John Levitow: The Lowest-Ranking US Air Force Airman to Receive the Medal of Honor

Photo Credit: 1. USAF / National Museum of the U.S. Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 2. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

John Levitow came from humble beginnings, but achieved great things. By the time he retired from his career with the US Air Force, he was the lowest-ranking airman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. This is the story of his career and heroics in the face of imminent danger.

Enlistment in the US Air Force

Born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, John L. Levitow enlisted in the Air Force in June 1966. He’d originally intended on joining the US Navy, but changed his mind at the last minute.

US Air Force loadmaster moving a Humvee onto a airplane
A US Air Force loadmaster moving a Humvee onto a military aircraft. (Photo Credit: Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images)

His first duty within the service was as a civil engineer. At the time, he also cross-trained as a loadmaster, which came in handy during the later years of his service. Loadmasters are responsible for weighing and getting cargo onto an airplane, as well as calculating the weight and seating locations of passengers. It’s their responsibility to ensure the aircraft maintains its permissible center of gravity.

The incident in South Vietnam

On February 24, 1969, John Levitow was asked to fill in as loadmaster on an armed Douglas AC-47 gunship, call sign Spooky 71. The aircraft, which was part of 3d Special Operations Squadron, had been tasked with flying a night mission over Southern Vietnam. It was Levitow’s job to set ejection and ignition timer controls on Mark 24 magnesium flares, before handing them to the gunner for deployment.

During the mission, the AC-47’s pilot, Major Kenneth Carpenter, noticed muzzle flashes near Long Binh Army Base, prompting him to engage with the Viet Cong near Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Levitow and the gunner were deploying flares from the cargo door when the aircraft was hit by a North Vietnamese mortar shell.

A Douglas AC-47 Spooky flies over South Vietnam
A Douglas AC-47 Spooky gunship flies over South Vietnam, 1968. (Photo Credit: Pictures From History / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

Everyone was injured in the blast. Levitow suffered a concussion and more than 40 shrapnel wounds to his back and legs. The explosion also caused an ignited flare to fly from the gunner’s hands, putting the entire aircraft at risk. If the munitions onboard the AC-47 were to ignite, everyone would perish.

Despite extraordinary pain and wooziness, Levitow crawled over to where the flare sat and laid his body over it, before throwing it out the cargo door. Right after, it ignited. Despite suffering heavy damage – more than 3,500 holes were noted in the fuselage and wings – the AC-47 was able to fly safely back to base.

Presented with the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism

John Levitow was awarded the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism during wartime, making him the lowest-ranking airman to recieve the US military’s highest honor. It was presented to him by President Richard Nixon in May 1970.

US Air Force portrait of John Levitow
Medal of Honor recipient John Levitow in his US Air Force uniform. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Among his other decorations were the Purple Heart, the Air Medal with silver and two bronze oak leaf clusters, and the National Defense Service Medal.

John Levitow’s legacy

John Levitow died of cancer in November 2000, at the age of 55. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. In his honor, the Air Force created the John Levitow Award, which is presented to a graduate of the Air Force Enlisted Professional Military Education. The winner of the annual award must finish in the top one percent of their class.

View of the gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo Credit: GWNorton / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

His honors didn’t stop there. In 1998, he was inducted into the Airlift/Tanker Association Hall of Fame, and a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III – named The Spirit of John L. Levitow – was delivered to the 437th and 315th airlift wings at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. The aircraft was later transferred to the 105th Airlift Wing, New York Air National Guard.