Levitow Legacy will live forever

by Senior Airman Oshawn Jefferson
Air Force Print News

A military caisson, carrying the body of Medal of Honor recipient John L. Levitow makes the solemn journey through Arlington National Cemetery as the funeral procession follows. Levitow died Nov. 8 at his home in Connecticut after a lengthy battle with cancer. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Mark Suban)

11/17/00 - SAN ANTONIO -- America lost a hero Nov. 8 when John L. Levitow, enlisted recipient of the Air Force Medal of Honor, died at his home in Connecticut after a lengthy battle with cancer.

"This was a sad day for our Air Force," said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Jim Finch. "John Levitow for years has been woven into the fabric of enlisted heritage. Through his heroic efforts he was the embodiment of our core value 'service before self.' His name has become synonymous with excellence, and his legacy will continue to live in the hearts and minds of all Air Force members today and well into the future."

Levitow received the Medal of Honor after an incident on Feb. 24, 1969. At that time, he served as a loadmaster aboard a severely damaged AC-47 gunship over Long Binh, South Vietnam. Suffering from more than 40 shrapnel wounds in his back and legs from a mortar blast, he saw a smoking magnesium flare amid a jumble of spilled ammunition canisters. Despite loss of blood and partial loss of feeling in his right leg, Levitow threw himself on the flare, hugged it close, dragged himself to an open cargo door and hurled the flare out. Almost simultaneously, the flare ignited harmlessly outside the door and away from the munitions.

"Sergeant Levitow served during a war in which heroic acts were commonplace, but by any standard, his courage that night was extraordinary," said Secretary of the Air Force Whit Peters. "His selfless actions saved not only his own life but the lives of seven others. For three decades he has been an inspiration to all of our airmen -- enlisted, officers and civilians."

In recounting the event, Levitow said he remembered the pilot yelling back to the crew, but didn't remember anything after that. All members in the cargo compartment were wounded, according to history reports. The aircraft sustained more than 3,500 fragment holes in the fuselage and a two-foot wide hole through the right wing.

"What I did was a conditioned response," Levitow said about the incident 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, at the White House.

After his Air Force service Levitow continued a close relationship with the military. He spent 22 years devoted to veterans affairs, and later worked in Connecticut developing and designing veteran programs.

Since his heroics in 1969, the Air Force has honored him in many different ways. He has been a part of the Air Force Professional Fitness Exam booklet and as any NCO who has pored over the promotion books knows, Levitow was the lowest ranking airman in history to earn the Medal of Honor.

The Levitow Honor Graduate Award is presented to the top professional military education graduate from Air Force Airman Leadership Schools.

The 737th Training Group Headquarters building at Lackland AFB was named in his honor.

Air Mobility Command named a C-17 Globemaster III after the Air Force's most well known enlisted Medal of Honor recipient in 1998. "The Spirit of Sgt. John L. Levitow" is the first to be named for an enlisted person.

Hurlburt Field, Fla., honored Levitow in 1998 by making him part of their Walk of Fame, which honors Medal of Honor recipients.

"John Levitow was a living legend, a true hero to the Air Force family," said Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force chief of staff. "His courageous, selfless combat actions demonstrate the essence of our core values and will forever serve as a standard for individual sacrifices and service. We will miss him. Our thoughts and prayers of comfort and peace are with the Levitow family."

Levitow's burial, with military honors, took place Nov. 17 at Arlington National Cemetery. He was 55.


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