SCUBAPRO Sunday – Battle of Midway Medal of Honor

The Battle of Midway was fought from 4-6 June 1942. It was a decisive victory for the United States over the Japanese.  

Richard Eugene Fleming was born on November 11, 1917. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve on 15 December 1939 and applied for flight training so he could join the fight to protect the United States. He was accepted as a cadet by the Federal Government on 25 January 1940 and went through training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. Fleming then joined the services on December 7, 1940 and proceeded to his first duty station at Naval Air Station San Diego. He was assigned to VMF-214, a Marine dive-bombing squadron known as the “Black Sheep Squadron”.

In early December 1941, he and seventeen of his squadron were flying their Vindicators headed out to sea to meet up with the USS Lexington. The team continued to Midway Island and arrived two days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

There, Fleming would engage in the Battle of Midway. On May 25, 1942, he was promoted to First Lieutenant and days later, on June 5th, under harrowing circumstances, he was promoted to Captain. His heroism was evident in the 2 days he fought in that battle.

On June 4, 1942, the aviators on Midway were informed they had to gather their aircraft and warm up. With their squadron commander, Lofton Henderson, in command, they rumbled off to intercept waves of Japanese fighters. They then launched into the sky and searched for the fleet that was presumed to be lurking nearby.  During the initial Japanese attack on a U.S. aircraft carrier, Fleming took command of the unit when the Squadron Commander Henderson got lost and separated from the others. He then dove to the extreme low altitude of 400 feet, exposing himself to enemy fire in order to score a hit on a Japanese carrier. After failing to drop a warhead on the aircraft carrier, Akagi, his aircraft was damaged but he still managed to bring his plane in for a safe landing at base, as it limped back with 171 holes.  His commanding officer, Henderson, was killed.

The next day, he was promoted to squadron commander and Captain Fleming returned to battle. After sleeping only four hours, he returned to the conflict and led his second division to direct his squadron in a coordinated glide-bombing, dive-bombing, and strafing assault of a Japanese battleship. Heavy anti-aircraft gunfire continued to strike Captain Fleming’s plane and, although riddled with 179 hits by the hail of fire that burst upon him from Japanese fighter guns and antiaircraft batteries, he was not seriously wounded and only suffered two minor injuries.  The heavy antiaircraft strafing caused Fleming’s plane to catch fire and, despite the flames and the threat to his and his gunner’s life, he kept the plane on course. Undeterred by a fatal attempt to glide, he pressed home his attack to an altitude of five hundred feet, and, in a screaming dive at the Japanese cruiser, Mikuma, released his bomb to score an almost direct hit on the stern of his target. Unable to pull out of his dive, Fleming’s plane struck the cruiser and plunged into the sea, his plane a cinder of fire.  He and his aircrat were last seen crashed to the sea in flames.

Captain Richard Fleming was the only man to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor during his magnificent stand in the crucial Battle of Midway.  His unwavering dedication and persistence were consistent with the highest principles of the U.S. military.

The Marine died with his gunner, Private First Class George Albert Toms. There is some circumstantial evidence that it might be possible that Fleming deliberately crashed his plane into the battleship with the Mikuma sinking the next day.

For “extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty”, Captain Fleming was awarded the nation’s highest military decoration — the Medal of Honor. Private First Class Toms, too, was awarded for his actions with a Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt presented the Medal of Honor. Fleming’s award, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt states:

“The President of the United States orders the MEDAL OF HONOR to be awarded to Captain Richard E. Fleming, United States Marine Corps Reserve, for extraordinary heroism and conspicuous courage above and beyond the call of duty as Flight Officer, Marine Scouting Bombing Squadron 241, in action against enemy Japanese forces at Midway Island from June 4 through June 5, 1942. When his squadron commander was shot down during the initial spontaneous uprising.”

Private First-Class George Albert Toms’ award reads as follows:

“The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross (Posthumously) to Private First-Class George A. Toms United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as a radioman-gunner in Marine Scout Bombing Squadron TWO HUNDRED FORTY-ONE (VMSB-241), during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Battle of Midway, 4 and 5 June 1942. With courageous efficiency and utter disregard for his own personal safety. Private Toms manned a radio and free machine gun in the rear seat of his plane during a search and attack mission against the enemy on the night of 4 June, and again during an assault upon a Japanese battleship on 5 June. Under conditions attendant upon the Battle of Midway, there can be no doubt that he gallantly gave up his life in the service of his country. His conscientious devotion to duty was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Although Captain Richard Fleming has disappeared, there is still much debate as to what happened to him. The USS Fleming, commissioned on September 18, 1943, was named in his honor and his name is listed on the “Tablets of the Missing” at Honolulu Memorial.

Richard Fleming is recognized annually at his high school, Saint Thomas Academy, during the Cadet Colonel Promotion ceremony when he is remembered by the presentation of the “Fleming Saber” to the Cadet Colonel. Since 2008, the military academy has added another award and, in 2014, Governor Dayton proclaimed a day in honor of the Medal of Honor. The proclamation honors three recipients: Richard Fleming, John Espy, and Ted Liggett. He is also mourned in his hometown. In honor of Richard E. Fleming, the former South St. Paul Airport was renamed the Richard E. Fleming Field. Though interred in Arlington National Cemetery, a memorial marker has been placed in Fort Snelling National Cemetery for Captain Fleming.

Lastly, if you decide to watch a movie about the battle of Midway, go for the 1976 version. The producers used a lot of real footage from the battle that was shot by director John Ford during the actual battle. Ford also directed “They were Expendable” and “Mister Roberts”. Although you can tell it is old footage, it does help tell the story. It also has some of the best actors of all time, Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, and Tom Selleck.

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