Our instincts tell us not to leave a man down, or behind. That doesn’t just apply just to military personnel. Nevertheless, military personnel have had that concept ingrained into their being…probably more so than the rest of us. It is a code for them…never leave a man behind…whenever they have any say about it, they don’t. 1st Lieutenant James P Fleming was no different. In fact, Fleming was exceptional. Fleming was a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. On November 26, 1968, Fleming and four other UH-1F helicopter pilots were returning to their base at Duc Co, South Vietnam, for refueling and rearming when an emergency call for help was received from a Special Forces reconnaissance team.
While en route, they got a call that a six-man Special Forces team was pinned down by a large, hostile force not far from a river bank. The homebound force of two gunships and three transport helicopters immediately changed course and sped to the area without refueling. As the gunships descended to attack the enemy positions, one was hit and downed. The remaining gunship made several passes, rapidly firing with its miniguns, but the intense return fire from enemy machine guns continued. Finally, low on fuel, the helicopters were being forced to leave and return to base.
Lieutenant Fleming alone remained as the only transport helicopter left. He descended over the river to evacuate the team. Upon arrival, he found the area unsafe for landing because of the dense foliage, so he hovered just above the river with his landing skids braced against the bank. The lone gunship continued its strafing runs, but heavy enemy fire prevented the team from reaching the helicopter. Fleming’s leader advised him to withdraw. After pulling away, Lieutenant Fleming decided to make another rescue attempt before completely exhausting his fuel. He dropped down to the same spot and found that the team had managed to move closer to the river bank. The men dashed out and clambered aboard as bullets pierced the air, some smashing into the helicopter. The rescue craft and the gunship then returned to Duc Co where it was discovered that they were nearly out of fuel.
It was truly a miraculous rescue, in which not a single life was lost. Lieutenant Fleming was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of the special forces team that day. For his actions, Fleming received the Medal of Honor in May, 1970. Fleming remained in the Air Force serving a total of 30 years, becoming a colonel and a member of the Officer Training School staff at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, before his retirement in 1996 at the rank of Colonel.