News and Tribune

January 8, 2013

BEAM: More than a headline

By AMANDA BEAM
Local columnist

— World War II Veteran Dewitt Sims should not be remembered like this. Google his name and you’ll see what I mean. The Internet has reduced his 92 years of living into a nine-word headline on Lex18.com, “Elderly Man with Knife Threatens Nurse at Harrodsburg Hospital.”

After reading these type of news articles, people who have not been touched by his kindness or his humor will only think of him as the old man who became disoriented by a war flashback. Believing the Germans had captured him, Sims had allegedly turned on one of his caregivers. The hospital responded with a lock down, while police arrived and subdued the patient. The older vet, still confused, was arrested. The nurse was unhurt save for a reported skinned elbow.

To some, this is now Dewitt Sims’ legacy. Numerous stories about the incident, more than 16, have popped up online. One is a follow-up report that a news station listed, nothing more than a blue clickable link between an article about hauling dirt and a piece about a mall reopening as a church.

No one mentioned his exact service to our country during the war, or the deep love he has for his wife or his contributions to his church and community; included were only a few short paragraphs and a mug shot from his recent arrest. The photo showed a man with white hair and a sunken face standing in front of a blue brick wall. His eyes, normally dancing with joy, appeared glazed like a deer caught in headlights.

For 37 years, I’ve known this man with the now-frightened look in his eyes. He’s my Uncle Dee, the brother of my grandfather. Both men originated from Duncan, a small central Kentucky town down by Lexington.

What the articles don’t tell you is the true story of Dewitt Sims.

Dee, the youngest of four Sims children, was always inquisitive. He did well tinkering with things and could most likely have repaired the Sphinx’s broken nose if they would have let him. But instead, he spent most of his life fixing and installing equipment for various companies. He has a mechanic’s mind you just don’t see too often anymore. He can do just about anything.

As a child, this mechanical ability of his captivated me. At Christmastime, Uncle Dee would bring out his newest project and sit and explain the mess of wires. To me, it looked like chaos. To him, it was a test, one that he easily passed. You never knew what you were going to learn over at his house.

As much as he liked showing off his handy work, Uncle Dee enjoyed telling yarns even more. Just last July, the kids and I stopped by his Harrodsburg home. I was able to record some of his memories from when he served in the Navy on the USS Baker in the North Atlantic during WWII.

He was a machinist on the destroyer and remembered vividly an incident in which they helped sink a German U-Boat known as U-233. His ship found the sub on sonar, and after dropping some depth charges, forced the submarine to the surface. Another destroyer, the USS Thomas, ultimately rammed U-233 and sunk it.

“Here’s the ironic part of it, this was a brand new sub. It was its first voyage. They were laying mines north of us, and we were heading for that field at the time. They knew the war was over for them, so they told [us] roughly where all the charges were placed,” Uncle Dee said.

According to desausa.org, more than 30 German prisoners were taken aboard the two ships. Uncle Dee remembered nine of those and a captain boarding the USS Baker. After pulling those seamen out of water, the destroyer rendezvoused with the aircraft carrier in their group.

They devised a pulley system involving a rope and a sack to lift the prisoners from the smaller destroyer to the aircraft carrier. The men especially enjoyed the sweet treat the carrier sent down to the ship between trips.

“We were trading Germans for ice cream,” he said.

After the war, Uncle Dee met the love his life, Eva. The pair has been married more than 58 years and rarely go anywhere without the other. Walls of their home are lined with photos of their times together; many of these contain the motorcycles they loved to ride and the airplanes they flew.

If you’re lucky, they’ll treat you to an impromptu concert if you stop by. My uncle plays the saw, yes like the one you cut with, and Aunt Eva accompanies him on the piano. In the past, they would visit nursing homes and serenade the local residents, but with him being hard of hearing and having arthritis, holding the saw correctly so the right pitch is hit has become nearly impossible.

More than a note was off last Friday when my Uncle had his episode in the hospital. I’m not sure what happened in that room. I doubt if he understands either.

What I do know is that Dewitt Sims still has memories to make. This incident will not define his life; the time spent defending his country and with his loved ones throughout his 92 years have done that already.

His legacy, as do all of ours, rests beyond the headlines.

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at hoosiermandyblog@gmail.com