Reis Leming: 1953 flood rescue airman gets Hunstanton honour

Reis Leming Reis Leming rescued many people from their homes

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He was the US airman who was hailed a hero after rescuing 27 people from devastating floods that hit Norfolk in 1953.

Then aged 22, Reis Leming saved people from their wrecked homes in Hunstanton after raging sea water breached defences.

Despite being unable to swim, the RAF Sculthorpe-based serviceman managed to battle through high tides that hit a series of wooden prefabricated homes.

It was a feat that saw Mr Leming, who died in November aged 81, become the first non-Briton to win the George Medal for bravery in peacetime.

In one of a series of events to mark 60 years since the floods, people gathered in Hunstanton earlier to mark the heroism of Mr Leming.

A bus was officially named in his honour following by a procession along the town's seafront.

A new Reis Leming Way street sign was also unveiled by his widow and children. Mr Leming passed away just a few days before he was going to do the honour himself last year.

Flying in from the Leming family home in Oregon, on America's west coast, his widow Kathy Leming said: "It's just amazing to me that this community values him the way they do.

"This is the normal man I lived with for 40 years. I've come here and I see his name everywhere. I'm just so proud."

His son Michael, who was wearing his father's flying jacket, added: The outpouring of love and respect is tremendous. It's quite an honour to be here."

'Frightened to death'

John Maiden, coordinator for the commemoration, said the events marked a sad occasion "but one that helps to forge the relationship between Hunstanton and the 67th special operations squadron which came to the rescue in 1953 at a time when the emergency services were at a loss to know what to do".

"Reis Leming was awarded the George Medal for his single-handed rescue of 27 people trapped by the flood waters."

More than 60 people died on the stretch between King's Lynn and Hunstanton after water battered the coast in an overnight tidal surge on 31 January.

When the floods struck Hunstanton, many of those trapped were US service families living off-base in South Beach Road. Thirty-one people would not survive - 16 of them Americans.

1953 floods in Hunstanton Many properties in Hunstanton were destroyed in the floods

Speaking in 2003, Mr Leming said: "Scared? I was frightened to death.

"It was cold, bitterly cold. And there came a time when I realised 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?'"

Totally exhausted after hours battling the raging torrents during the night and with his survival suit torn and filled with water, Mr Leming eventually collapsed suffering from severe hypothermia.

Nine days later he was awarded the George Medal, making him one of the quickest-ever recipients of the award, before he headed back home.

1953 east coast floods

Canvey Island flooded
  • Death toll was estimated at 307 in English coastal towns and villages
  • More than 177 people were lost at sea in fishing boats
  • About 130 people died in the Irish Channel ferry Princess Victoria
  • In Holland and Belgium more than 3,000 people were killed
  • Coastal towns in Norfolk, Suffolk , Essex, Kent and Lincolnshire were devastated by sea water
  • Thousands of animals drowned
  • Tracts of farmland were made infertile by salt water
  • At King's Lynn in Norfolk a 6ft (1.8m) wave crashed through the centre of the town
  • More than 60 people died between the town and nearby Hunstanton
  • About 13,000 people were evacuated from Canvey Island, Essex, and 59 people died

Speaking in November, John Maiden, of Hunstanton Civic Society, paid tribute to Mr Leming's bravery.

"He heard people crying for help and wasted no time at all in donning an anti-exposure suit, grabbed a rubber life raft, and went in there and on three separate journeys rescued a total of 27 people," said Mr Maiden, who has helped to organise Saturday's ceremony.

"Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Not many people would have ventured out in those conditions. It was a tremendous act of courage."

More than 300 people were killed and 30,000 homes evacuated as more than 1,000 miles of British coast was affected by the storm.

In the Netherlands, the dead numbered more than 1,800.

Sixty years on, one in 25 homes in England and Wales is at risk of coastal flooding, the Environment Agency has warned.

David Rooke, the agency's director of flood and coastal risk management, said the anniversary would serve as a reminder of the devastation flooding could cause to lives and property.

He urged people living or working along the coast to find out if they were at risk of flooding and, if necessary, sign up to the Environment Agency's free flood warnings service.

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