An Airman's act of courage to remember

  • Published
  • By Aaron Clark
  • 388th Fighter Wing historian
On Feb. 24, 1969, an eight man crew lifted off in AC-47 "Puff the Magic Dragon," call sign "Spooky 71," at Bien Hoa Air Base on a routine combat night patrol mission over the Saigon region. Little did this crew know that a lowly Airman loadmaster on board would save their lives and become a significant part of the enlisted and U.S. Air Force heritage forever. Airman 1st Class John L. Levitow was airborne on his 180th combat mission.

For Airman Levitow this was a routine combat sortie to aid besieged troops at Long Binh Army Base on the second day of the Tet counteroffensive. As a loadmaster, Levitow was responsible for setting the ignition controls on the Mark-24 magnesium flares which were routinely carried by gunships during Vietnam. After setting the controls, the loadmaster would pass the flare on to the gunner for release out the aircraft door. The three purposes of the Mark-24 were to provide illumination to troops on the ground, to signal fighter jets as to where munitions needed to be dropped, and lastly, to provide direction to the pilot as to where to aim his 7.62 mm Miniguns during an attack..

These flares were no small potatoes, nor to be taken lightly in any sense. At 27 pounds, the Mark-24 was a three foot long metal tube with two stages when set. Ten seconds after the flare was released, an explosive charge blew out a parachute. After another 10 seconds, the magnesium ignited and burned for one minute at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit providing two million candlepower illumination for the landscape below. If handled improperly, the Mark-24 could have been lethal to the crew members or destroyed the aircraft all together.

After 4 1/2 hours into the patrol, Maj.Ken Carpenter, Spooky 71 pilot, noticed mortar flashes below near Long Binh Army Base. Realizing the base's need for help, Carpenter and his crew provided two attacks, throwing 3,000 rounds of ammunition into the enemy's position. Carpenter then diverted to provide illumination in an area two miles south of the base where more mortar tube flashes could be seen. As he moved the gunship in the new direction, a tremendous explosion rocked Spooky 71. An 82 mm enemy mortar shell landed on the right wing and exploded in the wing's frame. The blast momentarily blinded the pilot and sent the aircraft into a steep right turn. The navigator, Maj. William Platt, recalled, "Even in the navigation compartment, the flash lit up the inside of the aircraft like daylight." This explosion made things even worse for the crew in the fuselage as it threw all five members to the floor, showering them with a hailstorm of shrapnel. Everybody in the back of the aircraft was in shock and some were severely injured, including Levitow, who now had 40 shrapnel wounds in his legs, side and back.

Confused on what had just occurred, Levitow thought one of the AC-47's guns had exploded. Referring to the blast and onslaught of shrapnel, Levitow stated, "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." As he quickly gained his composure after the blast, Levitow noticed that a fellow crewmember was lying near the edge of the open cargo door. Levitow quickly ran to his aid and while dragging him out of harm's way, noticed a loose flare smoking and rolling among thousands of rounds of ammunition in the fuselage. The explosion had knocked this flare out of the gunner's hands and into the fuselage while arming it at the same time. John knew if the flare were to remain in the aircraft it would quickly bring it down in a ball of flames.

Not knowing how long the Mark-24 had been activated, John worked his way towards the deadly flare through the smoky and chaotic fuselage in hopes of saving the aircraft and his crew. He had tried multiple times to grab the flare as it moved back and forth, but could not grasp it during the constant pitch and rolls. Finally, Levitow threw his body on top of the burning flare and dragged it to the rear of the aircraft, leaving a trail of blood along the way. As he threw the flare out the cargo door, it immediately separated and ignited into its full magnesium burn. Carpenter recalled, "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."

When the AC-47 returned back to base, it had more than 3,500 holes in the wings and fuselage. The members of Spooky 71 knew that if it were not for Levitow's heroic and selfless actions, they would all be dead. Carpenter later spoke about Levitow and the Spooky 71 stating, "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."

Levitow spent two and a half months recovering from his injuries and then was promptly sent back to fulfill another tour of duty in Vietnam. After two missions he was grounded by his squadron commander after receiving word that he was being considered for the Medal of Honor. On May 14, 1970, John L. Levitow became the youngest and lowest ranking individual to ever receive the Medal of Honor, awarded to him by President Richard Nixon for his actions on Feb. 24, 1969.

Levitow would go on to become a sergeant and eventually receive an honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force. After his military service, Levitow would spend 22 years devoting his time and energy working for veterans affairs. On Nov. 8, 2000, John Levitow died from the effects of cancer, but his actions have not been forgotten. The Air Force has kept the memory of this hero alive in many ways. In the Air Force Airman Leadership Schools, the Levitow Honor Graduate Award is given to the top military graduate. Also, a C-17 Globemaster III was named "The Spirit of Sgt. John L. Levitow" by Air Mobility Command in his honor. Lastly, Lackland Air Force Base's 737th Training Group Headquarters building was named after him.

When asked about being a Medal of Honor recipient in 1989, Levitow humorously stated, "It was a lot of responsibility, and I was young. I would have made every promotion, gotten all the good assignments, gotten hand-picked jobs and been invited to all the important social events. My co-workers would've hated me."