Seventy years ago this week, the liberation of Europe began with the largest invasion force ever assembled. The costs and risks of attacking the most heavily defended coastline in the world were high, and there was no Plan B. Over 5,000 ships, 130,000 Allied troops, and thousands of vehicles landed on French soil. The role that air support played in this invasion was crucial, and Ralph Sims was there. Born in 1916 in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, Sims joined the U.S. Army Air Corps shortly after Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was a tail gunner in a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” and in this 1997 interview with Adele Foster, he recalled his missions in the June 6, 1944 Allied Invasion of Normandy, better known as D-Day.
Foster: D-Day. I’m curious to know what the briefing was like. You had gone for so long not knowing where the invasion was going to take place.
Sims: Yes, there were hints and rumors that D-Day was not too far off, but I remember this well too because the daylight–they had what they called British Double Summer Wartime, so it was like double daylight time. It didn’t get dark until midnight or later and it didn’t stay dark very long. So I was down at the NCO club, the non-commissioned officers’ club, having a few beers with the guys and somebody came around and said, “This is it! Report for breakfast, at such and such an hour, like two o’clock in the morning, in for briefing at three and then you get the rest of your orders.” I wished then that I hadn’t had too many beers because I didn’t go to sleep that night. Breakfast was as I say, about two o’clock in the morning, reported for briefing and we got our orders and we reported to the flight line, got in our ship and then I discovered that just about every plane that could fly was in the air that day. We took off in darkness but when I could see, the whole sky was almost black with planes. And I suppose that almost everyone involved wanted to be part of the D-Day Invasion. And any rate, we had two flights that day, two missions that day. It was a relatively short one, flying across the channel, dropping bombs on targets that were strategic and that we hoped would hinder the Nazi effort.
Foster: You remember what the targets were?
Sims: Behind the lines to some degree, but not too far inland. And then we went back and reloaded and came back and did the same thing again. After the successful landing by the troops on Omaha Beach and the other beaches and then we began to push the Nazis back, we had the unfortunate experience of bombing our own troops. They were moving so fast and this was at Saint Lô, in Normandy. And there was some mistake in signals and we later learned we had bombed our own troops. Whether we killed many of them, I don’t know but there must have been some casualties. It’s one of the sad things about. . .One of the good things, we were pushing back the enemy fast, but not fast enough to at least, we were not able to communicate exactly where our troops were. So instead of hitting enemy, we hit our own people.
Foster: Were there landmarks big enough to be able to see from the plane?
Sims: Well, they had a lead bomber and a lead bombardier and he was the key to finding the target. Even though we had a bombardier who was trained to do this and read the maps and look at the ground and see where…There were rivers and other landmarks, things of that sort that…To find the target but it was up to the lead bombardier to decide to drop his bombs and that was the signal for everybody else to do the same thing. So sometimes, well, we know we hit targets, many times. But sometimes we may have missed them too.
Foster: Well, you said there were two missions on D-Day.
Sims: Yes. But they were identical. It was the same thing. Same type of thing. Fly first mission, drop bombs, come back, reload, get ready, go again, drop bombs, come back, and that was it.
Foster: Were you low enough to be able to see the beach and the activity?
Sims: The weather was terrible. Eisenhower really hesitated about deciding on that particular day, June sixth, 1944. But they felt that by that time, the Germans knew what was going on, so the decision was made, “Let’s go, regardless.” And the weather was terrible, the Channel was choppy…I could see through the clouds, the Navy ships with their guns belching fire and smoke as they were pounding the coast, too. It was a joint effort of infantry, navy, air corps…All doing their thing to make it possible for these guys who were landing on the beach to reach the objectives. And it certainly wasn’t easy for them, as history has told us. Many of them didn’t make it and a lot of equipment was lost. The weather was rough; it was just a terrible day for this kind of thing. The decision was made and we went ahead and did it.
Foster: Do you remember any announcements that evening or the next day that it had been a success, the mission was a success?
Sims: Occasionally, we’d see English papers too that would give accounts. But I think “Stars and Stripes” was probably more accurate because they came from . . . after every mission we were interrogated, sometimes called these days “debriefing.” But we would go. We’d tell them what we saw. And I might say that first off when we got back from almost every mission, we were welcomed by Red Cross workers who handed us a double scotch to steady our nerves and then we had sandwiches and coffee and then we would go in for interrogation to tell what we’d seen on that particular mission, what happened or whether we saw other planes go down or whether we hit the target or what we saw, almost anything.
Foster: So they would try to calculate the losses.
Sims: Right. And if a plane didn’t come back, sometimes they were not lost, as in our case when we had to land at another base. But most of the time we knew that if they didn’t come back, that they had gone down. Now in some cases, some of the crew might have been able to bail out and parachute down, some might have been able to escape, some were attacked by farmers with pitchforks sometimes. So I don’t know how accurate it was, but nevertheless I still have today accounts of all of our missions, just about all, that appeared in the “Stars and Stripes” and other papers.
While Sims was stationed abroad, his wife, Eliza, worked as a secretary at Ethyl Corporation in Baton Rouge during the war. After the war was over, he returned home and continued to work at WJBO radio in Baton Rouge. Leaving radio, he worked for Crawford Corporation and Fidelity National Bank. He retired from the bank in 1982 and remained active in Louisiana Rotary Club until his death in 2009.
Sims, Ralph, interview by Adele Foster, audio recording, 1997, 4700.0827. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.