On this day in 1969, Airman First Class John Levitow was
lying in a hospital bed, his body covered with forty shrapnel wounds,
trying to piece together exactly how he had ended up there.
Meanwhile, seven Air Force buddies in South Vietnam were telling
themselves they wouldn’t be alive if not for Levitow’s courage.
Four days earlier, the eight men had flown a night combat mission over
South Vietnam aboard an AC-47 gunship, dropping magnesium flares to
illuminate enemy positions on the ground. Each flare had a safety pin.
Twenty seconds after the pin was pulled and the flare was tossed out a
cargo door, it would ignite to 4,000˚ Fahrenheit, lighting up the
In the fifth hour of the mission, a Vietcong mortar hit the plane,
blasting a hole through a wing and nearly wrenching the gunship out of
the sky. Levitow, wounded in the back and legs, had just dragged a
bleeding crewmate away from the open cargo door when he saw a smoking
flare roll across the floor amid ammunition canisters. Its pin had been
Levitow tried to grab the flare, but it skidded away. In desperation,
he threw himself on top. Hugging it to his chest, he dragged himself to
the plane’s rear, leaving a trail of blood, and hurled the flare
through the door. An instant later it burst into a white-hot blaze, but
free of the aircraft.
Levitow recovered and went on to fly twenty more combat missions. In
1970 he received the Medal of Honor, an award he accepted with
humility. “There are many people who have served, who have done things
that have been simply amazing and never been recognized,” he said – a
good reminder that the U.S. military has no shortage of heroes.