Major 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. Time and again his crew in the cargo hold had demonstrated their professionalism, directing devastating fire on enemy positions and dropping the illuminating MK-24 flares to light the heavens and expose the enemy.
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 First Class John Levitow worked "hand-in-glove" with the gunners to keep the mini-guns firing and drop illumination. The ease with which the enlisted airmen performed their duties in the cargo hold gave the pilot confidence in his ability to do what needed to be done. This was a fortunate situation, for on this night John Levitow was filling in for Major Carpenter's regular loadmaster.
The 23-year old airman from the small community of Glastonbury, Connecticut 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 First Class Ellis Owen. One of Spooky 71's gunners, 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's night-time magic ran out, and the nightmare began.
Spooky 71 lurched wildly in the air, its frame shaking as a violent explosion ripped a 2 to 3 foot 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. 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.
John 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 John Levitow worked his way towards a fellow airman in peril. Near the open doorway he reached down to grasp a handful of the injured man's shirt. 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.
Weakened by the unchecked flow of blood from his multiple wounds, Airman Levitow sought deep within his soul to find the strength of will to pull his endangered comrade to safety. Moving backward, somehow he succeeded, 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 those flares.
In an instant Airman Levitow's mind began to comprehend what had happened, and just how dangerous their mission had suddenly become. The 27-pound smoking flare was the same one John had set the timers for only seconds earlier and passed to gunner 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 9 men in Spooky 71.
With the wounded gunner moved safely away from the cargo door, Airman Levitow turned towards the more dangerous threat. The plane still bounced and turned as he reached towards the deadly canister. Even as he did so, Spooky bounced and turned again, the flare rolling across the floor and beyond the grasp of the wounded airman's outstretched hand. Ignoring his own pain, Levitow followed the elusive canister, reaching for it a second time. Again it rolled beyond his grasp. John had to know that time was running out as he reached for it a third time...had to know that those few precious seconds had quickly passed as he had struggled to snare the rolling time-bomb. Moving on legs that felt non-existent the intrepid airman carefully positioned himself to make a third attempt to intercept the deadly missile. There was no charm in the third-time, only more delay in a situation that now seemed beyond hope.
The rolling flare was near, but had repeatedly eluded Airman Levitow's valiant efforts to grasp it. 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 John 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, John'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 John 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 9 men. Spooky 71 continued to fight to remain airborne, its desperate gyrations banking the floor of the AC-47 at sharp inclines. John struggled onward, fighting pain, fighting gravity, and fighting a time frame 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.
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