Reis Leming was serving in a United States Air Force sea rescue squadron on the east coast of England in the winter of 1953 when Britain was hit by what is considered its worst peacetime disaster of the 20th century.
Fueled by winds exceeding 100 miles an hour, the North Sea roared over seawalls on the night of Jan. 31, trapping thousands along the coast, demolishing homes and devastating vast tracts of land.
When the sea swept through the Norfolk resort town of Hunstanton, Airman Leming was among some 500 men from his squadron at the nearby British air base at Sculthorpe who volunteered to help in the rescue.
Airman Leming couldn't swim, but he single-handedly saved 27 people -- Britons along with the families of American servicemen living in the town of some 600 -- by loading them onto a dinghy in repeated trips along flooded streets.
He was highly decorated by the United States military and the British government.When he died in Bend, Ore., on Nov. 4 at 81, he was planning a trip to a military ceremony in Hunstanton, but unaware that its townspeople were preparing a tribute to him at the event.
He had barely survived his rescue exploit.
At first he joined with fellow airmen in trying to launch an aluminum rescue boat, but its propellers became stuck in storm debris.
"I dried out and put on a rubber exposure suit," the British newspaper The Telegraph quoted him as recalling. "I heard people screaming and saw flashlights, and I knew someone had to go."
He picked up survivors from rooftops and windows and hoisted them aboard a six-man rubber raft while standing in darkened icy waters that nearly engulfed his 6-foot-3 frame.
He doubted he would survive. As he told the BBC in 2003, when he returned to Hunstanton for commemorative ceremonies, "I wondered at times, 'What the hell am I doing here?' "
Airman Leming's exposure suit finally ripped, and he collapsed. "When I woke up, the first thing I heard was, 'His legs will have to come off,' " he once told The Bulletin of Bend. But he learned that the nurse treating him was simply trying to remove his rubber suit.
The flood killed 307 people, 31 of them in Hunstanton, and damaged about 25,000 homes and more than 150,000 acres of land.
Airman Leming received the American military's Soldier's Medal for bravery, and in April 1953 he became the first foreigner to receive Britain's George Medal for heroism during peacetime. Two months later, the people of Hunstanton flew his fiancée, the former MaryAnn Ramsay, to the town and arranged for their marriage ceremony in its Roman Catholic church.
The airmen's rescue efforts, along with their contributions to flood relief, helped ease tensions between the British and thousands of American servicemen stationed in the countryside. Young women in the Hunstanton area who had refused to be seen with an American airman before the flood began flocking to meet servicemen at dances sponsored by a local women's group, according to Reuters.
Reis (his mother's maiden name, pronounced Rice) Lee Leming was born on Nov. 6, 1930, in East St. Louis, Ill., where his father was a banker, but grew up in central Washington. He entered the Air Force in 1952 after attending Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and remained in military service for four years.
He came back to England in September 1956 to take part in the launching of the Mayflower II, a replica of the Pilgrim ship. When he returned for a 40th-anniversary memorial for flood victims, he was invited to meet Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother.
Mr. Leming died of sepsis, a complicaton of an infection, while hospitalized for a broken hip, said his second wife, Kathy. He had been treated for lymphoma for several years.
In addition to his wife, with whom he owned a security alarm company in Bend, he is survived survives by his son, Michael, and his daughters, Debra Ross and Gail Parry, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce; a sister, Sue; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
On Nov. 10, the Air Force's 67th Special Operations Squadron, the successor to Mr. Leming's 67th Air Rescue Squadron, held a parade through Hunstanton to mark the 60th anniversary of the original unit's creation.
Hunstanton had scheduled a surprise tribute to Mr. Leming at that ceremony, and went ahead with it. A pathway through the Esplanade Gardens along the town's cliff tops was christened Reis Leming Way.nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.