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calendar   Monday - November 19, 2012

RIP Reis Leming. first non-Briton to win the George Medal for bravery in peacetime.

A brave man who had done his country proud.

Reis Leming (An American hero. RIP)

Reis Leming, who has died one day short of his 82nd birthday, was a 22-year-old American airman and became the hero of the hour when, despite being unable to swim, he braved storm waves and freezing temperatures to rescue 27 people during the devastating east coast floods of 1953; nine days later he became the first non-Briton to win the George Medal for bravery in peacetime.

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On the night of January 31 1953 hurricane- force winds, combined with a high tide, took sea levels many feet above their predicted levels. Waves were reported as high as 4.9m (16ft). Along the east coast of England 307 people died and around 24,000 homes were lost or damaged.

Among the many towns affected was the Norfolk resort of Hunstanton, where waves broke through the sea defences, crashing into wooden bungalows and flooding the South Beach area of the town in seawater that, in places, was 10ft deep.

Many of those trapped were families of American servicemen, living off-base in South Beach Road. By the following day 31 residents had lost their lives, including 16 Americans.

“I was around the US Air Force Sculthorpe base when they told us there had been a disaster and asked for volunteers,” Leming recalled in an interview. “I had no idea what it was, but I came down with my squadron to the shore at Hunstanton. With several other airmen I tried to launch an aluminium rescue boat [but] the waves were so high we could not get out and the propellers got fouled in the debris.

“We were floundering in the icy water and feeling exhausted, so we went back to the canteen. I dried out and put on a rubber exposure suit. I heard people screaming and saw flashlights… and I knew someone had to go.”

Leming got a six-man rubber raft, pumped it up and went down to the seafront. It was pitch dark: “The water was up to my neck and I had to hold the raft with my upraised arms and guide it along ahead of me. I went down the length of the street, picking up people who came off rooftops and out of windows. I made three trips in all. As I went I looked into each house, hollering and whistling to see if anyone was there. At one house I loaded seven children and six women on to the raft.”

He admitted later that he had been afraid for his own life: “It was cold, bitterly cold. And there came a time when I realised that I, too, was probably not going to survive. Everything was out of control. And I wondered at times, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”

Exhausted, and with his exposure suit ripped and filled with icy water, at the end of his third trip Leming collapsed into the sea with severe hypothermia and had to be rescued himself and taken to the American hospital at Sculthorpe. For years afterwards he had nightmares about the first remark he heard when he awoke — “cut off his legs!” — discovering only later that they were the words of a nurse wanting to remove his rubber suit so that he could be massaged back to life.

He was awarded the United States’ Soldier’s Medal for bravery, and in April 1953 he was presented with the George Medal by the British Ambassador to the United States.

Reis Leming was born on November 6 1930 at Toppenish, Washington State, and did his military service in the US Air Force as an Airman 2nd Class, serving as an aerial gunner with the 67th Air Rescue Squadron based at the USAF base at Sculthorpe.

After his heroism in the floods the following year, Leming returned home to the United States. But the people of Hunstanton never forgot him and when he announced his engagement to his childhood sweetheart, Mary Joan Ramsey, the town insisted on hosting the wedding. The ceremony, held in June 1953 in Hunstanton’s small Roman Catholic church, was attended by the mayor, government officials and many of those Leming had saved, while a large good-natured crowd milled around outside. The town gave the newly-weds a set of Doulton china, while local ladies pooled their rations to bake a huge three-tiered wedding cake.

Returning to America, Leming eventually settled in Oregon, where he became a businessman. But he continued to keep in touch with his British friends. In 1956 he was invited to launch Mayflower II, a replica of the Pilgrim ship, that was built at Brixham in Devon. He returned to Hunstanton on several occasions. In 1993 he attended a memorial service marking the 40th anniversary of the floods, when he was invited to Sandringham to meet the Queen and Queen Mother. He returned in 2003 to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster.

Leming had been looking forward to returning to Hunstanton earlier this month for a parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the US Air Force’s 67th Air Rescue Squadron, at which a footpath “Reis Leming Way” was named in his honour. But he died on November 5 after falling and breaking his hip.


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Posted by peiper   United Kingdom  on 11/19/2012 at 01:55 PM   
Filed Under: • OBITITUARIES •  
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