Wednesday, November 28, 2012


“He saved 27 from floods, was honored by queen” is not a bad start to a tribute was my first thought.

The headline indicates that here indeed is a story. A beginning like this is like a call from the rooftops. It shouts far and wide that a real-life hero has passed our way.

The hero is Reis Leming. He was a U.S. airman serving in England when a North Sea storm, with the destructive impact of last month’s storm Sandy in the Northeast, came onshore January 31, 1953.

High winds, high sea levels and high tides made deadly assault on Britain’s east coast. 

Over 300 people died in the storm which has been called Night of the North Sea Rage. It is considered England’s worst peacetime disaster of the 20th century.

At the coastal town of Hunstanton the sea surged past barricades claiming 31 lives.

The seaside city, which faces west and gets the name “Sunny Hunny” because of it, is not far from the RAF base where Leming was stationed with his American squadron.

Despite its many fatalities Hunstanton had a streak of good luck. The luck came via rescuers like Reis Leming,

Many residents were saved through the courage and grit demonstrated that night. Leming and others were at hand and lent a hand to make a difference in saving lives.

“I heard people screaming and saw flashlights,” the article quotes Leming from one of his interviews, “and I knew someone had to go.”

By darkness, and with raging waters a constant danger, rescuers searched unremittingly for survivors. Leming is credited with saving 27.

He braved icy waters on three separate rescues bringing in eleven people the first time. An aerial gunner from America, his biggest mission was carried out on land covered by the sea.  

For eight hours he worked unflaggingly. He was equipped only with a rubber dingy and anti-exposure suit.

He didn’t know how to swim. The fact maybe didn’t register on him. He had a job to do. His sheer will and young strength (he was 22) were enough.

Leming needed his own life-saving treatment in the end. He succumbed to exhaustion and hypothermia.

He was treated at the Air Force base. Soon afterwards he became the first non-Briton to be recipient of the George medal for peacetime bravery.

The November 23  (2012) article I was reading uses a comment from the New York Times from when the medal was presented Leming in 1953.

“The queen was greatly stirred by his exploits, and it is understood the award was made on her initiative.”

It takes one moment, one person, one deed to make a hero. 

For airman Reis Leming the day started out as if going the usual direction as a day will. It ended with Leming and others risking their lives that others might have another day to start.

Leming's story makes me think about heroes. We look up to folks who are larger than life. 

Many with hero status by this designation often seem to be on performance stages these days.

Sometimes we confuse hero with celebrity or star. They can be both but often we tend to blur the meaning of hero, which is of courage, with of-the-moment fame which blinks out after its run is done.

Most real heroes walk among us with feet on the ground. They pay attention where help can be applied and respond as giants in times of great peril and need.

Courage is a river which runs deep in us and through all time. It's the stuff of heroes. It’s the substance of human endeavor at its best. 

The courage of times not of our memory, as with the feats of Reis Leming after the North Sea flooding, stay alive. They remain in the stories which go on and inspire us still.

Reis Leming (1930-2012), hero of “Night of the North Sea Rage,” died November 4 at the age of 81 in Bend, Oregon.

Ro Giencke – November 28, 2012


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