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John Levitow's Legacy Will Live Forever

By Senior Airman Oshawn Jefferson, USAF
National Guard Bureau

SAN ANTONIO, Nov. 17, 2000 – Air Force Print News - America lost a hero Nov. 8 when Air Force Medal of Honor holder John L. Levitow died at age 55 at his home in Connecticut after a lengthy battle with cancer.

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Vietnam veteran and former Sgt. John L. Levitow, the lowest-ranking Air Force member ever to earn the Medal of Honor, speaks to an Airman Leadership School class at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash. The photo was taken in 1996. Levitow died Nov. 8 in Connecticut after a long battle with cancer. Photo by Airman 1st Class Stacy Hughes, USAF.

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The Vietnam-era Air Force sergeant was buried with military honors Nov. 17 at Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery. President Richard M. Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to Levitow on Armed Forces Day, May 14, 1970, for gallantry in combat 15 months earlier.

"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 was cited for valor as an AC-47 gunship loadmaster during a mission on Feb. 24, 1969. Flak had severely damaged his aircraft and peppered him with more than 40 shrapnel wounds in his back and legs. Seeing a smoking magnesium flare amid a jumble of spilled ammunition in the cargo bay. Levitow threw himself on the flare and hugged it close as he dragged himself to an open door despite loss of blood and partial loss of feeling in his right leg. As he hurled the flare through the door, it ignited white-hot, but harmlessly outside the aircraft.

"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 had 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 in the right wing.

"What I did was a conditioned response," Levitow said in 1998. "I just did it. The next thing I remembered was seeing the landing strip."

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 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 those 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 Air Force Base was named in his honor. 


  • Air Mobility Command named a C-17 Globemaster III after him 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."

(Senior Airman Oshawn Jefferson is a member of the Air Force Print News staff at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageVietnam veteran and former Sgt. John L. Levitow, the lowest-ranking Air Force member ever to earn the Medal of Honor, speaks at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, during the Project Warrior ceremony, part of the "Festival of Flight" and the service's 40th anniversary celebration. The photo was taken in 1987. Levitow died Nov. 8 in Connecticut after a long battle with cancer. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Kit Thompson, USAF.   
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