It would be difficult to conjure a more unlikely man to emerge from Port St. Joe and be forever remembered and honored due to a breathtaking act of heroism for which he would posthumously earn the nation’s highest military honor.
But 51 years ago today, Feb. 21, 1968, Staff Sgt. Clifford Chester Sims passionately achieved that distinction, saving others at the cost of his own life, in a jungle thousands of miles away.
Miles away from a hometown, cloaked in the ways of the Jim Crow south, that had barely acknowledged his life as a homeless youngster taken in by the Sims family.
Miles away from the young wife and child he had left behind to go to serve his country in war, in Southeast Asia, a place called Vietnam.
Sims died in that jungle in Hue province that February evening, performing an act so astonishing, so heroic, as to be the stuff of movies, of books, of a novelist’s imagination.
In the middle of a heavy firefight, Sims tossed himself on a booby-trapped device while yelling for his men to get back, shielding them from the explosion that killed Sims instantly.
“He shouted for us to get back and without hesitation threw himself on that grenade,” Col. (Ret.) Cleo Hogan, Sims’ commanding officer that day, has said again and again over the years, his goal to ensure others never forget what he witnessed that day.
“He saved my life and the lives of several others,” Hogan said again at the dedication of Sims Park in 2016. “He was an individual who did have a very difficult time growing up.
“But Sims had a desire to better not only himself, but his community and his country. He only lived to be 25 but I think he did all three.”
Certainly, his community has remembered and reveled in a shared glory for this man so ignored in life.
Streets, segments of federal highway, a park are just a few of the public displays of Sims’ name.
A veterans’ nursing home named in his honor is in Springfield.
“I feel the love,” Mary Sims Parker, Sims’ widow said during that dedication in 2016. “And this is such a beautiful area. I can’t thank you enough for all you have done for my husband.”
And during Black History Month, Sims is an easily identifiable figure to remember, to honor, and to understand his story.
Toss in the struggle in the aftermath of a destructive national disaster, a time when so many search, sometimes futilely, for the ability to remain upright and moving forward.
Maybe to remember, to honor, the courage demonstrated by one of Port St. Joe’s all lifts a spirit, fuels another day forward.
Port St. Joe Strong indeed.
The year 1968 would be a tumultuous one and the early months were punctuated by the Tet Offensive, a turning point in the Vietnam War and a time of intense fighting.
Sims had already earned a stellar reputation among the men he led and followed.
Hogan said he liked to think that Sims “would climb a mountain rather than go around because he liked the view from the top.”
Gene Robertson served with Sims in the Delta Raiders, Company D, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne.
“He was a good man who took care of us,” Robertson said, recalling times when K rations were low and Sims would barter and scrounge to ensure his men were fed.
“He took care of his men. It was an honor to serve with him.”
Some 2.9 million men and women served in uniform during the Vietnam War, with 257 earning the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor.
Incredibly, another Delta Raider, Joe Hooper, also earned the Medal of Honor for his heroism on Feb. 21, 1968, marking the only instance during Vietnam in which one company had two soldiers earn the medal on the same day.
“We all have every right to be proud of Staff Sgt. Sims,” Hogan said. “Never forget.”
Fifty-one years later, during this Black History Month, as we rebuild from Hurricane Michael, Clifford Chester Sims, of little Port St. Joe, still provides an example of the limitless capacity of the human species.
We can all take some comfort in that.