Airman throws himself on burning flare to save his crew, but that wasn’t the scariest part

Airman throws himself on burning flare to save his crew, but that wasn’t the scariest part - Nine Line Apparel

First Class Airman Levitow

On the night of February 24th, 1969, Airman First Class John Lee Levitow was working as a Loadmaster on the Spooky 71, an AC-47 gunship, flying a night mission over Vietnam in support of Long Binh Army post.

The gunship was loaded with 7.62-mm Miniguns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. It was also loaded with Mark 24 flares — three-foot long metal tubes weighing a little under 30 pounds that can generate the light of 2,000,000 candlepower each and burn at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Under normal circumstances, an airman pulls a pin to arm the flare and throws it out the gunship’s cargo door. Ten seconds later, an explosive charge would open the flare’s parachute, and 10 seconds after that, the magnesium would ignite flare, providing illumination for the troops on the ground and helping to guide the airmen’s aim.

Needless to say, it’s not something you want to get in the way of.

However, the night mission wasn’t going well. The troops on the ground at Long Binh were under heavy enemy fire. The Spooky 71 swooped in low, and was hit by a mortar round which ripped a two-foot hole through its right wing and perforated its fuselage in over 3,500 places.

Levitow and his four crewmates were wounded and smashed to the floor of the AC-47, which began a steep, uncontrolled descent.

The blast couldn’t have come at a worst moment — not that there’s a good time to be hit by a mortar round. At the moment the gunship was hit, one of Levitow’s crewmates, Airman Ellis Owen, had his finger in the safety pin ring of a flare, getting ready to throw it out the cargo door.

Though he was stunned by the blast concussion and bleeding with over 40 fragment wounds in his back and legs, Levitow managed to stagger to his feet and assist the man nearest to him, who was knocked out and bleeding heavily.

But then Levitow noticed the flare Owen had been holding was rolling around the cargo hold, amidst thousands of rounds of ammunition. What’s more, the flare was armed and smoking.


Levitow had no idea how much time he had before it blew, but he knew if it did, his crew and their ship would be incinerated. He had to get it out of the plane.

Levitow was losing blood, he’d lost feeling in his right leg and the smoking flare was rolling out of his reach.

The 23-year-old threw himself on top of the flare and hugged it to his body as he dragged it and himself to the cargo door. With one last bit of strength, Levitow managed to hurl the flare outside the door, where it ignited seconds later. But he was still in a plane flying out of control.


In shock, wounded and exhausted, Levitow lapsed into unconsciousness.

But his actions saved the lives of his crew — including the pilot, who was able to gain control of the plane and miraculously land at Bien Hoa, Spooky 71’s home base.

A1C Levitow went on to recover from his wounds and fly 20 more combat sorties before completing his enlistment.

For his actions over Long Binh, Levitow was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1970, presented to him at the White House by President Richard Nixon.

“Sgt. Levitow, by his selfless and heroic actions, saved the aircraft and its entire crew from certain death and destruction,” read his citation. “Sgt. Levitow’s gallantry, his profound concern for his fellowmen, 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.”

Cancer claimed the life of John Levitow in 2000 when he was just 55. But his legacy continues, on numerous awards, bridges and buildings named after him.

H/T Task and Purpose


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