John Levitow and Spooky 71
John Levitow and the AC-47D Spooky Gunship (43-48770) shown above are permanently connected. They are both part of of the Vietnam war's history.
The aircraft was converted from a C-47B for use in Vietnam. A total of 53 such conversions were made. (Both photos of Spooky 71 were taken by Horace Sagnor at the 2008 McGuire AFB air show.)
On February 24, 1969, this AC-47D, call sign Spooky 71, of the 3rd Special Ops Squadron took off in the early evening to attack two enemy positions near Long Binh Army Base which was under mortar attack. Spooky 71’s first attack run went fine, but while setting up for its second attack, trouble ensued.
In order to illuminate ground targets, MK24 flares were used. These magnesium flares were 10 inches in diameter, 2 feet long, and weighed 27 pounds. They would burn for 3 minutes and had the intensity of 2 million candlepower.
On Spooky 71’s second attack run, a flare was being prepared by Airmen First Class (A1C) John Levitow. He went about his usual business of setting the delays for the flare - 10 seconds for parachute deployment, 10 seconds later to ignite the flare.
He handed the flare to one of the gunners, A1C Owens, to attach a lanyard that pulls the safety pin from the flare as it is thrown out. At this point, the plane was hit with a mortar round which forced the plane into a right banking dive. Everyone was thrown to the floor.
Levitow, Owens, and a second gunner known as ‘Bear’ were wounded by flying shrapnel. At the exact moment of the explosion, Owens had his finger in the loop of the safety pin. The jolt of the mortar blast pulled the pin from the flare. It was now armed.
Though he had more than 40 shrapnel wounds to his back and legs, John went about pulling Owens from the open cargo door and started to check on ‘Bear’. At this point he realized the flare was armed. He carried it to the door and tossed it out just as it ignited. His actions saved the crew.
MK24 flares burn at 4000 degrees F and if allowed to burn in the aircraft would have caused any of several catastrophes.
It could have touched off the 20,000 rounds of ammunition they were carrying, or it would have burned a hole in the floor igniting the fuel tanks, or the crew would have been blinded making an emergency landing impossible, or the toxicity of the burning magnesium would have incapacitated the crew causing a crash.
Thanks to the John's heroism, the aircraft made an emergency landing at Bien Hoa Air Base where he ignored his own serious wounds and aided in the evacuation of his wounded crewmates. He had to be ordered onto a MEDEVAC aircraft. For his actions, A1C John L. Levitow received the Medal of Honor.
On November 8, 2000, after a year and a half battle with cancer, John Levitow passed away. He was given an honor guard funeral deserving of an American hero.
John never talked about his medal or his actions on that day in 1969. He didn’t even remember most of it, but the other members of Spooky 71 did. They have him to thank for their lives. I wish I had met John just so I could shake his hand and say thank you.
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