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Medal of Honor: Vietnam War

John Lee Levitow was born on Nov. 1, 1945, in Hartford, Conn. He originally planned on pursuing a career in the Navy, but changed his mind and joined the Air Force. Initially, he was trained in the civil engineer field, but he cross-trained to loadmaster, and was stationed at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J. Eventually he was deployed to Vietnam, where he served with the 3rd Special Operations Squadron. 

On Feb. 24, 1969, then-A1C Levitow replaced a fellow Airman for his 181st mission as the loadmaster on an AC-47 gunship, call-sign “Spooky 71”. The mission that night was to rain lead on a besieged position at Long Binh. Four hours into the flight, and having already destroyed two mortar positions, the pilot, Maj. Kenneth Carpenter, spotted a third mortar position. As he circled to get into position, A1C Levitow prepared a Mark 24 magnesium flare, which would light up the night with a 2 million candlepower intensity as it burned at 4,000 degrees and allow the grunts below daytime vision for 2-3 minutes as it descended. The magnesium was encased in 27-pound tubes, each nearly six inches in diameter and close to three feet in length. He passed the flare to gunner A1C Ellis Owen. As he did so, the plane suffered a direct hit from an 82 mm mortar round. Sgt. Levitow’s Medal of Honor citation tells the rest of the story: 

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sgt. Levitow (then A1C), USAF, 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.”

Sgt. Levitow received the Medal of Honor from President Richard M. Nixon on May 14, 1970. He is the first enlisted and lowest ranking Airman ever to receive the honor. Throughout his life, Levitow was an active member of Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. Post 45. After his Air Force service, Levitow spent 22 years devoted to veterans affairs, eventually becoming the assistant to the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs. He was inducted into the Airlift-Tanker Association’s Hall of Fame in 1998. 

Sgt. Levitow passed away at his home in Connecticut on November 8, 2000. He had no children, but left behind many legacies stemming from that fateful night. The Levitow Honor Graduate Award, presented to the top professional military education graduate from Air Force Airman Leadership Schools was named for him, as was the 737th Training Group Headquarters building at Lackland Air Force Base, the Sgt. John L. Levitow Healthcare Center in Connecticut, as well as a C-17 Globemaster III. That plane, called “The Spirit of Sgt. John L. Levitow,” was the first USAF aircraft to be named for an enlisted Airman. The USAF Enlisted Heritage Hall at Gunter Air Force Base has an AC-47 on static display on permanent exhibit, with a figure of A1C Levitow clutching a Mark 24 flare at its open doorway, representing the ultimate depiction of the Air Force core value of Service Before Self.

Originally published in the Purim 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.