BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. A native of Saint Paul, Minnesota, Richard E. Fleming was born on November 2, 1917. After attending Saint Thomas Military Academy and graduating in 1935, he attended the University of Minnesota and became president of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1939. Soon after graduation, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve and applied for flight training. He was sent to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, for training and finished at the top of his class in 1940. He was promoted to first lieutenant in April 1942 and to captain a month later.
His first duty station after completing flight school was the Naval Air Base in San Diego, California. Ten days after World War II began, he flew from Pearl Harbor to Midway Island where he fought in the Battle of Midway as Flight Officer of Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241. When squadron commander Lofton Henderson was shot down during the initial attack on a Japanese aircraft carrier, Fleming took command of the unit. Leaving the remainder of his formation, he dived to the perilously low altitude of 400 ft (120 m), exposing himself to enemy fire in order to score a hit on the ship.
The following day, June 5, 1942, Fleming led the second division of his squadron in a mass dive-bombing assault on the Mikuma. Putting his plane into an approach glide, he again dived low and succeeded in scoring a near-miss on the objective. His plane, hit by anti-aircraft fire, caught fire. Unable to pull out of his dive, Fleming, his plane a mass of flames, crashed into the sea.
For “extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty”. Fleming was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest military decoration — the Medal of Honor. On November 24, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt presented the Medal of Honor to Fleming’s mother.
Medal of Honor citation
The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to
CAPTAIN RICHARD E. FLEMING
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS RESERVE
for service as set forth in the following CITATION:
For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty as Flight Officer, Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron TWO FORTY-ONE during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Battle of Midway on June 4 and 5, 1942. When his squadron Commander was shot down during the initial attack upon an enemy aircraft carrier, Captain Fleming led the remainder of the division with such fearless determination that he dived his own plane to the perilously low altitude of four hundred feet before releasing his bomb. Although his craft was riddled by 179 hits in the blistering hail of fire that burst upon him from Japanese fighter guns and antiaircraft batteries, he pulled out with only two minor wounds inflicted upon himself. On the night of June 4, when the Squadron Commander lost his way and became separated from the others, Captain Fleming brought his own plane in for a safe landing at its base despite hazardous weather conditions and total darkness. The following day, after less than four hours’ sleep, he led the second division of his squadron in a coordinated glide-bombing and dive- bombing assault upon a Japanese battleship. Undeterred by a fateful approach glide, during which his ship was struck and set afire, he grimly pressed home his attack to an altitude of five hundred feet, released his bomb to score a near-miss on the stern of his target, then crashed to the sea in flames. His dauntless perseverance and unyielding devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Postwar myths and clarifications regarding Fleming’s attack
The “battleship” attacked by Fleming was actually the heavy cruiser Mikuma. Interestingly, despite the clear language in Fleming’s Medal of Honor citation, which noted (correctly) his having achieved a near miss and then crashing into the sea, the common wisdom of the battle has often had Fleming striking Mikuma with his bomb, and then crashing his aircraft onto her aft turrets. This construction is based upon the eyewitness accounts of both a Japanese naval officer and Fleming’s wingman. Some sources state that the wreckage of Fleming’s plane is shown in the very famous image of Mikuma in a pre-sinking state on the early evening of June 6. Wreckage located on the roof of #4 turret has commonly been ascribed as that of Fleming’s aircraft. However, Mikuma had suffered catastrophic damage from the detonation of her own Type 93 torpedo mounts, which were located immediately forward of the main battery turrets, on the main deck. The resulting explosions had largely destroyed the aft portion of Mikuma‘s funnel, as well as her rear superstructure and mainmast. This accounts for the wreckage on her turret roof. Similarly, the particulars of Mikuma‘s damage, as well as the American attacks against her, were very accurately recorded by the Japanese, and these sources make no mention of a hit by an enemy aircraft. There is an unresolved controversy as to whether Fleming’s plane did or did not strike the Japanese ship. This, of course, does not detract from Fleming’s gallantry in combat, nor diminish the honor of his memory, as the particulars of his Citation make clear.
Captain Richard E. Fleming’s name is listed on the Tablets of the Missing at Honolulu Memorial in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.