James P. Fleming receives the Medal of Honor on May 14, 1970.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 4/30/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11065

On May 14, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) presents the Medal of Honor to Captain James P. Fleming (b. 1943) at a White House ceremony. As a First Lieutenant and air force helicopter pilot, Fleming had exhibited exceptional heroism in battle in Vietnam. On November 26, 1968, his flight group had dropped a six-man team at a river-observation location on the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. As Fleming led four other helicopters on another mission they heard a radio message from the members of the observation team, who were under attack and surrounded on three sides with their backs to the river. The five helicopters rushed to their aid and, despite intense hostile fire and running low on fuel, succeeded in rescuing the entire team. Fleming is a graduate of Moses Lake High School and Washington State University. After he retires following 30 years of service, he and his wife Jennifer Hansen Fleming will reside in Longview, Cowlitz County.

Air Force Pilot

James P. Fleming was born in Sedalia, Missouri. His father, John H. Fleming (1920-2001), had flown in the Pacific in World War II and with the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War. James knew from an early age that he would join the air force. When he was 14, the family moved to Washington. James attended Moses Lake High School. In 1964 he married Jennifer Hansen (b. 1944) of Kelso, Cowlitz County. They would have three children.

James Fleming participated in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at Washington State University, from which he graduated in June 1965. Following graduation he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the air force. Fleming's career options in the air force were intelligence officer or pilot, and he chose to become a pilot. In May 1967 he completed flight school and earned his wings. His first assignment was at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, where he flew helicopter missions in support of the remote missile facilities around the base. He then attended special-operations training at Hurlburt Field in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Once he was trained in the very demanding special operations he received orders to Vietnam.

Helicopter Rescue

First Lieutenant Fleming's Vietnam special-operations duties began in July 1968. He flew a UH-1F (Huey) helicopter with the Air Force 20th Special Operations Squadron. The squadron was known as the "Green Hornets." Fleming's first combat mission indicated the extreme dangers he would face. As he was recovering a reconnaissance patrol, his Huey transport helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Despite the damage and with skilled flying he got the patrol safely out, and was awarded the Silver Star for his valor.

Fleming's first mission on November 26, 1968, was to fly a six-member Special Operations Group team into Cambodia and then return to base for additional missions. He successfully landed the first team in Cambodia and then flew another group to a Cambodian landing zone. Meanwhile the first team set up a position to observe river traffic on the Cambodian border with South Vietnam. Soon after they settled in, the six members of the observation team found themselves trapped, with North Vietnamese Army troops on three sides and the river on the fourth. The North Vietnamese attacked and the river observation team would soon be annihilated if they did not receive support.

First Lieutenant Fleming, leading a formation of five helicopters including two gunships, heard a panic call from the trapped Special Forces team. The trapped troops were about 30 miles away. Fleming turned toward their position and when the helicopter formation reached the area he had the two gunships fire on the opposing forces with machine guns and rockets. Fleming hovered as his gunships knocked out enemy machine-gun positions. One gunship was shot down and its crew was rescued by one of the troop-carrier helicopters. Low on the fuel, the rescue helicopter had to return to base. The surviving gunship continued strafing runs on the surrounding forces. Fleming added to the powerful attack with his crew firing the helicopter's two machine guns. He observed the gunship take some hits. It was critical to immediately recover the observation patrol as all the helicopters were low on fuel and ammunition.

Fleming descended to the trapped team but received a radio message that the gunship was hit again. Its crew urged Fleming to climb out of the enemy fire. He got above the firing and made new plans for the extraction. The team on the ground exploded anti-personnel mines and ran for the riverbank. Fleming hovered his helicopter at the riverbank and five men immediately ran to it with attackers right behind them. Enemy fire was hitting Fleming's helicopter as his crew pulled the men aboard. A rope ladder was thrown out to the last soldier as Fleming took off. The Special Forces trooper had to hang on until the helicopter was out of range. He was pulled into the helicopter when it safe to do so. When Fleming reached base his helicopter was empty of fuel. He had saved the trapped team. He would be awarded the Medal of Honor for the heroic rescue. The day after saving the observation team Fleming rescued another Green Hornet, who had been shot down.

Multiple Honors

By the time he had completed his Vietnam tour in April 1969 Fleming had flown more than 810 combat sorties and had been awarded the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Air Medal. On May 14, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to Captain James P. Fleming at a White House ceremony in the East Room, in which 11 other men who had served in Vietnam also received the medal.

Following his Vietnam tour Fleming completed fixed-wing flight training. In 1970 and 1971 he had flying duties at McChord Air Force Base in Pierce County. He flew the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter cargo aircraft. Fleming had educational assignments as well, serving four years at the Air Force Academy and teaching at the Squadron Officers School. In 1990 Fleming was honored with the Washington State University Achievement Award. His final duty assignment was to direct the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Texas Christian University. On July 1, 1996, Fleming retired as a colonel following 30 years of service. He had 5,000 hours of flying time, with 450 hours combat. Colonel Fleming was among those honored on the Special Operations Memorial at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. As of 2015, James and Jennifer Fleming resided in Longview, Cowlitz County.

Sources: Donald K. and Helen L. Ross, Washington State Men of Valor (Burley, Washington: Coffee Break Press, 1980); C. James Quann, WSU Military Veterans (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 2005); Edward F. Murphy, Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005); Peter Collier and Nick Del Calzo, Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty (New York: Artisan Books, 2003); "Longview Man Decorated," The Seattle Times, May 15, 1970, p. A-11; " Medal of Honor Given Longview Man, 11 Others," Ibid., May 14, 1970, p. A-6; "Longview Man Wins Medal of Honor for War Actions," The Oregonian, May 15, 1970, p. 34.

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