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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea