FORMER prisoner of war Jack Fleming was locked behind steel doors yet again, and on his 100th birthday – but this time it was only in a broken down lift and he escaped after just 10 minutes.
It was a far cry from his time in a German PoW camp in Greece during the Second World War, when, after years of incarceration, he bravely scrambled over the razor-wired, machine-guarded perimeter fence, made it to the coast and managed to row a small fishing boat out to a British ship, and freedom.
John ‘Jack’ Fleming turned 100 years old on Tuesday.
As he said to me a week before his birthday over his daily large breakfast in the hotel where he has been staying for nearly seven years: “I wasn’t supposed to make it this far.”
But squadron leader Jack has made it this far.
And, like most else in his life, his milestone party at his home, The Globe Hotel in King Street, King’s Lynn, he approached the celebration with a modest dignity, grace, charm and humility befitting a former RAF officer.
Talking at the party thrown for him by hotel owners Wetherspoons, The Bridge for Heroes in King’s Lynn and RAF Marham, he said: “I’m flabbergasted.
“Things happened to me such a long time ago.
“I didn’t expect this at all.”
Globe house keeping team leader, Hayley Church, who was stuck in the lift with Jack until it was fixed before the party, said: “He’s a lovely man. He’s like a grandfather to us all.”
Jack’s daughter Susan Fleming, 66, from Southery, choked back tears as she presented her dad with a mahogany carved clock adorned with a Spitfire, Messerschmitt, coins from the 1940s and the quote from Winston Churchill “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.
She told YLP: “I’m very emotional and very proud. He had a hell of a war. When he did get out of the PoW camp in Thessalonika and get to the ship, they didn’t believe he was British because he was so thin.
“My mum and I got a telegram saying he was missing presumed dead. Then he turned up years later, we couldn’t believe it.”
Other family, friends and well-wishers included former daughter-in-law Violet who was married to Jack’s son John before he died. He also has daughter Carol and son David, two grandchildren near London, a grandson in Scotland and a granddaughter in Ghana.
Steve Russell, RAF veteran and chairman of The Bridge for Heroes, which provides friendship and support for ex-servicemen and women, has been visiting Jack for a year. He said: “If I don’t get my times right I miss him and that’s that because he won’t change. He’s marvellous. I feel incredibly honoured to be in his presence and share in these celebrations to acknowledge what he has done for this country. He has been an inspiration to the guys at The Bridge for Heroes.”
Bridge chief executive, Mike Taylor said: “It’s brilliant what has been achieved by people here today.
“This makes you proud. He’s been through a lot. I think that is what we as a society have to understand, how, what has happened to him, affects all parts of your life, the latter, not just what he went through at the time. He has lived here for seven years and with these ladies I can see why.”
Hotel team leader, Louise Mattocks made sure Jack’s special letter from the Queen arrived safely on time.
Jack was born in Belfast on February 14, 1917. He signed up for the RAF in the 30s and was a gunner in 684 squadron before becoming a squadron leader. He married Megan who he described as “the one” and they had four children.
Megan died 12 years ago. He said: “I was devastated. I wanted to die with her.”
Jack turned up with a tiny suitcase at The Globe in 2011 after returning from Cyprus where he lived for 24 years. He has been living at the hotel ever since. Miss Mattocks said: “We love having him.”