On this day in 1968, two days before Thanksgiving, Lieutenant James Fleming wasn’t home with family. He wasn’t basting a turkey or planning a Black Friday shopping trip. He was deployed to Ban Me Thuot in the Republic of Vietnam, serving as a UH-1F aircraft commander assigned to the 20th Special Operations Squadron.
While most of his countrymen prepared for celebratory feasts and time with family, Fleming was busy risking his life and earning the nation’s highest honor for bravery in combat. His story is a great reminder of what being an airman is all about, and why we should be thankful on this day to have such airmen among us.
On the morning of November 26th, a six-man Army special forces team was lifted into the highlands west of Pleiku near the Cambodian border, where they were tasked to conduct a long-range reconnaissance patrol. Within hours, they found themselves pinned down by enemy fire, their backs to a river while adversaries trained machine guns upon them mercilessly from multiple directions. Low on ammunition and in dire straits, the team called for help. Their request was relayed to a a flight of five UH-1F gunships operating in the area, one of which was piloted by Lieutenant James Fleming.
All five helos initially responded, heading toward the area despite being low on fuel and having not planned for such a diversion. One was almost immediately downed by enemy fire, and another diverted to rescue the downed crew and return to base. A third aircraft peeled away after reaching its minimum fuel reserve. Two UH-1s remained, their task to somehow pluck from the riverbank, without a proximate clearing in the thick jungle canopy, a team pinned down by three enemy gun positions relentlessly targeting them.
Disregarding his own safety and every rulebook ever written, Fleming lowered his gunship directly over the river, hovering just above the water with his landing skids resting against the riverbank. The maneuver not only exposed his aircraft to enemy fire, but required incredible flying skill — a constant stream of precise inputs maintaining a stable position in a tight space not designed for what he was daringly attempting.
He’d hoped that by putting himself within a few meters of the green berets, he’d give them a chance to safely evade and climb aboard. But it didn’t work. The enemy fire was just too ferocious, and the team remained hopelessly trapped, radioing to Fleming that they couldn’t make it to his position. He had no choice but to lift the helicopter away from the riverbank and out of the range of enemy fire.
Now well below minimum fuel and seemingly out of options, Fleming did what would make him an undisputed badass: he decided to try the same insane idea again. This time, he coordinated his approach with the team and suggested they try whatever trick they had up their sleeve to create additional cover as he began his descent.
As Fleming once again lowered his chopper into the tiny clearing, again maneuvering to rest his skids against the riverbank, the team detonated a cluster of anti-personnel mines, buying themselves just enough time for a desperate dash toward the chopper under withering fire. As they leapt aboard, having fought off several enemies within a few meters of his waiting UH-1, Fleming maneuvered away from the riverbank and beyond enemy gun range. He had saved six lives, risking nearly running out of fuel in the process of twice executing an unbelievable feat of aviation.
Fleming’s persistence, composure, skill, and dedication to the lives of his teammates exemplify the soul of the true American airman. When the chips were down, he didn’t let risks, rules, or fears inappropriately counsel his actions. He applied judgment, committed himself to what he believed was demanded under the circumstances, and then gave every ounce of his professionalism and focus to getting it done. Because of his actions, six special forces soldiers lived to celebrate Thanksgiving among comrades instead of dying in the Vietnamese jungle.
Today, we often find ourselves mentally enslaved to trivialities and awash in nonsense. It’s easy to get wrapped up in silly causes, online social justice movements, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, and the omnipresent worry that we might offend someone with our inner thoughts … or worse yet, violate the glowing red prohibition against making anyone uncomfortable or displeased with our outward expressions, be they public or private. Bad leaders, worse policies, farcical governance, and institutionalized apathy cloaked in Orwellian doublespeak tighten the vice of lunacy a little more every day, crushing the hearts and minds of people who signed up one thing and are getting another. It’s an environment conducive to forgetting what we’re all about.
But Lieutenant Fleming’s story reminds us what we’re about. We’re about putting teammates first and bailing them out when they get in over their heads. We’re about applying judgment, adapting to situations, and taking big risks when the circumstances demand it. Nothing personifies us more vividly or accurately than a guy flying a helicopter, nerve-wrackingly low on fuel, responding to a distress call, watching one wingman get shot down, two others divert, and another run low on ammo, and yet deciding, despite the odds, to fly into the teeth of the enemy while executing a move they don’t teach in flight school. And then, doing it again. And then, calmly flying home … the fuel gauge flashing red … and finding out after landing that even a few more minutes might have made the difference between a successful rescue and flameout in enemy territory.
That’s what we’re about. And as long as we never forget that, we’ll continue to have a strong and independent Air Force manned by heroic airmen to be thankful for. Fortunately, we have the story of Lieutenant James Fleming to help us remember … so long as we’re willing to lend it our attention.
For his actions, Fleming received the Medal of Honor in May, 1970. He went on to serve 30 total years in the Air Force before retiring in 1996 at the rank of Colonel.
His Medal of Honor citation follows:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Capt. Fleming (then 1st Lt.) distinguished himself as the Aircraft Commander of a UH-1F transport Helicopter. Capt. Fleming went to the aid of a 6-man special forces long range reconnaissance patrol that was in danger of being overrun by a large, heavily armed hostile force. Despite the knowledge that 1 helicopter had been downed by intense hostile fire, Capt. Fleming descended, and balanced his helicopter on a river bank with the tail boom hanging over open water. The patrol could not penetrate to the landing site and he was forced to withdraw. Dangerously low on fuel, Capt. Fleming repeated his original landing maneuver. Disregarding his own safety, he remained in this exposed position. Hostile fire crashed through his windscreen as the patrol boarded his helicopter. Capt. Fleming made a successful takeoff through a barrage of hostile fire and recovered safely at a forward base. Capt. Fleming’s profound concern for his fellow men, and at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.
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