Airman 1st Class John Lee Levitow was a loadmaster on an AC-47 — an aerial gunship and the predecessor to the AC-130 — that was pounding Viet Cong forces on the night of Feb. 24, 1969.
But then disaster struck.
The plane was dropping flares and firing in support of a U.S. base under attack, and one of the Viet Cong mortars firing on the base sent a round up that struck the AC-47 instead.
The mortar round detonated on impact, sending thousands of pieces of shrapnel through the plane and crew. Levitow was hit with 40 pieces of shrapnel, and the other six members of the crew didn’t fare much better.
But the worst piece of news was still coming. Levitow started to drag another injured crew member away from the door before he spotted an armed Mk-24 flare that was smoking and rolling around near stored ammo.
The flares operate on a timer set to anywhere between 5 and 30 seconds. Once armed, a crewmember would throw the flare out the door and it would parachute down. Magnesium in the flare would ignite a 4,000 degree Fahrenheit flame that illuminated the battlefield.
But with the flare counting down to an ignition inside the aircraft, it would instead set off nearby ammo, burn a hole through the floor, and cook everything in the cabin, including the seven crewmembers aboard.
Levitow, despite his serious wound from the shrapnel, crawled his way to the 27-pound flare and attempted to grab it three times, but it kept escaping his hands. So he threw himself on it, clutched it to his body, and dragged it towards the door.
“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,” said pilot Maj. Kenneth Carpenter.
Somehow, Levitow got the flare to the door and out of the plane just before it ignited, saving everyone aboard. The pilot was able to limp the plane back to an emergency landing.
For Levitow, that was his 181st mission. He recovered from his wounds and completed another 20 combat missions before heading home and receiving his discharge paperwork in August 1969.
Less than a year later, he reported to the White House to receive the Medal of Honor from President Richard M. Nixon. He is the lowest-ranking member of the Air Force to ever receive the award.
An Air Force C-17 was named for him in 1998, “The Spirit of John L. Levitow.” He passed away in 2000.