When Vietnamese Mortar Rounds Hit A U.S. Aircraft, One Serviceman’s Heroism Saved The Entire Crew

It’s February 1969 and Vietnam is engulfed by a brutal war. An American aircraft known as Spooky 71 has taken to the skies above the country, ready to provide supporting firepower. On board is John L. Levitow, a young man from Connecticut. And this 23-year-old is about to be thrust into a situation in which the stakes couldn’t be any higher.

As a loadmaster, Levitow is on board Spooky 71 in order to prepare flares. These are to be fired from the aircraft, whereupon they’ll go off and light up the ground below. This is an important task, without which foot soldiers would be floundering in the dark.

It’s been over four hours since Levitow and his fellow crew members took to the skies aboard Spooky 71. But now they’ve been ordered to fly to another location at which U.S. troops are being fired on by mortars. Events are about to intensify. Arriving to this dangerous scene, Levitow prepares a flare. He passes it over to his comrade, a man named Ellis Owen. Readying himself to throw it out of the plane, Owen inserts his finger into the safety pin band.

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Before Owen ever has the chance to rid himself of the flare, however, the aircraft is hit. Shrapnel is sent flying, piercing into the crew’s bodies. They’re injured, and the plane itself is falling to the ground. And what’s more, the flare once held within Owen’s grasp is still on board. Except now, the safety pin has been removed and it’s ready to blow in the vicinity of the aircraft’s munitions.

In the midst of such peril, the injured Levitow is left dazed and in agony. Things aren’t looking hopeful. His body is covered with cuts, and his fellow crew members don’t appear to be in good shape, either. And, more pressingly than anything else, the flare is about to go off. Levitow has just seconds to act, and he knows it.

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The treacherous situation that Levitow and his comrades found themselves engulfed in on February 24, 1969, occurred within a broader context. In fact, they were working as part of a military action known as Tet 1969. This isn’t to be confused with the original Tet Offensive of 1968, although there are similarities between the two.

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Marking the beginning of a new year, the Tet celebrations are more significant than any other Vietnamese festivity. In 1968, though, the period was a notably dark time. Concluding that a series of unexpected military strikes could upset South Vietnam and its American allies, the North Vietnamese military initiated the Tet Offensive.

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Beginning on January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong assaulted numerous metropolises in South Vietnam’s central regions. The following day, further urban centers, army garrisons and administrative facilities were besieged. All in all, in excess of 100 military operations were undertaken. The most significant, perhaps, was the raid on the United States Embassy located in Saigon.

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The original Tet Offensive had some grave ramifications for the North Vietnamese, however. Many of their soldiers were killed, and the action didn’t encourage the South Vietnamese population to reconsider its allegiances, as had been hoped. Having said that, though, the action could be considered effective in other ways.

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For example, before the North Vietnamese forces had launched the Tet Offensive, senior members of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s staff had been hinting that the conflict was nearing its conclusion. But following the operation, it was plain to see that this wasn’t going to be the case. Increasingly, the American public’s support of the war was waning.

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At the beginning of 1969 the United States had a new president. Richard Nixon had been voted in, largely on the understanding that he’d begin to take U.S. troops out of Vietnam. This plan required the South Vietnamese military to fill the vacuum that would be left by the American absence.

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If such a plan was going to work, though, South Vietnam required the opportunity to strengthen its military units. But the North Vietnamese spotted a vulnerability in Nixon’s scheme. That is, if the U.S. remained in Vietnam and was subjected to heavy losses, America may be forced to exit the war altogether. This in turn was likely to result in the North Vietnamese over-powering the South.

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Bearing this in mind, North Vietnam rolled the dice. Its military command opted to conduct operations similar to those of the Tet Offensive a year earlier. So, on February 22, 1969, the assault known as Tet 1969 began. Utilizing both ground and artillery forces, the North Vietnamese again sought to catch their enemies off guard.

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However, Tet 1969 was in some ways a different sort of operation to the original offensive of 1968. In the earlier action, for example, the Viet Cong focused many of its assaults on civic buildings located in heavily populated regions. In 1969, however, it was primarily military facilities that were attacked.

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Moreover, the Americans had greater knowledge of their enemy’s plans in 1969 than they’d had a year earlier. As such, they were able to better prepare for the North Vietnamese attacks. And on top of that, the Viet Cong had suffered greatly as a result of the 1968 attacks. Its forces were weaker this time around, and so the assaults that took place tended to be less intense.

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Nonetheless, the impact of Tet 1969 was great. The Americans and the South Vietnamese were able to defend themselves against the North Vietnamese, but not without sustaining heavy losses. Over the course of three weeks, around 1,500 South Vietnamese are said to have died, with the U.S. suffering more than 1,100 deaths.

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Tet 1969 was an important event in the overall course of the Vietnam War. It’s said to have prompted President Nixon to broaden the scope of the conflict by launching assaults on Communist strongholds across Cambodia. With that, Operation Menu was initiated in the spring of 1969, a campaign of airstrikes along the Cambodian and South Vietnamese border that went on for 12 months.

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So, considering the wider context of what Tet 1969 meant, we now have a greater sense of the intensity of the situation in which the crew of Spooky 71 found themselves. It was just before nightfall on February 24, 1969 when they set off. This, of course, was during day two of the North Vietnamese assault.

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Tet 1969 was an assault that focused on military sites, particularly in territory close to Saigon. It was at its most fierce after the sun had set, whereupon the frequency of mortar rounds fired would increase. And when it came to defending against such bombardments, American aircraft were especially important.

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Spooky 71 was one such airplane to be utilized in defense against the North Vietnamese attacks. The craft was heavily armed, with many thousands of rounds loaded on board to be fired by a trio mini-guns. Each of these weapons was capable of shooting as many as 6,000 bullets in a single minute.

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In addition to these munitions, on board Spooky 71 were up to 60 magnesium flares. Once these had been lit, they could produce an extremely powerful ball of fire and light. As such, they could light up the night sky after they’d been set off and sent barreling out of the aircraft.

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The flares were hand-operated by two individuals on board the aircraft. The job of one person – known as the loadmaster – was to pick out a flare, initiate a timer and ensure it was secured with a safety pin. The flare would then be given to the second person, who’d throw it from the aircraft. Subsequently, at a safe distance from the plane, the pin would release and the flare would go off and drift to the surface via a parachute.

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On February 24, 1969, the men charged with tossing the flares from Spooky 71 were Ellis Owen and John Levitow. At 23 years of age, Levitow was undoubtedly young, but he was nonetheless experienced. Having said that, this particular occasion was the first time he’d worked with the flight crew in question. He was actually returning a favor to the crew’s usual loadmaster.

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By this stage, Levitow had spent almost three years in the U.S. Air Force, having signed up in the summer of 1966. He initially took on a variety of roles – including a stint aboard a C-130 aircraft – before being sent to Vietnam. There, he was set to work aboard AC-47s.

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Spooky 71 was an AC-47, a plane that carried a total of eight crew members. It was piloted by Kenneth B. Carpenter, in what was actually his inaugural operation as commander. Shortly before midnight, Carpenter was instructed to change the course of Spooky 71 and head towards the Long Binh Army station.

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As Spooky 71 arrived, it became clear that Long Binh was being bombarded by mortar rounds. Carpenter himself recalled the scene to Air Force Magazine in 2005. “We observed a large battle going on in the south and east perimeters of the base,” he said. “On the second firing pass, the mortars firing on Long Binh were silenced.”

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With Spooky 71 flying above the army base, an order from below came in to release some flares. So, the aircraft progressed some more, preparing to light up the battlefield. Soon, however, the plane was hit by a mortar. A hole blew open, sending shrapnel flying into the craft.

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The navigator on board Spooky 71 that day was William P. Platt, who recalled the harrowing moment to Air Force Magazine. “At that moment, a loud explosion was heard and a bright flash filled the aircraft,” he stated. “Even in the navigation compartment the flash lit up the inside of the aircraft like daylight. The aircraft veered sharply to the right and down.”

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At the point of impact, of course, Levitow and Owen had been preparing flares to be tossed out of the plane. The former had been initiating the timers and giving them over to the latter. Owen then readied them to be thrown overboard – but the explosion had now disrupted everything.

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Owen remembered the event when speaking to Air Force Magazine. “Airman Levitow was setting and handing me the flares,” he explained. “I had the lanyard on the flare hooked up and my finger through the safety pin ring. When we were hit, all… of us were knocked to the floor and the flare was knocked out of my hands. Since my finger was through the safety pin ring the safety pin was pulled.”

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The flare was ready to go off at any moment – and it was still on board. The crew were injured, while a piece of pyrotechnics was about to ignite beside countless munitions. Disaster was imminent. Drastic action was going to be necessary to save the lives of the crew – and it needed to happen fast.

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“I then looked back to see a flare that had slid up against the cans of 19,000 rounds of ammunition,” Platt recalled. “Levitow was struggling toward the flare despite the violent maneuvering of the aircraft… Dense blue smoke was pouring out of the burning flare fuse.”

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Levitow was in a bad state after the explosion. He was bleeding heavily and had been left unable to move parts of his body. Nonetheless, he still knew that he needed to get rid of the flare. He tried to grasp it in his hands but failed. So, Levitow had no other option: he jumped on top of it with his whole body. With blood pouring from him, he hauled the flare over to the door and, just moments before it went off, he nudged it overboard.

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Levitow had saved his comrades – and lived to tell the tale. “They tell me that I had 40 pieces of shrapnel in me at the time,” he recalled. “I couldn’t walk. I crawled to the location of the flare. I had a real tough time grabbing hold of it with two hands because of the pain in my leg and everything. They tell me I ended up jumping on it, finally getting control and dragging myself and the flare back to the rear cargo door, which was open, and just managed to push it outside the door as it ejected and ignited simultaneously.”

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And in spite of his dreadful injuries, Levitow even managed to help to modify the aircraft for its return journey. “So here I was, wounds and all, finally managed to stand up,” he added. “And I’m lifting 140-pound ammo cans and stuffing them between the guns [so they wouldn’t] go flying all around and really hurt somebody.”

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The crew’s troubles hadn’t yet ended, though. The plane still needed to make it to a runway – and it would have to overcome some obstacles to do so. You see, mines had been set on the ground beyond the runway. If the plane landed too early, then, Levitow’s heroics would have been for nothing.

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With no room to spare, the aircraft thankfully managed to touchdown on the runway. From there, Levitow was rushed onto a helicopter and brought to a medical facility. Along the way, parts of his flesh were removed so that he wouldn’t pick up any nasty infections. At hospital, some 40 fragments of metal were taken out of his body. He then spent a couple of months in recovery – but he’d survived.

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Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before Levitow was sent back to Vietnam. He even returned to combative operations, but he was soon told that he couldn’t take part in anymore. As it turned out, he’d actually been put forth for the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions on board Spooky 71.

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Levitow’s comrades had provided testimony to officials that helped them to choose the young man as a recipient of the award. Pilot Carpenter, for instance, said, “Others were there, others were wounded, but Levitow being the furthest removed from the flare, recognized the danger, took action when seconds counted, and saved the lives of the entire crew. Levitow’s progress was clearly marked with his own blood on the floor of the aircraft.”

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When Levitow made it back to Connecticut, he discovered that he’d soon officially receive the award. As a result, he and his family were brought to Washington. And so, on May 14, 1970, President Nixon bestowed the Medal of Honor upon the young American. He’d become a hero of his country.

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