The airman battled frigid, neck-high water to rescue marooned residents. He later revealed he couldn't swim.
On Jan. 31, 1953, a storm of historic proportions lashed the eastern coast of England, where U.S. 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 Reis (pronounced "rice") 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."
'In the spirit of Dunkirk'
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 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 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.
Hunstanton hosted his wedding to his first wife. The women of the town combined their rations to make him a three-tier wedding cake, the Daily Telegraph reported.
In the decades since, the people of Hunstanton invited him to return for commemorations, including one in which he met Queen Elizabeth. Leming was scheduled to visit the town this month, but he died before he could make the trip.