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 Thursday, 23 January, 2003, 17:36 GMT
1953 floods hero returns to remember
Reis Leming
Reis Leming sometimes thinks his rescues were a mirage

A man who rescued people from the devastating 1953 east coast floods returns to Hunstanton for the first time in 50 years
Dotted gif

"For 50 years I have woken up some nights and wondered 'Was it all a mirage? Did I really save all those people? Did they really survive?'"

The words of American Reis Leming on his emotional return to Hunstanton in Norfolk.

Half a century earlier he rescued 27 people from the east coast floods - a feat which earned him the George Medal, the first American in peacetime to receive it.

The floods on the night of 31 January 1953 were the worst peacetime disaster in Britain during the 20th Century.

Reis Leming
Reis Leming as a 22-year-old serviceman
More than 300 people died - and hundreds more were saved because of the bravery of people like Mr Leming.

What had begun as an unremarkable weather front far out in the Atlantic had turned into what meteorologists sometimes call "the perfect storm".

As the piled-up waters from the Atlantic reached the North Sea, rising winds of well over 100mph - and coming disastrously from the North - began to drive a wall of water down the North Sea.

Worse still, it coincided with high tide. In its path were dozens of unsuspecting coastal communities living in wooden prefabricated homes, surviving symbols of post-war austerity.

Mr Leming was a 22-year-old airman stationed at the United States air base at Sculthorpe.

It was cold, bitterly cold. And there came a time when I realised that I, too, was probably, not going to survive

Reis Leming
When the floods struck nearby Hunstanton, many of those trapped were American service families living off-base in South Beach Road.

Thirty-one people would not survive - 16 of them Americans.

Dragging a small rubber raft, the young American airman plunged through the roaring winds and waves.

It was pitch black and he was totally alone.

Around him were the screams of the trapped and dying.

Standing in South Beach Road 50 years on, Mr Leming recalls his fear and apprehension as he struggled to save those clinging to their roofs.

Others had already been swept out to sea.

"Scared ? I was frightened to death.

'Out of control'

"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 in the raging torrents and with his survival suit torn and filled with water, Mr Leming eventually collapsed suffering from severe hypothermia.

For years he was haunted by the first remark he heard when he awoke -"cut off his legs!"

It was only recently that he discovered these were the words of a nurse trying desperately to cut off the legs of his survival suit so he could be massaged back to life.

Queen's visit

The day after the floods wreaked such terrible havoc along the East Anglian coast, the Queen, who was at Sandringham, visited Hunstanton.

Only nine days later the young American was awarded the George Medal, one of the quickest-ever recipients of the award.

He was one of five people to win the George Medal for their gallantry that wild night.

The others were two policemen in Lincolnshire, a Great Yarmouth fireman and another American.


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23 Jan 03 | England
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