Know Your Military

Medal of Honor Monday: Retired Air Force Col. James Fleming

Nov. 26, 2018 | BY Katie Lange

Medal of Honor Monday graphic
Medal of Honor Monday
Medal of Honor Monday graphic
Photo By: DOD Graphic by Regina Ali
VIRIN: 171212-O-JZ422-826

Helicopter pilots inserted troops and pulled them out of the jungles of Vietnam on a regular basis during the war. But Air Force Col. James P. Fleming’s refusal to leave anyone behind during an incident on Nov. 26, 1968, set him apart from the average pilot and earned him the Medal of Honor.

Then-Air Force Capt. James P. Fleming poses while wearing the Medal of Honor.
Medal of Honor Recipient
Medal of Honor recipient then-Air Force Capt. James P. Fleming
Photo By: Air Force photo
VIRIN: 160401-D-LN615-004A

Fleming was born in Sedalia, Missouri, at the end of World War II. His father had been a military pilot, so Fleming naturally grew fascinated with service and flying. He joined ROTC while he was at Washington State University and, upon graduation in 1966, he entered the Air Force to become a pilot, too.

Fleming was halfway through fixed-wing pilot training when a call went out for men to fly helicopters in Vietnam, so he volunteered. After more months of training, he was sent into combat.

“I was terribly excited to go,” Fleming said in an interview with the Veterans History Project. “I wanted to go fly in war.”

A few months into his tour, Fleming was a first lieutenant and the aircraft commander of a UH-1F Iroquois transport helicopter that was part of the 20th Special Operations Squadron based out of Nha Trang Air Base. Their mission: to support troops sent into volatile areas of Vietnam along the Cambodian border.

On Nov. 26, 1968, Fleming flew to the aid of a seven-man team of Army Green Berets on a reconnaissance patrol. They had been compromised while spying on enemy troops and were in danger of being overrun by a large, heavily armed enemy, which chased them to a riverbank.

Helicopters fly over a jungle.
Iroquois Choppers
Air Force UH-1F Iroquois helicopters insert special operations teams into Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
Photo By: Air Force photo
VIRIN: 170525-F-ZZ999-0001

Fleming knew one rescue helicopter had already been downed by enemy fire – he watched it happen. But he searched for the missing patrol anyway, disregarding his own safety while dangerously low on fuel. Enemy fire crashed through his chopper’s windshield before he finally found the Green Berets wading into the river water, trying to escape the onslaught following them.

Fleming found a way to hover his helicopter right above the riverbank so one of his crew members could grab the Green Berets, pulling them out of the water one by one. The last man on the team practically had to jump into the chopper right before they took off.

Despite continued fire in their direction, Fleming made it out of the fray. All seven men on the recon patrol made it out alive, thanks to his unwavering desire to bring everyone home.

About a month later, Fleming was injured and evacuated to Japan. When he returned to Vietnam a few months later, he was surprised to hear he was going home – he’d been named a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Fleming received the nation’s highest military award for valor from President Richard Nixon at a ceremony at the White House on May 14, 1970.

Two Medal of Honor recipients shake hands.
Medal of Honor Greeting
Medal of Honor recipients retired Air Force Cols. James P. Fleming, left, and Joe Jackson shake hands after unveiling the 58th Special Operations Wing Medal of Honor memorial wall during a ceremony at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., Nov. 15, 2016.
Photo By: Todd R. Berenger
VIRIN: 161115-F-WV904-123A

Fleming spent a total of 30 years in the Air Force, retiring as a colonel in 1996.

He and his wife currently live in Washington. They had three children, including a son who joined the Marines and served in Afghanistan.

This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.