By: Friedrich Seiltgen

Copyright © 2022

Airman First Class John Levitow was a USAF Loadmaster who received the Medal of Honor for acts of heroism during the Vietnam War. He became the first ever USAF enlisted man to receive the award.

Levitow was assigned to the 3rd Special Operations Squadron based at Tan Son Nhut air base. On the evening of February 24, 1969, he was needed to fill in as loadmaster on an AC-47 gunship, call sign Spooky 71. Levitow’s job was to assist with the deployment of MK 24 magnesium flares. The MK 24 was 3 feet long, weighed 27 pounds, burned at 4,000 degrees, and supplied 2 million candle power for about 3 minutes.

During the patrol, the aircraft pilot saw muzzle flashes from the area surrounding Long Binh Army Base. Spooky 71 headed that way to begin deploying flares. Levitow set the timers and handed flares to the gunner who waited for the pilot’s command to drop them. The gunner stood at the ready with a flare in hand and his finger through the pull ring on the safety pin.

As Spooky 71 orbited the area, an explosion rocked the gunship! The aircraft’s right wing took a hit from a North Vietnamese 82-millimeter mortar. The explosion sprayed shrapnel throughout the rear compartment of the gunship. The aircraft not coming apart and crashing was a testament to Dakota’s design and construction. All personnel in the back were injured from the shrapnel. Levitow felt like he was “hit by a 2×4,” had a concussion, suffered shrapnel wounds, and could not feel his legs. When the explosion rocked the ship, the flare was knocked from the gunner’s hands and the arming pin was pulled out as it dropped to the aircraft floor.

Levitow lay there bleeding and disoriented but saw the flare lying on the floor, ready to ignite. Levitow knew if the flare went off, the 16,000 rounds of ammunition in the gunship would ignite, and/or the flare would burn through the floor and take out the flight controls. Either option meant the gunship was done for and all would die! Levitow crawled over to the flare, laid on top of it, then made his way over to the open cargo door and pushed the flare out before it ignited, saving the aircraft and crew.

When Spooky 71 made it back to base, everyone was amazed the aircraft survived. It had m a two-foot hole in the wing and over 3,500 smaller holes in the wings and fuselage!

Levitow recovered from his injuries and on May 14, 1970; he received the Medal of Honor from President Richard M. Nixon. The citation read:

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 the 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 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.

In 1998, a C-17 Globemaster III transport was christened “The Spirit of John Levitow” in his honor.

Levitow passed away in 2000 from cancer. Although he rests in Arlington National Cemetery, his legacy lives on. The USAF created the John L. Levitow Award, which is the highest honor an enlisted serviceman can receive for Profession Military Education in the USAF. Recipients of the Levitow award have to score in the top 1% percent during training.

That’s all for now folks! Please keep sending in your questions, tips, and article Ideas. And as always – “Let’s Be Careful Out There.”

Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department. He conducts training in Lone Wolf Terrorism Counterstrategies, Firearms, and Active Shooter Response. His writing has appeared in RECOIL,, The Counter Terrorist Magazine, American Thinker, Homeland Security Today, and The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International. Contact him at [email protected].