“Thank you for your help in 1953” was written on the plaque in the window of High Street shop, Past & Presents, as part of their prize winning window display to welcome USAF 67th Squadron to Hunstanton. This sentiment has been very much at the heart of the townpeople since that tragic flood and remains true many years later in 2014. To underline the strength of feeling for Reis Leming and the USAF 67th Squadron, Hunstanton today opened its arms as wide as it could to welcome the 67th. Although I was not even born in 1953, never mind resident in the area, I personally felt the depth of feeling throughout the town.
Since early in the week, one by one local businesses have been unveiling their tributes to the USAF 67th Squadron. Some outstanding creativity and thought had definitely gone into many of the displays eliciting considerable comment and admiration in the build up to the main event.
As the morning wore on, a huge crowd lined the route of the parade which was led by the Norwich Pipe Band, starting from Sandringham Road just after 11.45am. The parade marched towards The Spinney where they paused whilst the Town Crier made the formal announcement and invited Mayor Cllr Carol Bower to formally grant Freedom of the Town to the USAF 67th Squadron by way of presentation of the Freedom Scroll to the leader of the parade, Lt Col John Peak, Commander of the 67th Special Operation Squadron.
Commenting on the day, Lt Col Peak said: “It is a tremendous day and an honour to be awarded the Freedom of Hunstanton for the entire Squadron. Today is a celebration of Hunstanton and obviously the Freedom of the Town to the Squadron. Reis Leming saved 27 people and the Squadron has had a wonderful relationship with Hunstanton ever since. Today I had people coming to talk to me from the crowd saying: “Reis Leming saved my Grandfather.” It is a historic event. It’s a highlight of my career. It is a wonderful experience.”
Following presentation of the Freedom Scroll, the parade continued down Hunstanton High Street, along Greevegate and The Green to Cliff Parade. As the crowd followed the parade there was a flypast starting from Hunstanton lighthouse as residents of all guises had the opportunity to mingle and chat with members of the Squadron before they departed for a private civic reception in Hunstanton Town Hall where an exhibition of photographs from 1953, created by local historian John Smith, will be on display. Members of the Squadron will also be able to speak to survivors of the flood and people who were working at Sculthorpe in 1953.
Whilst everyone was miling round, I chatted with 1st Sergeant Andrea Cook of the 67th Squadron based at Mildenhall. Sergeant Cook, from South Carolina, informed me that she was celebrating her first year with the 67th Squadron in Norfolk next week. She went on to express her enjoyment of the time she has spent here and her excitement at being part of Freedom of the Town parade. Fakenham Air Cadets also paraded with the 67th Squadron to mark this historic occasion and seemed to be equally delighted to be part of the proceedings.
Reis Leming’s son, Mike, said the day’s events were overwhelming. He went on to say that his father had a special affection for Hunstanton and its people. Mr Leming said: “We were here in January 2013 at the walkway dedication. If Dad were here he would have a cigar in his mouth. He never thought he was a hero. True heroes do not recognise themselves as heroes. “I was in the wrong place at the right time” is how they see it. He did what he felt he had to do at that time. He would have retired here if he could have”.
Commenting on the day, Mayor Cllr Carol Bower said: “It is a very special day – the most important event we have ever had. It is the first time we have bestowed the Freedom of the Town but what the Squadron did was so exceptional. I cannot imagine us doing it again. The town feels so grateful. We had a tidal surge on 5 December 2013 which was of equal magnitude but we had good warning of it. In 1953 we had no forewarning. This event has bound us together. It cannot be undone and the bonds are very strong.”
The Mayor also expressed her pride in being Mayor of Hunstanton for this historic event. I am sure her pride and appreciation will be felt by all those who live here along this beautiful coastline regardless of their involvement of that night. At the end of the day, though we hope never to see the like again, we are at the mercy of the elements and the courage and amazing humanity shown in 1953 may be called upon again in the future.
Following the Freedom of the Town event an exhibition about the floods will be on permanent public display in the Hunstanton Heritage Centre.