John Lee Levitow: Awarded Medal Of Honor for heroism during Vietnam War
It is an indelible image of war: a soldier taking a bullet meant for another, or jumping on a grenade to protect his squad.
Sgt. John Lee Levitow of Glastonbury was that kind of man. Levitow, the lowest-ranking member of the U.S. Air Force to be awarded the Medal of Honor, saved his fellow crew members from certain death one steamy February night in 1969, according to the Department of Defense.
He was on an AC-47 fixed-wing gunship, flying low over the jungles of Vietnam. The crew was dropping huge magnesium flares to illuminate the night for soldiers fighting Viet Cong troops below when the plane was struck by a mortar round.
The round ripped a 2-foot hole through a wing and punched 3,500 holes in the fuselage. But that wasn't the worst of it. The explosion also knocked an activated flare from the grasp of a crew member. Levitow, despite a concussion and 40 shrapnel wounds in his back and legs, went directly to the smoking flare.
"The aircraft was partially out of control and the flare was rolling wildly from side to side," according to the Medal of Honor citation. "Sgt. Levitow struggled forward despite the loss of blood from his many wounds and the partial loss of consciousness to grasp the rolling flare with his hands. He threw himself bodily upon the burning flare."
With the flare under him, Levitow dragged himself to the rear of the plane and pushed it through an open cargo door.
"At that instant," according to the Medal of Honor citation, "the flare ignited in the air, but clear of the aircraft. Sgt. Levitow, by his selfless and heroic actions, saved the aircraft and its entire crew from certain death and destruction."
Levitow spent seven weeks recovering from his wounds in an Air Force hospital in Japan before returning to Vietnam. After he left the service, he received his Medal of Honor from President Nixon on May 14, 1970. He returned to his hometown of Glastonbury to a parade and a hero's welcome.
"I thought I was nervous when I was introducing myself to the president," he told the hundreds who had gathered on the town green to welcome him home. "This is a good country — let's keep it that way."
Levitow was one of five men from the state to be awarded the Medal of Honor during the war. He went on to work for federal and state veterans' agencies for 22 years. He was the legislative liaison and director of planning for the state Department of Veterans Affairs when he died of cancer in 2000 at 55. He was buried Nov. 17, 2000, at Arlington National Cemetery. He was survived by two children and a grandchild when he died.
In 2008, the state Department of Veterans Affairs dedicated its new $35 million, 125-bed, long-term medical care facility in Rocky Hill to Levitow.
"Sgt. Levitow often traveled to meet with other Air Force enlisted men," read a Courant editorial from 2008. "He was a serious and intelligent man with a strong sense of honor and a quiet sense of humor. He never boasted of his exploits."
The Air Force also maintains the Levitow Honor Graduate Award, presented to the top professional military education graduate from the Air Force leadership schools. Air Force facilities around the country are named after Levitow, including the Levitow Training Support Center at the Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.
"John Levitow was a living legend, a true hero to the Air Force family," said Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force chief of staff shortly after Levitow's death. "His courageous, selfless combat actions demonstrate the essence of our core values and will forever serve as a standard for individual sacrifice and service."