Military Order of the Purple Heart

Texas Capital Chapter 1919 Austin, Texas





1924 -- 2011













Patriot, Chapter 1919

 Wounded:  Army, Vietnam

Also Combat Veteran of Navy WWII, and Army Korea


Joseph Levinson was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1924.  His family moved numerous times, but always within the city, so Joe attended a lot of different public schools there, including Volta, and Hivvard before graduating from Resin Orr Grammar School, and then from Von Steuben Junior High School.  He then attended three different High Schools (Senn, Lane Technical, and Austin High) before dropping out, leaving home and going to work.  He had enrolled in Northwestern University shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged America into World War II, but then Joe immediately volunteered for the Navy.  Still only 17, he first had to go back home and obtain his parents permission before he could go on active duty.   On March 3, 1942 he reported for basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station.


Joe served in both the European and Pacific Theatres in Anti-Submarine Flying Boats and was awarded the Navy Combat Air Crew Wings before being discharged in 1946.  During those four years, he served at various times in Anti-Sub Patrol Squadrons, VPB-204, VP-213, and VP-215.  These squadrons flew the PBM “Mariner” Flying Boat and Joe’s crew assignment was radio operator.  Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) missions in the PBM could last as long as twelve hours.  For those long flights the plane would have two radio operators, two radar operators and two engineers, and they were all cross-trained to permit frequent shift changes.  Staring at the radar screen for more than short intervals was especially tiring so, like the others during a typical mission, Joe took his turns shifting from the radio, to the radar scope, to a waist gunners position, and back again with brief rest breaks.  During one mission that he flew from Trinidad, British West Indies, they engaged a German Submarine that was disabled on the surface, and assisted a B-17 bomber in attacking the U-Boat.


After WWII, Joe returned home to Chicago and worked for some time as a Printers Ink salesman.  After hours, he played poker with some friends who were in the Illinois Army National Guard, and those friends included the Chief of Staff.  Through those contacts, Joe was attracted to enlist in the guard in 1949.  He was quickly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant, and from 1950 – 1951 he served as aide-de-camp to Brigadier General Julius Klein. General Klein volunteered his unit for active duty for the Korean War, and in May 1952 they were called up.


Initially, Lieutenant Levinson was in the 179th Coast Artillery (Air Defense) at Fort Bliss, Texas.  He applied for flight school and was ordered to Fort Rucker, Alabama where he received his Army Aviator Wings on August 23, 1952.   From there he was shipped to Korea where he was assigned as a Forward Observer in the 189th Field Artillery Battalion, 45th Infantry Division.  Joe flew an L-19 Bird Dog artillery “spotter” plane from the 45th Infantry Division airfield and he called for and adjusted fires from artillery units and Naval gunfire from ships operating off the east coast.  He also flew Infantry scout observation missions for the division.  Altogether, he flew 120 missions, earning a Bronze Star and four awards of the Air Medal before the armistice.


After the Korean War he was assigned to Fort Rucker, Alabama, and remained on active duty in the National Guard.  On August 15, 1960 he was designated Senior Aviator.


Major Levinson served in Vietnam from November 29, 1963 through November 17, 1964.   He commanded the 121st Aviation Company (Air Mobile, Light) while at the same time he was also Commander, Soc Trang Army Airfield & USAF fighter base, Adviser to the Commander, 21st Division (ARVN) for air mobility operations and tactics, and Area Coordinator for southern Mekong River operations. However, Joe did not have all those lofty sounding titles when he first took command of the 121st.  He grew into the job, became a legend and made a place for himself in the history of Army Aviation in the process.  An article in the October 1965 issue of MAN’S MAGAZINE says it happened this way.


“When Joe Levinson took command of the 121st Aviation Company, Soc Trang was a rat-infested dump with few facilities, a forsaken landing strip in the damp, jungle-like swamps of the Mekong Delta near the southern tip of the country.  Scrounging from every source available, the enterprising Levinson soon got rid of the rats, built three clubs for his men, a library, a hobby shop, tennis courts, and an Olympic-size swimming pool.  The Army and Air Force brass, knowing a good thing when they saw it, decided to use Soc Trang as the major helicopter and fighter-bomber base in the VC-infested area south of Saigon, and soon the field was jammed with aircraft of all types.  It became the center of … efforts to clear the Mekong Delta of Communist guerrillas.”


You can’t do all the things Joe did, even in a war zone, without getting in trouble.  He did.  Four times he was relieved of his command, only to be reinstated the next day.  The fifth time he ran afoul of the establishment he got prepared ahead of time.  Major Levinson flew up to Can Tho and laid a written resignation on the desk of his boss, Lt Col “Ace” Phillips, Commander, 13th Aviation Battalion.  Joe says, “He took it and said, “resignation approved,” tore up the paper and said, “now get back to work,” I left and that’s the last time I was called in to get fired.”


Among those miscellaneous units that were attracted to Joe Levinson’s rapidly expanding airfield in Soc Trang was the tiny little 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance), commanded by Major Charles L. Kelly.  Kelly was a WWII combat infantryman who had almost lost a leg when wounded in the fighting at Aachen, Germany.  Now, he was attempting to cover all of Vietnam with his detachment’s five UH-1 Medevac aircraft.  Since most of the action at that time was in the delta, Kelley relocated himself and two of his “Hueys” to Soc Trang Airfield.  When Kelly reported in, Levinson gave him half of his base commander’s living quarters and from then on shared his unit operations facilities with him as well.  They spent a lot of time together and clashed often on how things ought to be done, but, nonetheless became great friends.  Kelly patrolled the delta, day and night, advertising his presence and looking for casualties.  His call sign was “Dustoff,” and he let it be known that the 57th was there to bring out the wounded any time, and from any place.  As that word got out, patient flow increased, and so did combat pickups – often in the heat of battle.  “Madman Kelley,” as he was called, flew in any kind of weather and he flew at night when night flying was rare.  He took risks, saved a lot of lives, and in doing so became famous himself, even before being killed in action.  On July 1, 1964, “Dustoff” had just set down in a rice paddy near Vinh Long to pick up several wounded Vietnamese soldiers and a wounded American Adviser when the ground commander radioed that he was receiving fire and for him to get out immediately.  Kelly answered, “When I have your wounded,” and just then a bullet came through the open cargo door and went through his heart making him the 149th American killed in Vietnam.


Joe Levinson flew in, picked up Kelly’s crew and brought out his body.  His replacement flew in from Saigon the next day.  Joe put him in Kelly’s bunk in their shared quarters and gave him the bullet that had killed Kelly.  The replacement started flying missions immediately, and he flew just like Kelly.


Many more Helicopter Ambulance units would be sent to Vietnam and, flying the way Charles Kelley had taught them at Soc Trang, they set new records in lifesaving effectiveness. From that time forward, every mission flown in Vietnam was called “Dustoff,” and the legend of Charles Kelley lives on today.


The “Soc Trang Tigers,” as the 121st Aviation Company was called, were flying the CH-21 Shawnee helicopter, the obsolete old “flying banana.”  Stationed in the IV Corps Area, their mission was to provide dedicated airmobile support to the 21st Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), commanded by Brigadier General Dang Van Quang.  This original aviation company in Vietnam pioneered the tactics of quick reaction airlifts and, due to their success in doing so, “Tiger 6,” Joe Levinson, developed an outstanding rapport with General Quang.  (Note: The Vietnamese IV Corps Commander at that time was Colonel Thieu.  This was the same Thieu that later became President of the country and when he did, he made General Quang his finance minister.)


In June 1964 the 121st company was re-equipped with new UH-1 “Huey” helicopters.  Because the venerable old CH-21’s could lift heavier loads than the new “Hueys,” many of the “Soc Trang Tiger” aviators were not happy to see the change.  However, in addition to the standard UH-1 “lift” aircraft, the 121st now also had a powerful new armed helicopter platoon.  Major Levinson used this platoon (nicknamed the “Vikings”) of rocket and machine gun firing “gun ships” in innovative ways as they gained experience, developing tactics that proved to be highly effective and were adopted as standard procedure from that time on.


Joe Levinson led an operation on November 4, 1964 that established his place of honor in Army Aviation and that is still talked about today among the attack helicopter pilots of that era.  Late that day, Joe was informed by the Adviser to the Province Chief, Major Hartwin Peterson (Hart Peterson also now a member of Chapter 1919, was in the back seat of Joe’s aircraft when he was wounded) that elements of the enemy’s veteran First Regiment had slipped in close and apparently were preparing to strike the airfield during the night. Soc Trang Airfield had been hit with a mortar attack in April, when there were few aircraft other than the 121st Aviation Company and that had caused significant damage.  Now there were many more aircraft stationed on the airfield and a mortar attack at that time could have resulted in a major disaster.  Major Levinson ordered the gun ships into the air.  It was a very dark night and there was no chance of spotting the Viet Cong force from the air, so the only hope for disrupting attack was to bait the enemy force into revealing its position. While the Viking Platoon followed at altitude, with lights off, and observed; Joe, intentionally tempting enemy fire, flew his aircraft low and slow with all navigation lights on, directly across the threat area. They were spectacularly successful on all counts.  Joe drew heavy ground fire, dropped flares illuminating the target area and barely escaped in a badly shot-up aircraft.  The gun ship platoon struck from the darkness inflicting many casualties as the VC fled for safety.  After daylight, troops of the 21st ARVN Division pursued the disorganized survivors, inflicting further losses until they escaped into the jungle.  Soc Trang Airfield remained safe.


Major Levinson and the "Soc Trang Tigers" were prominently featured in a NBC News Documentary titled: "Vietnam: It's a Mad War," that was narrated by NBC anchor, Chet Huntley and was aired in the United States on December 1, 1964.  The documentary, written by Bob Rogers and produced by Ted Yates is considered by analysts today to be of lasting historical significance, having identified even at that early date, problems that remained unresolved ten years later and eventually led to failure and the fall of South Vietnam.  You can view one treatment of that historical documentary by going to this address:


"Vietnam: It's a Mad War,"


Joe was wounded in Saigon on August 24, 1964 by Viet Cong small arms fire and was treated at the 134th Medical Detachment.  When he left Vietnam he had been awarded the Legion of Merit, and among many other awards, had accumulated 13 oak leaf clusters and a “V” device for his Air Medal, along with his Purple Heart.


At his departure ceremony Major Levinson personally received citations from General Quang and Colonel Thieu.  He was also presented with South Vietnam’s highest combat award, the Medal of Valor with gold palm, only the eighth such award that had been made to an American at that time in the war.


He returned to the United States to Fort Rucker, Alabama where he served as Chief, Long Range Branch, Studies and Special Projects Division, Aviation Agency, U.S. Army Combat Development Command, until his retirement on July 31, 1967.  Colonel (retired) Levinson, now living in the local area, is a recently joined member of Chapter 1919.


End Notes by Joe Levinson :


Brigadier General Julius Klein, Illinois Army National Guard, was a prominent political figure of the day.  He was the keynote speaker to General MacArthur when he ran for President, 1948-1951. General Klein volunteered us for active duty, but when we reported to the train station that day in May 1952, General Klein was not there.  He never did serve on active duty during the Korean War.


Upon the fall of South Vietnam, President Theiu fled to France.  Finance Minister, General Quang tried to come to the United States, but was denied entry and eventually was admitted in Canada.  General Quang was truly a great division commander.


“Dustoff” Charles Kelley left a letter for his wife to be read in the event of his death, revealing his passion for his flag, his family and the Army.  In the letter he noted his fondness for a poem by Robert Service, “The Song of the Soldier Born,” and a favorite verse from the poem of which was:


            For I hold as a simple faith, there’s no denying,

            The trade of a soldier’s the only trade worth plying;

            The death of a soldier’s the only death worth dying.


Charles Kelly’s replacement at Soc Trang was Patrick H. Brady who later received the Medal of Honor for his actions as a “Dustoff” pilot and eventually retired as a Major General.   An article written about Kelly by Patrick Brady is in the September 2003 issue of American Legion Magazine.


Patriot Joseph Levinson, a combat veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam passed away on October 27, 2011 at age 87.


World War II





2nd Lieut Joe Levinson

Fort Bliss, Texas, 1952

Joe with L-19 "Bird Dog"




Joe Levinson (right) with two buddies

Patrol Squadron VP-213

at NAAS Harvey Point, Hertford, North Carolina

Crew of Joe's PBM

Patrol Squadron VP-215, based at Kings Point, Bermuda

Joe is front row, 3rd from left





Major Levinson and his company commander's aircraft

with General Quang, Commander, 21st ARVN Division


Joe Levinson with General
Quang, Commander, 21st ARVN Division, 1964










Joe Levinson


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