In the Air Force, few names ring as many bells as John L. Levitow. He’s had awards named after him, as well as dorm halls and roads. Levitow’s name is about as close to U.S. Air Force royalty as you’ll get.
Oddly, even though his name is emblazoned across every corner of every Air Force base in the world, many airmen have scant knowledge of Levitow’s actions. Many are more well informed of his mysterious separation than of his heroic actions. The legend of his separation is still shared by many higher-ups during various briefings as a cautionary tale, but I digress.
As the Air Force leads the way into the future, it’s important to remember who paved the way and how exactly they did it. This is how John L. Levitow became the lowest ranking Medal of Honor recipient in Air Force history.
Airman First Class Levitow cross-trained into the Loadmaster career field after a couple of years in the Air Force. This cross-train is what ultimately placed Levitow on board the Spooky 71, an AC-47 gunship, during that fateful night.
A legend born
On Feb. 24, 1969, Levitow was aboard the Spooky 71 AC-47 gunship flying missions in South Vietnam. During the flight, a mortar round struck the side of the aircraft, ripping holes all across the plane, including an approximately two-foot puncture in the wing.
After impact, Levitow, while suffering from over 40 fragment wounds, helped a fellow wounded airman away from the now-open cargo door. As he moved his comrade to relative safety, he spotted a Mark 24 flare that was seconds from igniting.
Mind you, the Mark 24 flare is a three-foot metal tube weighing roughly 27 pounds that, once ignited, generates the light of 2,000,000 candlepower and burns at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Levitow dragged himself towards the flare, which was rolling to and fro as the Spooky 71 pilots fought to regain control, hurled himself atop of it, pushed the flare towards the cargo door, and flung it out into the Vietnam sky just before ignition.
This really happened. It is not an exaggeration or poorly documented folk tale. Levitow literally placed his body atop a flare powerful enough to turn the Spooky 71 into a crisp with no real idea of how long he had until the flare ignited. This is one of the most selfless acts ever documented.
After the amazing feats he accomplished that night, he would return to Vietnam after recuperating to fly another 20 missions.
Awarded the Medal of Honor
Levitow was awarded the nation’s highest military honor on May 14, 1970 by President Richard Nixon. Levitow separated from the Air Force in 1970.
(White House photo)
Following his separation, Levitow worked diligently with the veteran community, showing up to events that honored or featured veterans. On Nov. 8, 2000, John Lee Levitow passed away after a year-and-a-half battle with an unspecified cancer. He was 55 years young.
(Photo by Airman 1st Class Stacy Hughes)