US Air Force pilot Lt. James Fleming, assigned to the 20th Special Operations Squadron in Vietnam was awarded the Medal of Honor for risking his life and his aircraft above and beyond the call of duty to rescue the lives of seven Green Berets on November 26, 1968.
The seven-man Green Beret unit was conducting a long-range reconnaissance patrol about 20 miles of west of Pleiku in the Central Highlands of Vietnam near the Cambodian border.
Not long after infiltration, the SF team got into a firefight with a large number of enemy soldiers. They were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned and were pushed back against a river with the NVA surrounding them on three sides. Heavy machine gun fire was keeping the Green Berets pinned down and they radioed for an emergency, immediate extraction. The call was picked up by a US Air Force Forward Air Controller (FAC) who relayed the information to Fleming and the other aircraft.
Fleming, piloting a UH-1F helicopter and five other gunships of his unit were finishing a mission and en route back to their base at Ban Me Thuot when they heard the distress call. Despite being low on fuel, they answered the call and flew towards the beleaguered SF troops.
Immediately upon arriving in the area, one of the gunships was brought down by the heavy enemy fire. A second helicopter was forced to peel off to pick up the downed aircrew and return them to the base. A third chopper had its fuel warning light come on and was forced to abandon their rescue attempt as well.
The SF troops were attempting to get to a clearing that was only 25 meters away from where Fleming and the other gunship, who was nearly out of ammunition would attempt to pick them up. They popped smoke in front of their position and Fleming and the other gunship raked the enemy’s position, knocking out two machine gun positions.
Fleming buzzed the small clearing and realized that he couldn’t land there, he decided to try a very dangerous maneuver by flying along the river and resting his skids on the riverbank and having the Green Berets sprint the short distance to the river and his waiting chopper.
It didn’t work. The ground fire was so great, the SF team leader radioed that they couldn’t make it to the chopper. All hope was about to be lost. Fleming was undeterred, however. He then lifted off and although coming under intense ground fire, he flew around to make a final pass. He and the FAC decided on one final course of action.
The FAC instructed the SF team leader to detonate all of their mines and explosives as soon as Fleming tried to land on the riverbank again. Then make a dash for the helicopter. As Fleming settled in, the Green Berets detonated their mines and rushed for the helicopter firing all the way.
The enemy knew exactly what the Green Berets and Fleming were trying to do and rushed in a desperate attempt to kill the team and down the helicopter. As the Green Berets made it to the riverbank they dove into the waiting helicopter and killed three enemy soldiers who had gotten to within a few feet of the helicopter. Fleming lifted off and flew down the river thru intense enemy fire that shattered his windscreen before getting the troops out of harm’s way. His selfless action saved the lives of seven men that day.
Fleming was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Nixon at the White House on May 14, 1970. His official citation reads:
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.
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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.
Fleming remained in the Air Force, rising to the rank of Colonel before retiring at Lackland AFB in 1996. His other decorations include the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and eight Air Medals.
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