The 1960’s was a decade of turbulence for the United States as the Civil Rights Movement and America’s escalating involvement in Vietnam divided the country. One of the bright spots during that time was the story of James P. Fleming, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. Fleming was born in Sedalia, Missouri, in 1943 to John H. and Dixie L. Fleming. His father was a career Air Force pilot who flew combat missions in the Pacific during World War II and spent decades as a Strategic Air Command “cold warrior”. His father’s profound influence prompted him to become an Air Force pilot.
After graduating from Washington State University in 1966, he attended pilot training in Laredo, Texas. He volunteered to fly helicopters, and his first assignment was supporting missile operations as a UH-1F pilot at Minot AFB, North Dakota. While there, he flew missions for the US Forest Service in support of forest firefighting teams and a mission to Greenland in search of the wreckage of a nuclear weapons armed B-52. He then attended special operations training at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and was assigned to the 20th Special Operations Squadron in the Republic of South Vietnam in June 1968.
Thanksgiving week of that year turned out to be one of thanks for Fleming. On Monday, during his first combat mission, a rocket-propelled grenade struck Fleming’s helicopter while he was exfiltrating a disoriented reconnaissance team under fire. He safely landed in friendly territory and was later awarded the Silver Star for his actions. Yet it was on Tuesday of this same week that Fleming faced his greatest challenge. A Special Operations patrol came under heavy enemy fire and found themselves surrounded on three sides and backed up against an impassable river. In a formation of five helicopters, Fleming immediately responded to the call for extraction.
Upon arrival, one gunship was shot down, requiring one of the slicks to break off to rescue the downed crew. Another slick was critically low on fuel and had to return to base leaving only Fleming and a gunship, both critically low on fuel. After the Special Operations team leader waved off the first attempt to rescue his team, Fleming tried again. The only possible rescue plan required balancing the helicopter on the river bank while the men leaped aboard. Once the team was aboard, Fleming recovered to a forward operating base. The next day, Fleming rescued his downed wingman who had been down. For his heroism, President Richard M. Nixon presented him with the Congressional Medal of Honor in May 1970. Upon returning from Vietnam, Fleming completed fixed wing training at Randolph AFB, Texas and flew C-141s at McChord AFB, Washington.
Later, he served as an instructor at the United States Air Force Academy, Vice Commander of the Officer Training School, and Director of Operations at the Squadron Officer School. In 1996, he retired as a Colonel after amassing over 5,000 flying hours and 450 hours in combat. His other awards include the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters, and the Legion of Merit. He and his wife Jennifer have three children: Amy, Rebecca, and John; and ten grandchildren. They currently reside in Longview, Washington.