(I wrote this in January 1998, during a wonderful visit to my home state 11 years after I left it. A wonderful human being who became a hero by circumstance and heroism.)
John Levitow, an ordinary man who performed an extraordinary act and received the Medal of Honor, stood in front of the C-17 that bore his name, and welled up with pride. “It’s kinda creepy looking up and seeing your name,” he told the crowd of more than 300 people gathered at the Boeing facility in Long Beach, Calif., Jan. 23, 1998. His C-17, formerly known as P-37, was the first aircraft named for an enlisted person. The naming came during a 45-minute tribute to a man whom most Air Force people know from only a mere 10 minutes of his life.
That 10 minutes, however, made Levitow something of a rock star in most of the enlisted force’s eyes. His story has been told and retold thousands of times since Feb. 24, 1969. Onboard a crippled aircraft, using instinct and training, the young loadmaster threw himself onto a magnesium flare, hauled his torso over to the aircraft’s cargo door and threw the flare out. The device ignited split seconds after it left the doorway. He did this wounded, losing blood and having a partial loss of feeling in his right leg. He is the lowest ranking airman to ever receive the Medal of Honor.
When Levitow spoke to the crowd of enlisted people, most from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., and Boeing employees on that perfect Southern California day, he talked about how most airmen know him, from that one moment he used to save the lives of those aboard that airplane. That’s OK, Levitow said, but he wants people to know there’s more to his life than just those 10 minutes.
Gen. Walter Kross, the commander of Air Mobility Command, wanted the people gathered in Long Beach to know it, too.
“We can easily call Sgt. John Levitow a hero, but he has continuously requested that he doesn’t want to be known as a hero. His life amounts to much more than those 10 heroic minutes. So, I’ll honor his request and tell you some of the other reasons why his name ought to be on this aircraft,” Kross said, surprising Levitow.
Kross told the crowd of how Levitow endured many of the same challenges today’s enlisted force faces.
“He was a young airman simply doing his duty, flying a mission in the middle of the night in some far off land,” Kross said. “Each night, he didn’t get to sleep in his own bed back home or have a hot meal with his family. Every day, he spent working hard, getting dirty and getting tired in the service of his country.” Kross also recounted how every day during Levitow’s tour, he risked his life for “the soldiers on the ground in countless other missions — people he never met.”
Then, after he left the Air Force, he picked up his service to his country working in the field of veteran’s affairs for more than 22 years. He currently works for Connecticut developing and designing veteran programs.
“His life has been one of tireless volunteerism — a role model, a mentor — with other enlisted professional education at the center of everything he did,” Kross said.
“I’m a firm believer that I do represent the enlisted corps,” said Levitow, choked up after the general’s remarks. “I’m just lucky. Luck is all it is. It’s very easy to do something and not be recognized. I’m sure there are many people who have served, have done things that have been simply amazing and never been recognized. Lucky was that I had somebody that recognized it and put me in for it.”
And what does it mean to Levitow to be the most recognized figure in Air Force enlisted culture? A rock star?
“They’ve taken 10 minutes of my life, put it in a short paragraph in the PME, and they built me into the history of the Air Force. There’s a lot more to it,” he said. “I caught General (Ronald) Fogleman (former Air Force chief of staff) at a ceremony last year and I asked him, ‘General, when can I retire? I’ve been out of the service since 1970.’ General Kross told me that I can never retire. And he’s right. I can’t.”
With “retirement” not an option for Levitow, he continues to learn everyday how to adapt with the fame his action in the Air Force gave him. “The Air Force has been very generous,” he said. “They have accepted me for the way I am. I try to pace myself, but they also understand that I’m a civilian.”
After the ceremony, Levitow sat down in the C-17 loadmaster seat, a comfortable red chair just below the aircrew cabin. It was a return to a position he’d served in almost 30 years ago. Some had wondered if he felt anything special about returning to the loadmaster position.
“The loadmaster never had a seat. You never really had a place. This,” he said, looking at the chair, “gives them an identity. What happens down here could mean the safety of what happens to the whole airplane.”
No rock star would be complete without fans and Levitow attracted his share of those at the ceremony. One of the fans was Airman 1st Class Shannon Saal. The Peking, Ill., native with 15 months total service, met Levitow while touring the C-17.
“It’s a great honor to meet him,” she said. “He’s very warm and intelligent.”
The same rank and nearly the same age as Levitow at the time of the incident, Saal wondered if she would make the same decision he did in the skies over South Vietnam.
“Yes,” she said instantly. “I know I could do it.”
Chief Master Sgt. Mark Smith, who’s spent more than 12 years working on the C-17 with Boeing and the systems program office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and is a loadmaster himself, felt privileged to give Levitow a tour of the aircraft before the ceremony.
“I’ve been a loadmaster for more than 21 years and I finally get to meet a guy I respect so much,” he said. “It’s a cross between a thrill and an honor.”
Levitow, the ordinary man who’s brought an extraordinary amount of attention to the enlisted force through his deeds and his words, summed up the day by saying he’d like to ride in the C-17 someday — but not in the loadmaster’s seat.
“If it’s in the loadmaster’s seat, I’m going to have to work and I don’t want to work, so I think I’ll ride up there and enjoy the view.”