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AIR FORCE HISTORY: John Levitow and Spooky 71

Spooky, a specially outfitted U.S. Air Force AC-47 aircraft designed to provide support to soldiers on the ground. (Air Force photo)

Spooky, a specially outfitted U.S. Air Force AC-47 aircraft designed to provide support to soldiers on the ground. (Air Force photo)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

Spooky, sometimes called Puff (The Magic Dragon), was a specially outfitted U.S. Air Force AC-47 aircraft designed to provide support to Soldiers on the ground. Carrying 21,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition, the aircraft’s three mini-guns could accurately spew up to 6,000 rounds per minute to repulse enemy attacks on American base camps or small NDPs (Night Defensive Positions).

No grunt who ever spent a night in the jungle on a squad-sized (8-10 men) ambush patrol, or in a platoon-sized lager site, will ever forget the comfort the sound of Spooky’s twin engines racing to the scene of a fire-fight could bring. The “zip-zip-zip” sound of the mini-gun as Spooky circled at 3,000 feet to rain a curtain of leaden death, one round every square foot, is one of those unique sensations that last a lifetime. Spooky was a grunt’s best friend at night.

Additionally, Spooky also carried up to five dozen MK-24 flares. These flares consisted of magnesium, which could light up the night with a 2 million candlepower intensity as it burned at 3,000 degrees. The magnesium was encased in 27-pound tubes, each nearly six inches in diameter and two feet in length.

Spooky worked its magic on the darkness in a simple, but effective manner: the flares were manually thrown from the open cargo bay of the AC-47. It was a two-man process. First, the loadmaster would get one of the large flares from the rack, set the timers and fuse delays that would ignite the magnesium, and attach a 10-foot lanyard to the safety pin.

Then, the loadmaster would pass the flare to one of the gunners who, upon command from the pilot, would toss the canister out of the open cargo bay.  When the flare had traveled the 10-foot distance of the lanyard, the safety pin was jerked out to arm the flare. First, a small charge would release a parachute to slow the canister’s descent to the ground. Ten seconds later, the magnesium would ignite to illuminate the sky for up to three minutes as the flare drifted slowly earthward beneath its parachute.

On Feb. 24, 1969, Maj. Kenneth Carpenter skillfully piloted Spooky 71 through the night skies. It had been a busy evening. For four-and-a-half hours, he and his crew had been working their magic to the unheard cheers of joy from the Soldiers on the ground. The enemy seemed to be everywhere in and around the Army base at Long Binh. The barrels of Spooky 71’s mini-guns were hot from the thousands of rounds they had fired on the unseen enemy below. 

It was nearing 11 o’clock when another call for help reached Major Carpenter’s cockpit. South of Long Binh, American Soldiers were under heavy mortar attack from several positions. The pilot got his bearings from the navigator and turned Spooky 71 towards the scene of the combat. Coming in low, his loadmaster, Airman 1st Class John Levitow, worked “hand-in-glove” with the gunners to keep the mini-guns firing and drop illumination.  

The 23-year-old Airman from the small community of Glastonbury, Conn., was no stranger to Spooky operations. He was working with Major Carpenter’s crew on this February evening to return a favor to the regular loadmaster, who had covered for John recently when he had been ill. This was John Levitow’s 181st air mission over the night skies of Vietnam, and he could do his job as a loadmaster for just about any Spooky crew.

As the magnesium flares swung slowly from their parachutes to light the area, Major Carpenter rained his mini-guns on the enemy, destroying two mortar positions in his initial attack. A third mortar position had been located, and the pilot began to bank Spooky 71 to the left to swing back for another pass over the enemy position. In the cargo hold, Airman Levitow removed another flare from the rack, set the timers, and passed it to Airman 1st Class Ellis Owen. One of Spooky 71’s gunners, Airman Owen braced himself against the incline of the cargo hold’s floor as the aircraft made the turn, and prepared to toss the canister from the open cargo door.

Spooky 71 lurched wildly in the air, its frame shaking as a violent explosion ripped a 3-foot, one quarter-inch hole in the right wing. Banking for a second run on the enemy at only slightly over 1,000 feet, the aircraft had flown directly into the path of an enemy 82mm mortar round. More than 3,500 pieces of shrapnel ripped into the thin body of the cargo hold, peppering the soft flesh of all four men working there. Your intrepid historian has verified with several pilots that having thousands of holes in one’s plane does have some effect on the flying characteristics – to say the least.

In the cockpit, Major Carpenter struggled for control of his floundering aircraft, aware that there had been major damage and deeply concerned for his crew. He knew that Spooky 71 was in great danger. He could not have imagined just how great that danger was.

In the cargo hold, nothing stirred. All four crewmen had been violently thrown to the floor by the force of the explosion. All had been wounded by flying shrapnel as well. Airman Levitow tried to shake off the dizziness that swarmed through his mind. He felt as if he had been struck a crushing blow by a large piece of wood. In fact, forty pieces of shrapnel had struck him on the right side, peppering his legs and back with wounds that now bled profusely.

The aircraft continued to lurch about as the pilot struggled to right it. Then, Levitow noticed one of the gunners perilously near the open cargo door. One wrong shift of the yawing airplane and he could be thrown through that doorway to certain death.

Airman Levitow struggled to get his feet under him, intense pain washing through every muscle in his body, save for his badly damaged legs, which were numb. Unsure if he could even walk, he pulled himself upright and willed his feet to move forward towards the open doorway. Spooky 71 continued to bounce and vibrate in the air and Major Carpenter wasn’t even sure he could bring it under control. Amid all this, Airman Levitow worked his way towards a fellow Airman in peril. Wind howled through the open doorway, as well as the thousands of ragged holes that had been blown into the cargo hold. If the aircraft bounced in a wrong direction, both men might be thrown through the doorway into the darkness of the night, to plummet helplessly to the jungle floor below.

The weakened Levitow pulled his comrade away from the door moving backward, only to be confronted by a new danger.  As he moved the wounded Airman away from the doorway, he noticed a wisp of smoke from inside the cargo hold. A fire could prove disastrous in the confined compartment that held thousands of rounds of ammunition and several magnesium MK-24 flares. Then the nightmare worsened — the smoke came not from a fire, but from one of the flares.

The 27-pound smoking flare was the same one Airman Levitow had set the timers for only seconds earlier and passed to gunner, Airman Owen, to toss through the doorway. The sudden explosion that rocked and damaged Spooky 71 had thrown the wounded gunner to the floor, wrenching the canister from his grasp. Somehow, either by traveling the 10-foot distance of the lanyard or because the gunner’s hand had been near the safety ring at the time of the explosion, the pin had been released and the flare armed for a series of explosions in less than 20 seconds.

How long had it been since the initial explosion? How long since the timers had begun their countdown to detonation? In the fear, agony, and pandemonium since the enemy mortar had struck the aircraft, no one could ascertain how much time remained for the nine men in Spooky 71.

Three times Airman Levitow attempted to pick up the flare, staggering in a heavily-damaged, bouncing and turning aircraft, only to have the flare roll away from his weakened grasp. In desperation, he did the only thing left to do, throwing his wounded body across the 2-foot-long canister. The canister ceased to roll, pinned to the floor of the cargo hold by Airman Levitow’s already ravaged body. But even such a valiant, sacrificial effort, could not save the rest of the crew of Spooky 71.

When the time bomb exploded, Airman Levitow’s body would shield his comrades from immediate danger. But as the magnesium began its 3,000 degree slow-burn, it would melt through the metal floor of the cargo hold to detonate fuel and light the night skies over Long Binh with the brilliant, explosive demise of the AC-47.

Hugging the smoking time bomb to his body, Airman Levitow began the most dangerous journey of his life, a slow crawl to the open cargo door. Smoke wafted from the tip of the flare as the final seconds ticked off, but he crawled on, dragging his badly torn and bleeding legs behind him. It was an incredible accomplishment, a super-human effort sustained only by an inner drive to force his body beyond all reasonable actions, to accomplish an impossible task and save the lives of nine men.

Spooky 71 continued to fight to remain airborne, its desperate gyrations banking the floor of the AC-47 at sharp inclines.The brave Airman struggled onward, fighting pain, fighting gravity, and fighting a timeframe that had almost run out.

Then, he was at the open cargo door, the flare still tightly in his grasp. With the last ounce of strength he could force his ravaged body to muster, he threw the 27-pound bomb into the night. As the flare passed through the doorway to be caught by the prop-wash, time ran out and the flare exploded into a brilliant glare. It had been close, but it had been enough. Then, Airman Levitow passed out.

After a safe emergency landing at Bien Hoa, Airman Levitow remembered only bits and pieces of his actions, but the blood smears his body left told the tale. Major Carpenter said in amazement, “I’ll never know how Levitow managed to get to the flare and throw it out. In my experience, I have never seen such a courageous act performed under such adverse conditions.”

Airman Levitow recovered from his wounds well enough to return and fly 20 more missions until, six months after his heroic flight, he was honorably discharged at the end of his military commitment as a sergeant. After the tale of his heroism spread, Airman Levitow became the first, and at that time the only, enlisted Airman to receive his nation’s highest award on May 14, 1970, the Medal of Honor. This was after the Air Force became a separate military service.

Afterwards, Airman Levitow elected to work in a vocation that fittingly kept him in service to fellow former Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines. For 22 years, he served in his home state’s Veterans Administration, eventually becoming the assistant to the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs. He continually brushed aside all talk of heroism and attributed his actions to luck, or, with a humble smile, describe it as “temporary insanity.”

The plane he flew that took so much punishment was an AC-47 gunship, which is a converted C-47B. This particular one, C-47B 43-48770, was built in the Douglas Aircraft Assembly Plant, now Bldg. 3001 at Tinker, and delivered to the USAAF at Baer Field (Fort Wayne, Ind.) on Sept. 18, 1944. Twenty-four years, five months, and one day later, a total of 8,920 days, that very same plane flew this historic mission.

Sources include: AF.mil, The Air Mobility Command Museum, AFHRA, and NMUSAF