Monday, March 12, 2018

The USAF Medal of Honor Recipient Who Got Away: the Legend of John Levitow

On February 24, 1969, Airman First Class John L. Levitow was assigned duty as a loadmaster aboard an AC-47 “Spooky” gunship flying a night mission in support of Long Binh Army Post in South Vietnam when his aircraft was struck by a hostile mortar round. The resulting explosion ripped a hole 3 feet, 1/4 inches in diameter through the wing along with more than 3,500 holes in the fuselage. All occupants in the cargo compartment were wounded and slammed against the floor and fuselage. The explosion ripped an activated flare from the grasp of a crewmember who had been launching flares to provide illumination for Army ground troops engaged in combat. Airman Levitow, though stunned by the concussion of the blast and suffering over 40 fragment wounds in his back and legs, staggered to his feet and turned to assist the man nearest to him who had been knocked down and 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, Airman Levitow started toward the burning flare. The aircraft was partially out of control and the flare was rolling wildly from side to side. Airmen 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.

Airman Levitow, by his selfless actions, saved the aircraft and its entire crew from certain death. For his heroism he received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Richard M. Nixon on May 14, 1970. He is the lowest ranking Air Force member ever to receive the honor.

Now here's what happened to Airman Levitow after receiving the Medal of Honor:

When he cross-trained into the loadmaster career field before his tour in Vietnam, Levitow was instructed that still had two more years to serve as an E-3 before he could become promotion eligible. In reality, his cross-training made him eligible for promotion to E-4.

It’s not clear why he was advised improperly, and the rules are different enough today to make the concept quite foreign and perplexing. But apparently, Levitow didn’t see any reason to question what he was told and, and no one in his chain of command intervened to contend otherwise. As a result, he spent two more years as an Airman First Class and was not at the appropriate rank to be considered for reenlistment when his window opened. This resulted in Levitow being separated from the service involuntarily. In fact, he didn’t receive his medal until after becoming a civilian on May 14, 1970 by President Richard Nixon.

Following his separation, Levitow worked diligently with the veteran community, showing up to events that honored or featured veterans. On Nov. 8, 2000, John Lee Levitow passed away after a year-and-a-half battle with an unspecified cancer. He was 55 years young.

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