John Lee Levitow was a Jewish American airman who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor during the Vietnam War.
Levitow was born on November 1, 1945, in Hartford, Connecticut, and joined the U.S. Air Force in June 1966.
Trained as a loadmaster, Levitow was asked to fill in for the regular loadmaster on an armed AC-47 called Spooky 71 with the responsibility to set the ejection and ignition timer controls on Mark 24 magnesium flares and pass them to the gunner for deployment.
On February 24, 1969, Spooky 71 was flying night missions near the Tan Son Nhut Air base area when Long Binh came under attack. Levitow's eight-man crew engaged the enemy and Levitow was passing flares, which burned at 4000 degrees, to the gunner when a mortar shell hit the plane's right wing and exploded inside the structure, raking the fuselage with flying shrapnel. Everyone was wounded, including Levitow, and the blast also jarred a flare loose, pulling the safety pin from the canister and arming the fuse.
Despite nearly forty wounds in his back and legs, Levitow saw the burning, loose flare rolling amid ammunition cans that contained 19,000 rounds of live ammunition. Through a haze of pain and shock, unable to stand up and fighting the aircraft's 30-degree bank angle, Levitow crawled to the flare and threw himself upon it. Hugging it to his body, he dragged himself back to the rear of the cabin and pushed it through the open cargo door an instant before it ignited, saving the aircraft and its crew. When the aircraft finally returned to the base, the extent of the damage became apparent - the AC-47 had more than 3,500 holes in the wings and fuselage, one measuring more than three feet long.
On May 14, 1970, President Richard Nixon presented Levitow the Medal of Honor for his galantry in combat.
Levitow died of cancer on November 8, 2000, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The John Levitow Award is the highest honor presented to a graduate of Air Force Enlisted Professional Military Education (PME).
His medal citation reads:
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 Long Binh Army Post. Sgt. Levitow’s aircraft was struck by a hostile mortar round. The resulting explosion ripped a hole two 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 fellow men, 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.
Sources: Jewish Recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor;
Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.
Photo: Public domain.