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Robert John Fleming (January 13, 1907 - July 14, 1984) was Governor of the Panama Canal Zone from 1962 to 1967 although his largely successful tenure was marred in 1964 by the issue over whether the Panamanian Flag should be flown alongside the Panama Canal Zone Flag on public buildings. This issue escalated while he was on a political trip to the United States and on 9 January 1964 riots broke out across the country that left at least 25 people dead including three U.S. soldiers.

Born in Fort Robinson Nebraska on the 13 January 1907 to Robert John and Augusta Fleming, Fleming attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1928 before earning an M.S. in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1931. He remained in the United States Army as an engineering officer until 1954, his World War II service including duty in the Pacific Theater before a series of staff posts in Washington D.C. and Virginia. After a period in public service that included a three year sojourn in public service in France, Fleming was appointed by President John F. Kennedy as Governor of the Panama Canal Zone in 1962.

In 1964 Fleming watered down a directive issued by Kennedy stipulating that the Panamanian national flag should be flown alongside that of the US-administered Canal Zone on public buildings within the zone. Fleming, in an effort to defuse the tensions caused by this ruling, changed it so that no flags would be flown. This move angered more people than the previous one, and when Fleming was on board a flight over the Caribbean, students at Balboa high school raised the Canal Zone flag over their school and resisted efforts to either remove it or add the Panamanian one alongside. From these beginnings began a riot partly caused by the over-reaction of the local Zonian police who were without guidance from the Governor's office on how to proceed. The army were eventually called in to calm the situation, but not before 25 people were dead. This is now known as Martyr's Day in Panama and is a public holiday.

Fleming was not held responsible for the events and remained in place until 1967 when he retired to take up a position as Executive Vice President for a company in Boston, Massachusetts. His tenure in charge had also seen the most comprehensive survey of the canal with the intention of widening it, the inauguration of the Panama Canal Spillway newspaper and the opening of the Thatcher Ferry Bridge. He died on the 14 July 1984.

Awards and decorations[edit | edit source]

His years of military and public service came with several awards. He was given the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Army Commendation Medal, the Order of the White Lion from Czechoslovakia, the Légion d'honneur from France and the Grand Cross Nuñez de Balboa from Panama for his various and varied public services.

External links[edit | edit source]

Preceded by
William Arnold Carter
Governor of Panama Canal Zone
Succeeded by
Walter Philip Leber

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