This Day in History: John Levitow & his Medal of Honor

On this day in 1969, Airman First Class John Levitow becomes the lowest ranking Air Force member ever to earn a Medal of Honor.

He was promptly promoted to Sergeant.

Levitow was then serving aboard a Douglas AC-47, Spooky 71, as that aircraft patrolled the skies near Saigon. He was loadmaster, which meant that one of his jobs was to help handle Mark 24 flares. Those magnesium flares could be dropped from the plane, parachuting to Earth as they illuminated the ground below for our troops.

The flares were serious business. They could reach temperatures up to 4,000 degrees—and they could burn through metal.

Spooky 71 was more than four hours into its night mission when it was hit by mortar fire. The blast rocked the whole plane, injuring every crew member in the cargo compartment. Shrapnel flew everywhere. “[It] felt like a two-by-four,” Levitow later said, “or a large piece of wood which had been struck against my side. It stung me. I really didn’t know what it was.”

The mortar fire couldn’t have hit at a worse time. Levitow had just finished preparing a flare and passing it to Airman Ellis Owen. The blast rocked Owen so hard that he accidentally pulled the safety ring, arming the flare. That flare was now rolling loose on the floor of the plane.

But Levitow didn’t see it at first. Instead, his attention was drawn to a crew member who was lying wounded near an open cargo door. He inched toward the door, dragging that man to safety before turning to see the armed flare.

How much time remained before the flare exploded? There was no way to know. But that flare simply couldn’t be allowed to explode aboard the plane.

Levitow kept trying to grab it, but the plane was pitching back and forth. The flare kept rolling away. Finally, Levitow threw himself on top of the flare, physically holding it under his body as he dragged it to the open cargo door. He threw it out, with no time to spare. The flare exploded just as it cleared the plane.

Afterwards, Levitow wouldn’t remember most of what he’d done. “After the mission,” pilot Ken Carpenter later said, “I was able to reconstruct what happened by the blood trail left by John. He collapsed after throwing the flare overboard . . . . I have never seen such a courageous act performed under such adverse circumstances.”

Levitow saved that plane from the flare, but Carpenter got the plane home. It was later determined that Spooky 71 had more than 3,500 holes in the wings and fuselage. “How the plane ever flew back to the base, I’ll never know,” Carpenter said.

Naturally, Levitow was humble about what he’d done. “What I did was a conditioned response,” he later said. “I just did it.”

His fellow airmen disagreed. “Sergeant Levitow served during a war in which heroic acts were commonplace, but by any standard, his courage that night was extraordinary,” Secretary of the Air Force Whit Peters would later say. “His selfless actions saved not only his own life but the lives of seven others. . . . [H]e has been an inspiration to all of our airmen.”

Peters made his comments in 2000, shortly after Levitow lost a long battle with cancer. Rest in peace, sir.