The American Veteran. For many, these mere words conjure up heroic images of soldiers in dust-covered battle dress uniforms storming enemy fortifications against overwhelming odds in a faraway land most Americans will never see.
Yet when I see an American Veteran, I witness years of sacrifice in their eyes. I hear the tremor in their voices as they vividly recall a close call. I sense the pride swell inside as they talk about their military service.
Our Veterans come from the deserts of Utah, the backwoods of Missouri, the swamps of Louisiana, the mountains of Alaska and the inner cities across America. These are “Our Veterans,” and it is our VA mission to provide them with the best health care possible. Certainly, it is our honor to serve them as they honorably served the United States of America.
Over the summer, I was privileged to meet one of these American heroes — World War II Veteran James Hardy Sims — and his wife Margaret of Whitmire, S.C.
At first, the 92-year-old appears to be a quiet sort, but once you sit down with him you soon discover that he abounds with a quiet humor.
Although time has faded some of his memories of the war, our conversation that summer afternoon provided a unique glimpse into his life.
Hailing from Newberry, S.C., Sims served in the Civilian Conservation Corps for two years before being inducted into the Army; in December 1942, at the age of 21, he began his basic combat training at Fort Jackson, S.C.
Sims was assigned to Camp Tyler, Tenn., for about a year, and then on to New York before shipping overseas to England in November 1943 to serve as a balloon crewman. These defensive balloons were tethered with cables over the battlefield to protect soldiers and equipment from low-strafing enemy aircraft.
While Sims was assigned to Battery C, 320th Balloon Battalion, his unit would soon take its place in the annals of history. In the book Spearheading D-Day: American Special Units in Normandy, author Jonathan Gawne cited the 320th as a unique combat unit for two reasons: It was the first barrage balloon unit in France, and it was the first black unit in the segregated American Army to come ashore on D-Day.
Sims’ unit supported a British regiment and went in with them to Normandy. Fortunately, Sims recalled, his unit did not lose a man in combat. However, it certainly encountered the hazards of operating in a combat theater.
“After we got in there, we set up the balloons on the east side and some on the north,” said Sims. “We sat there with machine guns and watched those Germans (aircraft) come in firing. I don’t know how many airplanes were shot down.”
In addition to dangers from the air, Sims mentioned that ground attack was an ever-present possibility, including enemy sniper fire.
“They told us to be careful and not to smoke at night,” he said. “One night we were talking with a soldier from another unit. He pulled out a lighter to light a cigarette, and he was shot dead by a sniper.”
Sims served in Europe from November 1943 to November 1944, then rotated back to the United States.
“We were back in the states for about five to six months when we boarded a ship and went to Hawaii,” he said.
According to Sims, they were preparing to support combat operations in the Pacific Theater when the United States dropped the atomic bombs in August 1945. His unit returned to the U.S. mainland three months later, and he was honorably discharged in November 1945. Sadly, no personal photos are available of his Army service, as they were lost, and only his discharge papers remain.
After the war, Sims worked in farming for four years and then spent 17 years working in a cotton mill. In the 1990s, he became a VA patient; he continues to receive health care from the William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, S.C.
According to Sims, members of his unit were exposed to a type of gas, perhaps for the purpose of inflating barrage balloons.
“A lot of the guys over there were around that gas, and that got into your system,” he said. “A few years ago I had some symptoms. The doctor did some research, gave me some medicine, and it healed me up.”
Sims, who sees Dorn’s White Team in Primary Care, is happy with the health care provided by his team of professionals.
“They are really nice,” said Sims. “They are wonderful. I know that the medicine they give me I could not (otherwise) afford.”
As a VA employee who is also a VA patient, I’m proud to hear compliments from our patients about the quality health care they receive from VA.
Certainly, it was an honor to meet this quiet man of Whitmire — James Hardy Sims — who so honorably served our nation during World War II.
Kevin Lee McIver is the Public Affairs Officer at the William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, S.C. He is a 34 year Veteran of military and federal service.