Fifty-three years ago this Sunday, a man who grew up homeless, eating spare milk and donuts from strangers, gave his life so his fellow soldiers could survive one of the most vicious battles of the Vietnam War.
Army Staff Sgt. Clifford Chester Sims of the 101st Airborne Division was leading his squad away from a burning ammunition dump just outside the city of Huế on Feb. 21, 1968 when he heard the distinct sound of a booby trap going off. He yelled for his soldiers to get back, then he flung himself on the device, taking the full impact of the blast.
“Sims saved the lives of at least three of his squad and two of the company headquarters by absorbing the shock of the blast himself,” wrote 1st Lt. Cleo Hogan, Sims’ commander, in an eyewitness statement supporting his Medal of Honor bid. “SSG Sims made the greatest sacrifice a soldier can make … and no mark of tribute can be too great.”
On top of that, Hogan credited Sims with saving his company’s first platoon and company headquarters for his quick thinking in the middle of a heated firefight in the woods earlier that day. It was a long way from the streets of Port St. Joe, a city on the Florida panhandle, where Sims grew up homeless for much of his early life.
Born on June 18, 1942, Clifford Pittman, as he was known at the time, was orphaned at an early age and sent to stay with his stepfather’s relatives, according to a 2015 profile of the soldier by the Tennessean. But Pittman was an extra mouth to feed in a household that could not provide for him, so he left one night and stayed in an abandoned bus in nearby Panama City.
“At the time, at a nearby school, they would deliver the morning’s milk and donuts at the rear where the kitchen was, while the school wasn’t open yet,” Sims’ widow, Mary Sims-Parker, told the Tennessean. “He would go there and get some milk and donuts. That’s how he ate.”
Pittman survived off the kindness of strangers, Mary told the newspaper. He would go into stores where shopkeepers would turn their backs while he took what he needed, and a sixth-grade teacher let him come to class, no questions asked.
The teacher told him, “Whenever you can, come to school,” Mary said. “I don’t care if you’re late or if you’re clean, you come on to school and stay as long as you can, whenever you can.”
Finally, at the age of 13, Clifford Pittman became Clifford Sims when he was adopted by James and Irene Sims. The teenager made it to high school, met Mary, fell in love and, in 1961, joined the Army. Mary said it was a perfect fit for him.
“I thought he couldn’t get killed … because he knew how to survive in the woods,” she told the Tennessean. “That’s how his friends were, too. They would go out in the woods, catch frogs, make a fire and eat them, like Boy Scouts. So when he went in the Army, I thought, he already knows how to survive and do all that.”
Sims joined the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but he was later sent over to the 101st when the Army had to scrap together a new company out of other units. The “Delta Raiders” as the company was soon known, found themselves in the middle of fierce fighting in Huế, where the unit earned not one but two Medals of Honor. Sgt. Joe Hooper was the other recipient, and the jungles outside Huế were where Sims earned his.
The Raiders were assaulting a heavily-fortified enemy position hidden in a dense forest that day, according to Sims’ medal citation. The 1st platoon was pinned down by under heavy fire and at risk of being overrun when the 25-year-old led his squad “in a furious attack,” the citation read.
“His skillful leadership provided the platoon with freedom of movement and enabled it to regain the initiative,” the document continued.
Sims then got his squad in position to provide covering fire for the company command group so that it could link up with third platoon, which was also under heavy fire. But then he noticed a nearby ammo dump on fire, and he hurriedly ordered his troops to clear out before it exploded.
“Though in the process of leaving the area two members of his squad were injured by the subsequent explosion of the ammunition … Sims’ prompt actions undoubtedly prevented more serious casualties from occurring,” the citation read.
Then as they continued to advance, Sims heard the booby trap, and spent his last seconds on Earth saving the men behind him.
“His actions were with complete disregard for his own life in the interest of his men and his mission,” Hogan wrote in his eyewitness statement.
Back at home, Mary’s first thought when uniformed soldiers arrived at her door was “I can’t go through with this,” the Tennessean reported. But she did, and she later accepted the Medal of Honor on her late husband’s behalf from Vice President Spiro Agnew at the White House on Dec. 2, 1969.
Decades later, Mary’s daughter found a website for former Raiders. Mary connected with a former platoon sergeant, George Parker, who knew Sims well. They wound up getting married, and Mary hung Parker’s Silver Star citation on the wall of their home, next to Sims’ Medal of Honor citation.
“I’ve got heroes around here,” she told the Tennessean.
The reporter then asked Mary how Americans might have perceived the formerly-homeless Sims, had he never earned that piece of metal and bit of blue ribbon.
“God is good,” she said, quietly at first, then with strength and conviction. “God can fix things up … he can take whatever we think is trash and he can make it whatever he wants it to be.”