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By Elsa Bonstein
When most boys were playing baseball and going to Boy Scout meetings, Chuck Fleming of Sunset Beach was serving in the Navy. He enlisted on Nov. 12, 1947, at the age of 15. By the time he was 16, Fleming was an air traffic controller.
Today, these boys-turned-soldiers are called “Young Warriors” and are part of an organization called Veterans of Underage Military Service (VUMS). All of the members of VUMS were underage when they served in the U.S. military. Some were as young as 12 or 13 years old.
Chuck Fleming grew up in Monroe and West Monroe, La.
“Times were hard back then. The Ouachita River flooded the year I was born and my mother had to wade to the St. Frances Sanitarium (Catholic Hospital) to deliver me. My parents broke up when I was in fifth grade, and my brother and I went to live with my grandmother.
“I was shuffled back and forth between relatives, and as a kid, I moved 15 times. There was no permanent place for me in West Monroe.”
In those difficult days, people did most anything to keep their lives together. Fleming got a job on a bakery truck.
“When the first beer joint opened up, a driver stopped to have a few drinks and then a few more. I drove that truck almost every day with no driver’s license. I survived.
“Two buddies who were older than me decided to join the Navy. I thought that was a great idea and went down to the recruiting office and filled out an application. I put down my older brother’s birthday. The officer asked me what grade I was in, and I told him I was a senior.”
“Someone had to sign for me because I didn’t have any proof of age. My mom wouldn’t sign for me; my dad wanted me to live with him and his new wife and two new daughters, but I couldn’t live with him anymore.
“I went to the superintendent of schools and told her my problem. She knew my family history and said, ‘Well Bubba (that’s what they called me then), I know you don’t have a place to live. Better the Navy than the streets.’ She signed the papers and I was in the Navy.”
Fleming went to boot camp in San Diego and in the first few months learned a big lesson in promptness. He went home for Christmas, and on the way back a huge blizzard hit the country.
“I knew I couldn’t be late. The Navy did not care if there was a blizzard; we had to get back to the base on time. I was scared to death, crying and running all the way back to the base because I knew there would be no excuses if I was late.”
After boot camp, Fleming went to the Naval Air Training Center in Millington, Tenn., and eventually learned to become an air traffic controller.
“As far as I know, I was the youngest air traffic controller ever because I was directing planes when I was 16 years old.”
Fleming’s adventures in the Navy were not without mishaps and bravery, despite the fact he did not serve in a war zone. He had missed the Second World War and was stationed in the Middle East during the Korean War.
Altogether, he served nine years in the Navy from 1947 to 1956.
One mishap occurred during the last week of flight school when Fleming was hit under the right jaw by a propeller of a plane.
“The plane lifted me up and threw me over the plane, took all the skin off one side of my face. In the hospital, they wired my teeth together. I spent four months in the hospital because of that. My mother came up and got a job at a hotel, just to be near me during the time I was there.”
After that incident, Fleming went back to training school, but they would not allow him on the flight line anymore.
“I was just a skinny kid, trying to be a man. We had an airplane that had folded back wings and I was told to run up and lock the wing into place. I tried, but the thing snapped back and I went skidding. I literally had blacktop all over me.”
Another time, a two-seater airplane that he was flying in, bounced one on landing, then twice, bumped off the runway, and flipped over. He escaped injury that time.
When it came time to get a permanent assignment, Fleming wanted to go far away from Louisiana. He got an assignment to the Naval Air Facility at Port Lyautey, French Morocco.
In addition to being an air traffic controller in French Morocco, Fleming ran the Enlisted Men’s Beach Club there. An incident happened one day that brought him a commendation.
“The riptides at the beach at Port Lyautey were terrible, and they told us not to go in over our knees. I was on the beach when I looked out and saw some guys in trouble. We didn’t have any life-saving equipment, so we formed a human chain and pulled them out one by one.
“There were six Navy guys and one French soldier. Two of the guys were in bad shape, but I got them over a barrel and started pumping. We brought them back.”
After his nine years in the Navy, Fleming worked as an air traffic controller for 15 years at Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas. Over his career, he has worked at a retail clothing store, as a travel agent, as a minister in the Methodist Church, and more recently, in the golf business for Legacy Golf Links in Aberdeen and for Dan Maples Design, Inc., in Pinehurst.
He is now employed at the golf shop at Brick Landing, where his hearty laugh and outgoing personality make him a hit with members and tourists alike.
In reflecting on his life, Fleming credits the Navy and his years in the military to teaching him respect and discipline.
“There were no excuses in the military for being late or not doing a job you needed to do.
“As a civilian, I’ve always been able to tell the difference between employees who’ve had military service and those who have not. The military guys are prompt, they’re courteous, they show up on time and they show respect. That’s an important lesson and one that stays with you for your whole life.”
In a letter of commendation from the Federal Aviation Administration, Fleming’s supervisor states: “I would not hesitate to call upon Mr. Fleming for any job, no matter how difficult. He is always thorough and precise in any undertaking, and maintains an exceptional degree of self-proficiency.”
From a kid who was kicked around, to a 15-year-old teenager who learned the ropes in the Navy and made a career for himself, Chuck Fleming has done just fine.