On February 24, 1969, Airman 1st Class John L. Levitow was asked to fill in for the regular loadmaster on an armed AC-47 call sign "Spooky 71" at the 3rd Special Operations Squadron (SOS), 14th Special Operations Wing at Bin Thuy, in South Vietnam.
It was Airman Levitow's job to set the ejection and ignition controls on the Mark 24 magnesium flares and then pass them to the gunner. These 27-pound flares were three-foot-long, metal tubes that burn at 4,000 degrees and illuminate the jungle below with intensity of two million candlepower.
The 3rd SOS flew four fire support mission each night. Spooky 71 and Spooky 73 were the call signs for the missions started in the early evening and completed around midnight. Spooky 72 and Spooky 74 missions flew after midnight.
That night, Spooky 71’s pilot saw muzzle flashes around Long Binh, near the Tan Son Nhut Air Base area. He banked the AC-47, and its eight-man crew into a turn to engage the Viet Cong.
On the pilot's command, the gunner pulled the safety pin and tossed the flare through the open cargo door. Suddenly, a tremendous explosion jarred Spooky 71. A Viet Cong 82-millimeter Mortar shell hit the right wing and exploded. The resulting explosion ripped a hole two feet in diameter through the wing and shrapnel carved over 3,500 holes in the fuselage. All crew in the cargo compartment were wounded.
The explosion tore an activated flare from the grasp of a crewmember who had been launching flares to provide illumination for Army ground troops below, engaged in combat.
Levitow sustained more than 40 shrapnel wounds in his back and legs. Levitow saw a smoking magnesium flare amid a jumble of spilled ammunition in the cargo bay. Despite loss of blood, and partial loss of feeling in his right leg, Levitow threw himself on the flare and dragged it to the open door. As he hurled the flare through the door, it ignited, harmlessly outside the aircraft.
In recounting the event, Levitow had said he remembered the pilot yelling back to the crew, but did not remember anything after that.
"What I did was a conditioned response," Levitow said in 1998. "I just did it. The next thing I remembered was seeing the landing strip."
President Richard M. Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to Levitow on Armed Forces Day, May 14, 1970, for gallantry in combat 15 months earlier. Levitow was the lowest ranking airman in history to earn the Medal of Honor.
On Nov. 8, 2000, John L. Levitow died at age 55, at his home in Connecticut after a long battle with cancer. He is buried at ArlingtonNationalCemetery in Virginia. His grave can be found in section 66, site 7107, and map grid DD/17.
To honor Levitow, the American Flight Museum (AFM), in Topeka, KS., purchased a C-47 airframe, former USAAF S/N 43-16369, registered N2805J. and converted it to a replica of Levitow’s AC-47. One of the museum’s members enabled the purchase of the aircraft from Dodson International with a generous donation.
Its history is a bit sketchy. USAAF 43-16369, c/n 20835, C-47B-DL, was delivered in August, 1944. There is no record immediately after that, but it may have gone to the 9th AF in Europe (unconfirmed). It was sold as surplus, in 1964, and went to the US Department of Agriculture where it received its civilian registration number N2805J, and was used in the Screw Worm eradication program. In 1980, the plane was retired, and went to the now-closed WorldAircraftMuseum in Calhoun, GA., where it was on static display. Dodson International Air, in Covington, GA., acquired it in 1996. It was acquired by the AmericanFlightMuseum in April 2000. Warbirds of America Squadron 14, Inc. has restored the airframe to an AC-47 Gunship used during the Vietnam War in the markings of John Levitow's airplane.
The interior of the aircraft has three exact replica 7.62 MM Mini Guns. These are operational with the exception that they do not fire.
The airplane has two low time engines and has a nearly flawless airframe, and can be seen currently on the airshow circuit around the U.S.
Levitow’s Medal of Honor Citation Reads in Part
“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, by his selfless and heroic actions, saved the aircraft and its entire crew from certain death and destruction.”
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