A Medal of Honor recipient who earned distinction as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War visited the 308th Fighter Squadron March 16 at Luke Air Force Base.
James Fleming, 69, who retired as a colonel in 1996, is one of only five living Airmen to have earned the nation’s highest award for valor. He was in the Phoenix area for Major League Baseball spring training games and accepted the invitation to speak at the fighter squadron while he was in town, he said.
It was a rare engagement for Fleming, who said he doesn’t regularly give speeches anymore about his experience in Vietnam.
“I gave up the hero business a number of years ago,” he said.
In an informal hour-long speech to a room full of mostly fighter pilots, Fleming reminisced about his pilot training in the 1960s, told stories about his family “â€ many of whom serve in the military “â€ and recounted the events of Nov. 26, 1968, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
A 24-year-old first lieutenant at the time, Fleming was the pilot of a UH-1F Huey transport helicopter, an aircraft known as a “slick,” assigned to the 20th Special Operations Squadron “Green Hornets” at Ban Me Tout, Vietnam.
“Our mission was to fly special teams behind hostile lines to do strange and exotic things to the enemy,” he said. “They gave us cover stories to memorize, because if we went down and were captured, they’d kill us if they knew what we were doing there.”
On Nov. 26, a six-man team of Green Berets had been airlifted into Vietnam’s western highlands near the Cambodian border. Hours later, they found themselves trapped against a river, surrounded by enemy forces. Their team leader called for an evacuation.
The call was received by Fleming’s five-ship Green Hornet flight, which consisted of two other Huey slicks and two gunships. They found the patrol in a clearing, and the gunships immediately took out two enemy machine guns. Then one of them was hit and went down. One of the slicks rescued the crew and returned to base, accompanied by a second slick that was running low on fuel.
This left one gunship and Fleming’s slick to rescue the encircled friendly patrol. Fleming descended into the clearing, facing the jungle area where the North Vietnamese were concentrated. He started taking heavy machine-gun fire, however, and the patrol couldn’t make it to the helicopter. Fleming ascended again to assess the situation.
Though now running low on fuel, he knew he was the only hope the patrol had to be rescued. Again he descended, this time turning his slick so his side gunner could lay down suppressing fire. While he hovered over the riverbank, the patrol set off claymore mines, allowing all but one of the men to board. As enemy fire smashed into Fleming’s windshield, the final Green Beret who had been separated from the others dove into the water and swam toward the helicopter. He finally grabbed the rope ladder held by a crew member, and Fleming took off with him dangling in the air. They managed to make it safely back to base.
Fleming was recommended for the Medal of Honor by his commanding officer, and the award was presented at a White House ceremony by President Richard Nixon May 14, 1970.
The colonel’s speaking engagement at Luke was arranged by Capt. Evan Schonour, 308th FS C Flight commander.
“We’re flattered that Colonel Fleming took the time to come talk to us when he hasn’t been giving speeches in quite some time,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Colcord, 308th FS commander. “What a great opportunity for our folks here at Luke to hear about the experiences of a true war hero.”