On this day in 1968, an Air Force helicopter pilot makes a daring rescue. When James P. Fleming rescued an Army Special Forces unit that day, he left enemy territory with one Army commando dangling from his helicopter by a rope!
Sounds like a scene from a movie, doesn’t it? One military historian has labeled Fleming’s heroics “one of the most dramatic rescues of the entire Vietnam War.”
On November 26, Fleming was dispatched on a mission to insert a Special Forces recon team (RT Chisel) deep into enemy territory. “Before you took off, you would brief, you would go over, and you would shake hands and hug,” Fleming later remembered, “the team members and the crew members. . . . What you’re doing is you’re saying, ‘I’m going to take you, and I’m going to put you out in the middle of hell. If you have to come home, I’ll bring you home.’ I’m telling him that. That’s my duty; it’s my honor. That’s what I do.”
Little did Fleming know that he’d end up putting his own life on the line in order to keep his unspoken promise that day.
Things were going smoothly at first. The recon team members were inserted safely, but they unfortunately ran into an ambush a few hours later. The team radioed back for an emergency extraction. A group of five Hueys immediately left to retrieve RT Chisel: two gunships and three “slicks.” Fleming was piloting one of the Huey slicks.
Unfortunately, one of the gunships was hit early in the rescue attempt. It went down, but its crew was quickly retrieved by one of the slicks. The slick left the area, carrying the rescued crew to safety. Another slick followed, as it was running low on fuel.
Thus, only two helicopters remained to extract RT Chisel: one gunship and Fleming’s slick. Fleming was worried about his fuel levels, too, but he knew that he couldn’t leave his men on the ground. He was their only hope.
The first attempt to rescue RT Chisel failed. The Vietnamese in the area opened a barrage of fire just as the Huey came in the area. The Special Forces team was forced away from the helicopter and back toward a river. The fire was so intense that the commander of RT Chisel radioed Fleming: “They’ve got us. Get out!”
The gunship was injured by then, but its pilot told Fleming that he would try one more pass before heading back. The gunship flew ahead, unloading fire in all directions. Fleming’s slick came in behind him, finally hovering just above the river near the Special Forces team. “Hostile fire crashed through his windscreen as the patrol boarded his helicopter,” Fleming’s citation notes. But Fleming held his helicopter steady, waiting as each member of RT Chisel was pulled aboard.
Finally, everyone was aboard except for one soldier. He’d stayed behind, spraying machine gun fire to keep the Vietnamese at bay as his team boarded the helicopter. Now that last man sprinted for the Huey as Fleming waited.
Finally, the last soldier lunged at the helicopter, grabbing a rope ladder. Fleming knew he had his man, and he took off. The final member of RT Chisel was still hanging beneath the chopper, and the Vietnamese were still firing as the Americans pulled away from the river!
When Fleming finally landed his Huey in safe territory, his fuel gauge read “empty.” Everyone had made it out. But barely.
Fleming received the Medal of Honor not too long afterwards. “How many helicopter pilots did what I did,” he later said, “and got shot down and died and no one saw it. Hundreds? I know that. I was recognized. And I owe a lot to those that weren’t.”
Edward F. Murphy, Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes (rev. ed. 2005)
Medal of Honor: Oral Histories (James Fleming, Vietnam War)
Medal of Honor citation (James P. Fleming; May 14, 1970)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)
Walter J. Boyne, Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force, 1947-2007 (2007)