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

John L. Levitow was awarded the Medal of Honor as an Airman First Class, becoming the lowest ranking recipient of the medal in Air Force history. He’s pictured here in an AC-47 “Spooky” gunship. Today, the highest award from Airman Leadership School is named after this hero, as is a C-17. Levitow died in November, 2000 after wearing his medal proudly for three decades.


A peculiar fable has been circulating among Air Force enlisted circles for decades now, and it’s worth revisiting as a sign of the times. Like the legend of Kaiser Soze, this one involves a prominent badass whose true fate is not totally understood.

I’m talking about the legend of Sgt. John L. Levitow.

Long before the A-10 entered its exceptionally vibrant “midlife” phase … back when MPF was still known as CBPO … back when old enough to serve meant old enough to drink … back when the utility uniform actually looked good and served its purpose … long before bulging waistlines and impure thoughts became the twin obsessions of g-series vice cops … John Levitow earned the nation’s highest military honor by risking his life and saving his crewmates.

Here’s an excerpt of his exploits from the Air Mobility Command museum website:

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.

JLL

But there’s another thread in the Levitow fabric. A less uplifting thread, but one no less instructive of what his legacy stands for in the modern Air Force.

According to unconfirmed but oft-bantered statements from senior enlisted leaders over the ages, and I couch it thusly because I’ve never been able to independently verify the account they give, Levitow’s career was ended prematurely by a clerical error.

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.

Here’s a screenshot of a recent facebook post from a command-level senior enlisted leader rendering a version of this tale. It was seeing this post that jarred my memory, causing me to recall all of the times the story was shared with me over the years.

AETC/CCC Levitow Post

It’s actually shocking to think that a once-in-a-generation bona fide hero would forego an Air Force career not because he had other objectives or for some other valid reason, but because of some nonsensical paperwork fiasco. But then again, service lore is replete with similar snafus.

The moral of this story should be that without excellent administrative support and concerned supervisors, we lose our very best people. It also stands for the proposition that supervisors and commanders who stand closest to talent need sufficient discretion to surmount red tape and do the right thing for the organization and the mission when the circumstances are exceptional.

But that’s not why Chiefs ordinarily tell this story. It’s usually rendered as a cautionary tale reminding airmen that they are ultimately responsible for supporting themselves in this bureaucracy … and that not even a pending nomination for the highest medal on the chart can save them if they don’t become expert enough to spot the mistakes made by others who are paid to take care of them.

You can’t blame Chiefs for taking this stance. It’s pragmatic. The Air Force has a track record of giving itself mediocre support while continuing to expect operational excellence.

But even if we can’t blame organizational realists for appropriating this story as they often do, we can still hold ourselves in contempt for failing to learn and apply the lessons it provided. When we lose even one exceptional airman, the correct response is not to sanguinely explain it in bureaucratic terms while finding a way to blame the individual. The right response, after going down swinging trying to retain that airman, is to fix the process that burned us so we don’t lose another one.

Or perhaps I’m quixotically spitballing about quaint concepts that no longer apply. If the past few years are any indication, the service just flat out does not care if we lose a superior airman, because in truth it does’t differentiate between airmen on performance terms and considers them fully interchangeable. General Mark Welsh acknowledged as much recently when he told a crowd of pilots “if you leave, someone else will step in.”

He’s wrong, of course. Some airmen leave shoes others can’t fill. Someone steps into those shoes and does his best, perhaps getting closer to filling them over time. But the subtle degradation of quality is there nonetheless. When aggregated at the scale of the service, this adds up to a noticeable decline in organizational performance. Tolerated too often, it creates a sharp departure from expectations.

That’s why we should never let go of our Levitows, and should fight like hell to build a system biased toward keeping them.

We’ll never know what might have become of John Levitow as a career airman. Hell, we may never even know if the legend surrounding his separation is true. But to the extent we believe we might have lost him for the wrong reasons, we’ve got some serious work to do if we’re going to be faithful to the proud heritage he represents.

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