The Liberty Gazette
May 2, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: With darkness all around him the exhausted soldier lies in tall grass trying to keep his eyes open. The bayonet affixed to his M-16 is bloodied. The heat from the gun’s barrel isn’t the only thing making him sweat. The drone of twin radial engines lumbering overhead is almost hypnotic as he prepares for yet another wave of the enemy to charge his position. Suddenly a brilliant light makes the night seem like day. Startled enemy soldiers duck for cover in front of him. Taking aim, he hears a blast from above, a different sound than the explosions all around him. He can’t see anything in the blackness beyond the blinding flare that now makes all things visible on the ground. “Thanks for the light, Spooky.”
It’s February 24, 1969. The Army post at Long Binh, 12 miles northeast of Saigon is under heavy attack by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. Above the battle a heavily armed Douglas AC-47, call sign “Spooky”, offers aid to the ground troops by dropping magnesium flares affixed to parachutes. Its Gatling guns blast three- to four-second devastating bursts.
Inside the plane the scene suddenly becomes as chaotic as in the rice fields below. As it maneuvers for another pass an explosion rips a hole in the right wing sending bits of hot searing metal in all directions. The pilot struggles with the aircraft as loadmaster Airman First Class John Levitow helps severely injured fellow soldiers. He’s been hit by more than 40 pieces of shrapnel piercing the fuselage and lodging in his back and legs.
The plane flies at a slant, wobbling side to side. Airman Levitow drags one of the gunners away from the open door. Moments earlier the gunner was preparing to drop a flare, a three-foot long, 27-pound tube. The flare’s 20-second fuse ignites, the smoldering tube flops about, rolling around on the floor in the back of the aircraft amid thousands of unspent rounds of ammunition.
Trailing blood, no feeling in one leg, Levitow tries to retrieve the flare before it sets off the ammo. He knows the firestorm will shred the aircraft and knock it from the sky. In all three attempts to capture the threatening flare, it slips from his slick, bloody hands. His last chance, Levitow leaps on top of it and flips it out the open door. A second later it illuminates the battlefield below.
This is his 181st mission and Airman Levitow will complete 20 more before his service in Vietnam is complete.
Now it’s January 1998. Out of the doors of Boeing Aircraft Company’s Building 54 at Long Beach Airport rolls a military C-17 Globemaster christened, “The Spirit of Sgt. John L. Levitow”.
An airplane named Levitow. Charles Lindberg’s plane is “Spirit of St. Louis”. Icelandair names their fleet after volcanoes. The U.S. Air Force names theirs after heroes.
John Levitow: the lowest ranking enlisted man to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for the highest act of valor. The citation reads, “He saved the aircraft and the entire crew from certain death and destruction.”