In January 1998, in a ceremony at Long Beach, Calif., the Air Force named a C-17 Globemaster plane for him. The legend on the fuselage read: "The Spirit of Sgt. John L. Levitow."

John Levitow, Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient, died on 8 November 2000

8 November 2000 - WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- Air Force Sergeant John L. Levitow, one of only 16 airmen awarded the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism during wartime died Nov. 8 at his home in Connecticut after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 55.

Levitow, the lowest ranking airman to earn the medal, received the honor as a result of an incident on Feb. 24, 1969. At that time, the airman first class served as loadmaster aboard a severely damaged AC-47 gunship flying a mission over Long Bihn, South Vietnam.

Suffering from more than 40 shrapnel wounds in his back and legs caused by a mortar blast, he saw a smoking magnesium flare amid a jumble of spilled ammunition canisters. Despite loss of blood and partial loss of feeling in his right leg, the 23-year-old threw himself on the flare, hugged it close, dragged himself toward an open cargo door and hurled the flare out. Almost simultaneously, the flare ignited harmlessly outside the door and away from the munitions.

President Richard M. Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to Levitow on Armed Forces Day, May 14, 1970, at the White House.

After Levitow left the Air Force, he worked in the field of veteran's affairs for more than 22 years. His most recent work was for Connecticut developing and designing veteran programs.

Further details and funeral arrangements for a military burial at Arlington National Cemetery are pending.


Medal of Honor





Rank and organization: Sergeant, U.S. Air Force, 3rd Special Operations Squadron


Place and date: Long Binh Army Post, Republic of Vietnam, 24 February 1969


Entered service at: New Haven, Connecticut


Born: 1 November 1945, Hartford, Connecticut




For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sgt. Levitow (then A1c.), U.S. Air Force, distinguished himself by exceptional heroism while assigned as a load master aboard an AC-47 aircraft flying a night mission in support of Long Binh Army Post. Sgt. 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 crew member who had been launching flares to provide illumination for Army ground troops engaged in combat. Sgt. 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, Sgt. Levitow started toward the burning flare. The aircraft was partially out of control and the flare was rolling wildly from side to side. Sgt. 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. Sgt. Levitow, by his selfless and heroic actions, saved the aircraft and its entire crew from certain death and destruction. Sgt. Levitow's gallantry, his profound concern for his fellow men, 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.

 The following message was received from Paul Helweg on 12 April 2000:


Dear Neil,

I am a retired LTC (USA) and have been communicating with John Levitow since last September because he was so kind to accept our (Narragansett Council - Boy Scouts of America; Providence, RI) invitation to honor all "SCOUTS WHO SERVED......." in our armed forces during a 15 July 2000 Saturday memorial dedication program in Rockville, Rhode Island.

In any event when I called to check in with John this past Monday (4/10) he was having trouble telling me something. When I came right out and asked him: "John, what's wrong?" He finally opened up.

It seems John had been diagnosed with some form of cancer last year - he never told me then but I had suspected something when Harvey Barnham (MOH recipient and former President of the Medal of Honor Society) told me on the phone last year that John's health was not good.

John then told me he had completed a series of Chemotherapy and had had a kidney removed during the past several months. The "hard" part for him to tell me was that he had to soon report to a Boston area hospital for a ten week series of readiation therapy. He was in poor spirits, for obviouls reasons, and he also was not thrilled that he might NOT be able to fulfill his committment to participate in our dedication event. Can you believe that ? - such a great guy to even be thinking of "us" and our memorial dedication event on 15 July 2000 when he's faced with a life and death struggle? I guess heros such as John Levitow always think of his fellow man before himself!

I wanted to share this with you in the event there may be a way to get the word out on John's situation? Others should know of this heroes battle for life!

I intend to stay as "close" to John as I can via mail while he's in the hospital - will even try to visit with him if he will let me. I'll also try to work through the Medal of Honor Society to identify another MOH recipient to pinch hit for John on 15 July.

Pray for John Levitow!

Best regards,

Paul F. Helweg Jr. LTC (Ret.) USA


January 26, 1998

By Staff Sgt. Jason Tudor

Air Force News Service



Medal of Honor Recipient Has More than 10 Minutes of Fame

John Levitow, an ordinary man who performed an extraordinary act and received the Medal of Honor, stood in front of the C-17 that bore his name, and welled up with pride. "It's kinda creepy looking up and seeing your name," he told the crowd of more than 300 people gathered at the Boeing facility here Jan. 23. His C-17, formerly known as P-37, was the first aircraft named for an enlisted person.

The naming came during a 45-minute tribute to a man whom most Air Force people know from only a mere 10 minutes of his life. That 10 minutes, however, made Levitow something of a rock star in most of the enlisted force's eyes. His story has been told and retold thousands of times since Feb. 24, 1969.

Onboard a crippled aircraft, using instinct and training, the young loadmaster threw himself onto a magnesium flare, hauled his torso over to the aircraft's cargo door and threw the flare out. The device ignited split seconds after it left the doorway. He did this wounded, losing blood and having a partial loss of feeling in his right leg. He is the lowest ranking airman to ever receive the Medal of Honor.

When Levitow spoke to the crowd of enlisted people, most from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., and Boeing employees on that perfect Southern California day, he talked about how most airmen know him, from that one moment he used to save the lives of those aboard that airplane.

That's OK, Levitow said, but he wants people to know there's more to his life than just those 10 minutes. Gen. Walter Kross, the commander of Air Mobility Command, wanted the people gathered in Long Beach to know it, too. "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. His life amounts to much more than those 10 heroic minutes.

So, I'll honor his request and tell you some of the other reasons why his name ought to be on this aircraft," Kross said, surprising Levitow. Kross told the crowd of how Levitow endured many of the same challenges today's enlisted force faces. "He was a young airman simply doing his duty, flying a mission in the middle of the night in some far off land," Kross said. "Each night, he didn't get to sleep in his own bed back home or have a hot meal with his family. Every day, he spent working hard, getting dirty and getting tired in the service of his country." Kross also recounted how every day during Levitow's tour, he risked his life for "the soldiers on the ground in countless other missions -- people he never met."


John L. Levitow and Gen. Walt Kross, commander of Air Mobility Command, remove the masking from the Spirit of John L. Levitow artwork on the side of the C-17 named in the Medal of Honor recipient's name. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Tudor)


Then, after he left the Air Force, he picked up his service to his country working in the field of veteran's affairs for more than 22 years. He currently works for Connecticut developing and designing veteran programs. "His life has been one of tireless volunteerism -- a role model, a mentor -- with other enlisted professional education at the center of everything he did," Kross said.

"I'm a firm believer that what I do represent the enlisted corps," said Levitow, choked up after the general's remarks. "I'm just lucky. Luck is all it is. It's very easy to do something and not be recognized. I'm sure there are many people who have served, have done things that have been simply amazing and never been recognized. Lucky was that I had somebody that recognized it and put me in for it." And what does it mean to Levitow to be the most recognized figure in Air Force enlisted culture? A rock star? "They've taken 10 minutes of my life, put it in a short paragraph in the PME, and they built me into the history of the Air Force.

There's a lot more to it," he said. "I caught General (Ronald) Fogleman (former Air Force chief of staff) at a ceremony last year and I asked him, 'General, when can I retire? I've been out of the service since 1970.' General Kross told me that I can never retire. And he's right. I can't."

With "retirement" not an option for Levitow, he continues to learn everyday how to adapt with the fame his action in the Air Force gave him. "The Air Force has been very generous," he said. "They have accepted me for the way I am. I try to pace myself, but they also understand that I'm a civilian." After the ceremony, Levitow sat down in the C-17 loadmaster seat, a comfortable red chair just below the aircrew cabin. It was a return to a position he'd served in almost 30 years ago. Some had wondered if he felt anything special about returning to the loadmaster position. "The loadmaster never had a seat. You never really had a place. This," he said, looking at the chair, "gives them an identity. What happens down here could mean the safety of what happens to the whole airplane."



No rock star would be complete without fans and Levitow attracted his share of those at the ceremony. One of the fans was Airman 1st Class Shannon Saal. The Peking, Ill., native with 15 months total service, met Levitow while touring the C-17. "It's a great honor to meet him," she said. "He's very warm and intelligent." The same rank and nearly the same age as Levitow at the time of the incident, Saal wondered if she would make the same decision he did in the skies over South Vietnam. "Yes," she said instantly. "I know I could do it."

Chief Master Sgt. Mark Smith, who's spent more than 12 years working on the C-17 with Boeing and the systems program office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and is a loadmaster himself, felt privileged to give Levitow a tour of the aircraft before the ceremony. "I've been a loadmaster for more than 21 years and I finally get to meet a guy I respect so much," he said. "It's a cross between a thrill and an honor."

Levitow, the ordinary man who's brought an extraordinary amount of attention to the enlisted force through his deeds and his words, summed up the day by saying he'd like to ride in the C-17 someday -- but not in the loadmaster's seat. "If it's in the loadmaster's seat, I'm going to have to work and I don't want to work, so I think I'll ride up there and enjoy the view."




John L. Levitow examines the cockpit of the C-17 named for him, the Spirit of John L. Levitow, January 23, 1998 in Long Beach, California

Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Tudor

October, 1984


The Saving of Spooky 71


By John L. Frisbee, Contributing Editor


A1C John Levitow had only seconds to save the lives of eight crewmen aboard the battle-damaged gunship.

Heroism knows neither age nor rank. During World War II and Vietnam, five airmen earned the Medal of Honor. Junior among them was 23-year-old Airman First Class John L. Levitow, loadmaster on an AC-47 gunship, Spooky 71, that on the night of Feb. 24, 1969, went to the aid of besieged troops at Long Binh Army Base a few miles northeast of Saigon. It was John Levitow's 181st combat sortie.

On operational missions, Loadmaster Levitow was responsible, among other duties, for setting the ejection and ignition controls of the Mark-24 magnesium flares carried by USAF gunships in Southeast Asia. The flares provided illumination for troops on the ground, for the gunship's pilot to aim his three side-firing 7.62-mm Miniguns, and for fighters that might be called in to help suppress enemy fire.

Once the controls were set, the Mark-24, packed in a three-foot long metal tube weighing about 27 pounds, was passed to a gunner who triggered the arming mechanism and who tossed the tube out the plane's cargo door. Ten seconds after release, an explosive charge opened the flare's parachute, and in another 10 seconds the magnesium ignited, generating a light of 2,000,000 candlepower. At 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the flare could burn through metal. The Mark-24 was not to be treated casually. Improperly handled, it could be painfully lethal.

On that February night, Spooky 71 had been in the air for four and a half hours when Maj. Kenneth Carpenter, the aircraft commander, was directed to an area south of the Army base where enemy mortars were laying down a heavy barrage. As the plane arrived at its target area, Levitow handed a flare to Amn. Ellis Owen, whose finger was through the safety pin ring preparatory to tossing the flare through the door at Carpenter's command.

Suddenly Spooky 71 was rocked by a tremendous blast. An 82-mm mortar shell had exploded inside the gunship's right wing, showering the cargo compartment with shrapnel. All five crew members in the rear of the plane were hurled to the floor, bleeding from shrapnel wounds. Spooky 71 fell into a steep, descending turn to the right, momentarily out of control. The flare, torn from Owen's hands by the blast, rolled around the aircraft floor fully armed amidst several thousand rounds of live ammunition for the Miniguns.

Through a haze of pain and shock, Levitow, with 40 shrapnel wounds in his legs, side, and back, saw one of the crew lying perilously close to the open cargo door. As he dragged the wounded man to safety, Levitow spied the armed, smoking flare rolling erratically around the cargo compartment. How long had it been since the safety pin was pulled inadvertently--five seconds? Fifteen seconds?

Levitow had no way of knowing. He did know that the timing mechanism could have been damaged, which might result in premature ignition. In a matter of seconds the flare would ignite, its intense heat turning the stricken gunship into an inferno.

Weakened from loss of blood and partially paralyzed by his wounds, Levitow tried vainly to pick up the flare as it skidded around the floor. The plane was still in a 30-degree bank. Seconds ticked by. Finally, in desperation, he threw himself on the flare, dragged it to the open door, a trail of blood marking his path, and pushed it out just as it ignited in a white-hot blaze. Levitow then lapsed into unconsciousness.

Carpenter managed to regain control of the gunship, its wings and fuselage riddled by 3,500 shrapnel holes, one of them three feet in diameter. Ambulances and a medical evacuation helicopter were waiting on the flight line at Bien Hoa, Spooky 71's home base, when the battered plane landed with its five injured crewmen--two of them, including John Levitow, seriously wounded. Levitow was flown to a hospital in Japan. After he recovered, he flew 20 more combat missions before returning to the States to complete his enlistment as a C-141 loadmaster at Norton AFB, Calif.

On Armed Forces Day, May 14, 1970, President Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to Levitow in a ceremony at the White House. The young airman's heroism in the night sky over Vietnam had added another chapter to the saga of valor that is a vital element of the Air Force heritage.



Douglas AC-47 "Spooky" Gunships


From 1964 to 1969, the AC-47's defended 3,926 hamlets, outposts or forts. They fired over 97 million rounds and killed over 5,300 enemy soldiers. No outpost or village under gunship protection was ever lost to the enemy. Typical was the defense of the embattled Duc Lap compound in Quang Duc Province. Major Daniel Rehn, pilot of Spooky 41, observed:

"When we arrived, the buildings in the compound were all afire and the men were grounded in a blockhouse below the burning operations center. I set up a quick orbit of the area and began firing on targets about 200 to 300 meters from the camp. Almost immediately we began receiving intense AA fire from four points. I began by firing a long burst at a target from my mini-guns but when the tracers started to fly close to us, I moved to another altitude to peck with short bursts at the enemy locations."

For several days, the gunships shot 761,044 rounds and dropped 1,162 flares. Up to four AC-47s worked the area simultaneously. The AC-47s not only devastated the attacking enemy troops but stiffened the confidence of defenders, particularly at night. As the men at Duc Lap put it, Spooky truly became their "Guardian Angel."

During a night defense of a hamlet in the Mekong River Delta, a reporter from the Stars and Stripes watched an AC-47 attack from inside the fortitfications.

Upon witnessing the wrath that the AC-47 brought down on the VC attackers that night, he reported that the visual effect of the tracers, 1 in every 5 rounds or 20 per second, gave the appearance of dragon's breath. Upon reading the account in the Stars and Stripes, the CO of the 1st Commando Squadron exclaimed "Well, I'll be damned! Puff, the Magic Dragon.", from a song popular at that time in the U.S. by the trio Peter, Paul and Mary.

The AC-47 carried 21,000 rounds of ammo and three 7.62mm mini-guns with a fast (6,000 rounds per minute) or slow (3,000 rounds per minute) rate of fire. It had 7 crewmembers: 2 pilots, 1 navigator, 2 gunners, 1 load master and 1 flight engineer. The AC-47 operated typically at 3,000 ft., at an airspeed of 130 knots, without armor or escorts and carried 24 to 56 flares, manually thrown out the door.

Later gunships included the Spectre (AC-130), Shadow (AC-119G) and Stinger (AC-119K) with increases in airspeed, armor, altitudes, and computer aided guns.


The AC-47, Spooky 71, that John L. Levitow saved from disaster








The following message and photograph were received on 23 April 2001

I was looking in the Medal of Honor recipients the other night for the first time and saw this article on John Levitow and his death on 8 November 2000.  It mentioned the honor he received was a results of an incident on Feb. 24, 1969 over Long Bihn, South Vietnam.  I was their that night at the barracks of Headquarter Company, USARV.  I took a ten second exposure picture of a AC-47 gunship circling over the area.  I firmly believe this was the plane John Levitow was serving as loadmaster before the incident.  I would like to share this picture and information with you and John Levitow kin if I could get addresses or e-mail addresses to find out if wanted.  Thanks for you article.

Larry Hinson  



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