Friday, February 24, 2012

TFH 2/24: Sergeant John L. Levitow, USAF

John Lee Levitow was born on November 1, 1945 in Hartford, CT. He joined the United States Air Force in 1966 and trained first in civil engineering then took to the skies, becoming a loadmaster on cargo aircraft.

February 24, 1969 saw then Airman First Class Levitow filling in for a different crew on an AC-47 Spooky aerial gunship, callsign "Spooky 71". Spooky 71's aircraft commander, Kenneth Carpenter observed muzzle flashes on the ground during the night mission. He turned the aircraft to bring the three 7.62mm miniguns to bear on the enemy.

While he was turning, the aircrew in the rear was preparing to eject an illumination flare to make aiming the guns easier. Spooky 71 was struck in the starboard wing by an 82mm mortar shell. The blast from the shell peppered the fuselage of the plane with shrapnel. Many of the crew - Levitow included - were wounded. While the shell blast was highly damaging, it was not catastrophic but catastrophe for Spooky 71's crew was imminent. In the blast's aftermath, the safety pin on the illumination flare was pulled and the flare started to burn. There were just seconds before the flare would detonate, cooking off the thousands of rounds of ammunition for the guns and destroying the aircraft and dooming the crew.

Ignoring his pain and daze from the shell blast, John Levitow saved his plane and her crew. His act of supreme courage at unbelievable personal risk resulted in his decoration with our Nation's highest honor.

From Medal of Honor Citaions for the Vietnam War (A-L):


Rank and organization: Sergeant, U.S. Air Force, 3d Special Operations Squadron. place and date: Long Binh Army post, Republic of Vietnam, 24 February 1969. Entered service at: New Haven, Conn. Born: 1 November 1945, Hartford, Conn. Citation: 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 loadmaster 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 crewmember 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 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. 

Spooky 71 and her crew were saved. Air Force Magazine published a much more detailed account of the mission and Levitow's courage, published in April of 2005. I encourage all my readers to go there and read the entire story, as I don't have time to give it full justice now.

John Levitow survived the Vietnam War and left the Air Force in 1970. Sadly, he succumbed to cancer at age 55 on November 8, 2000. He rests with countless other heroes in Arlington National Cemetery.

His Vietnam unit, the 3rd Special Operations Squadron, today carries out worldwide missions with MQ-1B Predator drones from Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.

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