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April 7, 2014

Spooky saved many lives

Gunship arrives at Gainesville Municipal Airport

Gainesville — Vietnam veterans remember the Douglas AC-47 gunship Spooky and when they do, they often thank the plane for their lives.

The airplane’s primary function was for close air support for ground troops during episodes of heavy enemy fire.

A restored AC-47 gunship will be on display to the public April 11 and 12 at the Gainesville Municipal Airport. The plane arrived March 31 and scheduled plans include a flyover during the April 12 Medal of Honor Host City parade on California Street.

Once called into action, the AC-47 could remain airborne over designated targets sometimes for hours. A three second burst from the miniguns through two rear windows and the side cargo door would discourage enemy fire. It could put a round in every square foot of a football sized field in a matter of minutes.

This particular AC-47 belongs to the American Flight Museum located in Topeka, Kan. And museum president Robert Rice said that the gunship was similar to the U.S. Calvary arriving during early American frontier skirmishes.

Rice said that the Vietnam enemy preferred to attack at night, surrounding American outposts and firing at U.S. Troops. The Viet Cong had the advantage in the dark and Americans sustained heavy casualties.

“They would call for air support and Spooky would arrive,” Rice said. “The support became so effective that eventually the enemy would stop and leave when they saw a gunship arrive.”

Rice said that the AC-47 evolved into the AC-130 gunship today for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and provides the same close air support for American soldiers.

Spooky carried flares attached to small parachutes that would be tossed from the plane to light up the nighttime sky, exposing enemy positions.

“It was highly unpopular with those on the receiving end and extremely popular with our military men,” Rice said. “When veterans see the plane today, they’ll tell me how Spooky saved their lives.”

One of the quiet heroes of Vietnam and Medal of Honor recipient the late John Levitow received his medal for heroic actions aboard the AC-47 gunship Spooky 71. He was a loadmaster who saved his crew on his 181st combat mission. During World War II and Vietnam, five airmen earned the Medal of Honor and Levitow was one of them, the lowest ranking and youngest airman at age 23 to earn the medal. Levitow was responsible for setting the ejection and ignition controls of the magnesium flares carried by the gunship.

The story of his heroic action is posted on the AC-47 gunship walls.

On Feb. 24, 1969, airman 1st Class John Levitow was aboard Spooky 71 that had been in the night sky for several hours when the aircraft’s commander was directed to an area where enemy mortars were firing a heavy barrage. The besieged troops were at Long Binh Army base, a few miles northeast of Saigon. As the plane arrived at its target area, Levitow handed a flare to another airman whose finger was on the safety pin ring, preparing to toss the flare through the door on the order.

Suddenly Spooky 71 was rocked by a tremendous blast. An 82-mm mortar shell had exploded inside the gunship’s right wing, showering the cargo compartment with shrapnel. Navigator William Platt said later that the plane was “lit up like daylight.”

All five crew members in the rear of the plane were hurled to the floor, bleeding from shrapnel wounds. Spooky 71 fell into a steep, descending turn to the right, momentarily out of control. The flare was torn from Owen’s hands by the blast. It rolled around the aircraft floor fully armed among several thousand rounds of live ammunition for the miniguns.

Levitow was in pain and shock and stunned by the concussion of the blast and suffering with 40 shrapnel wounds in his legs, side and back. He saw one of the crew lying perilously close to the open cargo door. As he dragged the wounded man to safety, Levitow spied the armed, smoking flare rolling erratically around the cargo compartment.

Weakened from loss of blood and partially paralyzed by his wounds, Levitow tried to pick up the flare as it skidded around the floor. The plane was still in a 30 degree bank. In desperation he threw himself on the burning flare, dragged it to the open door, a trail of blood marking his path and pushed it out of the cargo door just as it ignited in a white-hot blaze. Levitow lapsed into unconsciousness.

The pilot regained control of the gunship, the mortar explosion had ripped a two foot hole in its wing and fragments riddled the fuselage with thousands of shrapnel holes. When the battered plane landed at Bien Hoa, Spooky 71’s home base with its five injured crewmen ambulances and a medical evacuation helicopter were waiting. Levitow and another crewman were seriously injured and flown to a hospital in Japan. After Levitow recovered, he flew 20 more combat missions before returning to the States to complete his enlistment as a C-141 loadmaster at Norton Air Force Base in California.

On Armed Forces Day, May 14, 1970, President Richard Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to Levitow in a ceremony at the White House. Levitow died Nov. 8, 2000.

Spooky 71 and all other Douglas AC-47 gunships were gifted to the government of Vietnam after the conflict. The gunship also had the nickname of Puff the Magic Dragon.

 

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