Reis Leming: US Airman who saved 27 lives in British disaster, dies at 81

 

On Jan. 31, 1953, a storm of historic proportions lashed the eastern coast of England, where US airman Reis Leming was stationed with the recently formed 67th Air Rescue Squadron.

During the Night of the North Sea Rage, as it has been called, high tide and high sea levels clashed with hurricane-force gales to create what is often considered the worst peacetime disaster in 20th-century British history.

In some areas, waves as high as 16 feet swept away the bungalows dotting the coastline and the people marooned inside them. More than 300 people died in England, and as many as 24,000 homes were lost or damaged.

In the resort town of Hunstanton, not far from the RAF Sculthorpe military base where Leming was billeted, 15 local residents and 16 Americans lost their lives after the raging waters surged past the sea barriers. But nearly 30 people in the town survived thanks to Leming's gumption. He was feted as an international hero.

Equipped with a rubber dinghy and an anti-exposure suit, Leming forged into the neck-high frigid waters and over eight hours, like a human tugboat, single-handedly pulled 27 people to safety. It was later revealed that Leming, then 22, did not know how to swim.

"I heard people screaming and saw flashlights," he once told an interviewer, "and I knew someone had to go."

His feat, the contributions of other U.S. servicemen and the heroism of local residents renewed the sense of Anglo American fraternity soldered during the deprivations of World War II, still so deeply felt by the residents of Hunstanton. In his book "Norfolk Floods," Neil Storey wrote that the collaborative spirit and "selfless heroism" displayed that night was "very much in the spirit of Dunkirk and the Blitz."

And nearly six decades later, after his death Nov. 4 at his home in Bend, Ore., Leming remained an adopted hometown hero of Hunstanton. National and local news media honored him in obituaries. His wife, Kathy Leming, confirmed his death. He developed sepsis after a broken hip, she said, and had suffered from lymphoma for several years. He was 81.

An aerial gunner, Leming joined the Air Force in 1952 and soon shipped out to England to join his squadron, then stationed at RAF Sculthorpe. He trained mainly in maritime air rescue operations.

Leming's rubber dinghy expedition was not his first rescue attempt the night of Jan. 31. Before he set out, he and several other servicemen tried to launch an aluminum rescue craft, but the propellers malfunctioned amid the debris.

Another motorized crew tried to move out, Time magazine reported, but was blown back by the gales. Then out went Leming in his dinghy, clinging to the raft as gusts nearly ripped it from his hands.

Forcing his way down the street, at times against the current, he called out to people stranded on their rooftops. He made a total of three trips, rescuing 11 people during the first, seven during the second and nine in the last, according to a news account.

"There came a time," he said, "when I realized 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?' "

Eight hours into the rescue mission, as his ripped suit began to fill with icy water, Leming collapsed from exhaustion and hypothermia. He was reported to have been about 20 yards from dry land. If he had been in the water for five more minutes, Time wrote, he might have died.

He was taken back to the Air Force base, where he received his own life-saving treatment. When he came to, he was horrified to hear someone shout, "Cut off his legs!" Forty years later, when he met the nurse who treated him, she assured him that doctors intended to remove only the legs of his exposure suit.

Days after the storm, he became the first non-Briton to receive the country's prestigious George Medal for peacetime bravery. "The Queen was greatly stirred by his exploits," The New York Times reported, "and it is understood the award was made on her initiative." The U.S. military awarded him the Soldier's Medal.

"Shucks, it wasn't much," he was quoted as saying at the time, according to the local Eastern Daily Press.

In the decades since, the people of Hunstanton invited him to return for commemorations, including one in which he met Queen Elizabeth II. Leming was scheduled to visit the town this month, but he died before he could make the trip.

"I'm glad I was there and my efforts were successful," he once told the Eastern Daily Press. "I wonder if I'd have done what I did if I'd had a chance to think about it first."

Reis Lee Leming was born Nov. 6, 1930, in East St. Louis, Ill., and grew up in Washington state. His first name was pronounced "rice."

After four years in the Air Force, Mr. Leming returned to the Pacific Northwest. He became general sales manager of the Pacific Power company. He and his wife opened a security alarm company after moving to Bend more than two decades ago.

Hunstanton hosted his wedding to his first wife, the former Mary Joan Ramsay. The women of the town combined their rations to make him a three-tier wedding cake, the Daily Telegraph reported.

That marriage ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Kathy Krause Leming of Bend; three children from his first marriage, Debra Ross of La Center, Wash., Gail Parry of Seattle and Michael Leming of Portland, Ore.; a sister; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Reached by telephone at his home in Hunstanton, Neil Quincey, 87, expressed his gratitude to Leming and the other servicemen who aided him, his wife and his three children during the storm. The devastation, he said, is "something that never goes away."

"I appreciate everything the Americans did on that night," he said. "Can't say anything less than that."

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit