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.
Most people know that the USS Arizona was one of the ships that was bombed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The USS Arizona’s sinking took with it, 1,177 men…almost half of the total of 2,403 people killed at Pearl Harbor. The Arizona was one of 20 American ships and more than 300 airplanes lost that day. We know that the attack woke the sleeping giant that is the United States, and we joined World War II with the Allies to stop the tyranny that was Japan and later Germany and Italy. Most people know that the Allies were successful in World War II, and after four long years and the loss of over 400,000 lives, the war was over. There are a few facts about the USS Arizona that many people might not know, however.
Twenty three sets of brothers died aboard USS Arizona. In all there were 37 confirmed pairs or trios of brothers assigned to the ship. Of the 77 men in those sets, 62 were killed. Only one full set of brothers survived. Kenneth and Russell Warriner survived because Kenneth was away at flight school in San Diego, and Russell, while badly wounded, lived. Also on board were father and son, Thomas Free and his son William who served and were killed aboard the Arizona that day. While no regulation exists, US officials discouraged siblings serving on the same ship after the Pearl Harbor attack. In addition to these men who died, the USS Arizona’s entire band, all 21 members, known as US Navy Band Unit (NBU) 22, were lost in the attack. Most of its members were up on deck preparing to play music for the daily flag raising ceremony when the attack began. They instantly moved to man their battle positions beneath the ship’s gun turret. It was the only time in American history that an entire military band died in action. In the years following the attack, and following the decision to leave the dead in the USS Arizona, it was decided that a memorial should be placed there. That is a known fact, but what I didn’t know was that in March 1961, Elvis Presley, who had recently finished a two year stint in the US Army, performed a benefit concert at Pearl Harbor’s Block Arena that raised over $50,000. That was more than 10 percent of the USS Arizona Memorial’s final cost. The monument was officially dedicated on May 30, 1962.
One of the most surprising facts about the Arizona, however, is related to the fuel. The day before the Pearl Harbor attack, the Arizona had taken on a full load of fuel…nearly 1.5 million gallons, because it was set to make a trip to the mainland later that month. When the Japanese bombers attacked, that fuel played a major part in the explosions and raging fire that followed the bombing. After the fires were put out, there were 500,000 gallons of fuel left in the ship. Now, 75 years later, the Arizona continues to spill up to 9 quarts of oil into the harbor each day. In the mid-1990s, concerns for the environment led the National Park Service to commission a series of site studies to determine the long term effects of the oil leakage. Some scientists have warned of a possible “catastrophic” eruption of oil from the wreckage, which they believe would cause extensive damage to the Hawaiian shoreline and disrupt US naval functions in the area. They continue to monitor the deterioration of the wreck site but are reluctant to perform extensive repairs or modifications due to the Arizona’s role as a “war grave.” In fact, the oil that often coats the surface of the water surrounding the ship has added an emotional gravity for many who visit the memorial and is sometimes referred to as the “tears of the Arizona” or “black tears.”
As surprising as that is, there is still one more fact that many people didn’t know. The bonds between the crewmembers of Arizona have lasted far beyond the loss of the ship on December 7, 1941. Since 1982, the US Navy has allowed survivors of USS Arizona to be interred in the ship’s wreckage upon their deaths. After a full military funeral at the Arizona memorial, the cremated remains are placed in an urn and then deposited by divers beneath one of the Arizona’s gun turrets. More than 30 Arizona crewmen who survived Pearl Harbor have chosen the ship as their final resting place. Crewmembers who served on the ship prior to the attack may have their ashes scattered above the wreck site, and those who served on other vessels stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, may have their ashes scattered above their former ships. As of November 2011, only 18 of the 355 crewmen who survived the bombing of USS Arizona are known to be alive. I knew that the Pearl Harbor attack had a deep impact on the lives of the survivors, but I guess I didn’t fully understand that it was a life changing event, and it would never really leave them.
Because our world seems always to be at war, it is an unfortunate reality that bombs will exist…some legal, made for our military to keep us safe, some legal to blow up things for construction and other things, and of course some illegal, meant to bring terror and destruction. When I think about most bombs, the word terror definitely comes to the surface…be the bomb legal or not. Never is that more of a thought that when I think about the possibility of a bomb being lost, especially due to a plane crash. During the Cold War, as a means of maintaining first-strike capability, United States bombers carrying nuclear weapons circled the earth constantly…for decades. We just never knew when we could be attacked. We had to be…always ready.
The problem with planes carrying bombs and in the air constantly, is the possibility of crashes. My thought, when a bomber crashes, is what happens to the bomb. In all reality, it’s a good question. There have been about three dozen accidents in which bombers either crashed or caught fire on the runway, resulting in nuclear contamination from a damaged or destroyed bomb and/or the loss of a nuclear weapon. We don’t often hear about these…especially when they happen in the United States, but let one happen in another country, and it’s a different story. When one of these bombs was lost, it was called a Broken Arrow, mainly to avoid panic, I’m sure. One of the only Broken Arrows to receive widespread publicity occurred on January 17, 1966. A B-52 bomber crashed into a KC-135 jet tanker over Spain.
The bomber was on route to its base in North Carolina, when the crash occurred dropping three 70 kiloton hydrogen bombs near the town of Palomares and one in the sea. The KC-135 was attempting to refuel the B-52, when the B-52 collided with the fueling boom. The fuel was ignited and the KC-135 blew up, killing its crew. Four of the seven crew members of the B-52 managed to parachute to safety…the rest were lost. The bombs were not armed, but with the first two, the explosive material exploded on impact, forming craters and scattering radioactive plutonium over the fields of Palomares. One bomb landed in a dry riverbed and remained intact, and the fourth landed in the sea. No one knew for sure where it was. The cleanup was massive.
Locating the bomb that had fallen into the sea took a bit longer. The Navy used an IBM computer, and experts tried to calculate where the bomb might have landed. They were very handicapped because of the size of the impact area. Finally, a Spanish fisherman gave an eyewitness account that proved to be so accurate that on March 15th, with a much smaller search area, a submarine spotted the bomb. The bomb was recovered on April 7th, damaged but intact, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. This particular accident was widely reported, because it was on foreign soil. It makes me wonder why there is so little reporting on American soil Broken Arrows. To this day, two hydrogen bombs and a uranium core lie in yet undetermined locations in the Wassaw Sound off Georgia, in the Puget Sound off Washington, and in swamplands near Goldsboro, North Carolina. I suppose some people knew of these lost bombs before, but I did not…until now.
In the early years of our marriage, Bob and I went with my father-in-law, my brother-in-law, and assorted friends to the Shirley Mountains to get wood to burn for heating their house. We would spend the day hauling log after log to the trailer we had brought. By lunchtime, I was starving!! Carrying those big logs was hard work, but it was beautiful up there in the mountains.
My father-in-law wanted to burn wood as much as possible to save money on heating bills. Many people were turning to wood burning stoves to cut costs, and the BLM was letting people buy permits to clear the dead fall for the mountains to cut down on the fire hazard up there.
We went up several weekends, and brought back lots of wood. Then began the work of cutting and splitting the wood. We had quite a production going. The guys had a rhythm going. They cut the logs into pieces the right length, then they went to the splitter, and were tossed onto the woodpile. Even the little kids pitched in.They thought they were so grown up, when we allowed them to help stack the wood.
Over the next few years, the woodpile would get to be so huge that it looked higher than the house. We were all shocked at what we had. You could see it from a long way off. One thing was for sure…my father-in-law had enough wood to heat his house for some time to come. People don’t go out and haul their own wood much anymore, or maybe I’m just out of the loop, but it was a time I will always remember…because it was such a pleasant time.