D-Day arrives — then and now — and Tom Rice jumps out of airplanes.
The 96-year-old retired high school teacher from Coronado is in France, participating in ceremonies marking the anniversary of the massive Allied invasion that freed the country from the grip of Nazi Germany during World War II.
Many people his age — really, those of any age — would be content to enjoy the festivities from a comfortable chair, in the shade, with a suitable beverage at hand.
But Rice has always had a thing for risk-taking. It’s why he signed up for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, the “Screaming Eagles,” and it’s why he was the first one out the door of the C-47 cargo plane on June 6, 1944, over Normandy.
He had friends die that day, and in the weeks and months that followed as his unit fought its way into Holland and Belgium. It’s them that he jumps for now, to honor their sacrifice.
“I came home and they didn’t,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to forget them.”
He jumped at the 50th anniversary commemoration in 1994, also in France, and in recent years he’s walked out of airplanes over Otay Lakes to mark the date.
In a bow to his age, he does tandem jumps now, strapped in a harness to the chest of a younger skydiver who controls the parachute. At the jump scheduled for today at the Montpellier airport, he’ll ride with a French paratrooper. Two other skydivers will flank them, one carrying an American flag and the other a French flag.
The trip was arranged by one of Rice’s Coronado neighbors, Christophe Dugas, who grew up in France and understands the feelings that country still has for the Allied liberators.
“Everywhere he goes, people will want to shake his hand and take his picture,” Dugas said. “It’s very touching.”
In addition to the D-Day jump, Rice was the guest of honor at a World War II film festival in Sainte Marie du Mont late last week before traveling to Carentan, a small town near the port of Cherbourg that was the site of fierce fighting between the American paratroopers and the Germans in the days following the initial landings.
“The people of Carentan never forgave us for the destruction of their city and the death of family members,” Rice wrote in “Trial by Combat,” a self-published 2004 memoir.
In a recent letter, the mayor of the town told Rice he is mistaken.
“Please come and see for yourself,” Jean-Pierre Lhonneur wrote. “Forgiveness has long ago turned into eternal gratitude.”
Clickers and passwords
Rice was two months shy of his 23rd birthday when he jumped into France the first time.
The Coronado native was among 18,000 paratroopers who had flown across the English Channel in the dark, an early wave in one of history’s largest air, sea and land invasions. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied commander and later U.S. president, saluted each plane as it lifted off.
The weather was bad and the ride bumpy, and German anti-aircraft fire greeted the invaders. “They threw everything at us including the kitchen sink,” Rice wrote in a letter soon after. “The sky was lit up as bright as day.”
His unit, the 501st Parachute Infantry, Company C, reached its target, behind Utah Beach, at about 1:30 a.m. Rice went out first, just as the plane lurched up, and his left arm got caught in the doorway.
Twisting in the air while other soldiers jumped over him, he finally wrenched himself free, losing a brand-new $180 Hamilton wristwatch in the process.
Scattered across miles of the Cotentin Peninsula, the paratroopers used clickers and prearranged passwords to find each other in the dark and go about their missions. At one point, Rice’s group of about 50 jumpers and glider pilots captured hundreds of Germans.
Guarding a strategic canal, they set a noise trap with wires and tin cans that had rocks in them. When the rocks rattled, Rice and the others opened fire, killing one German. They buried him beneath a cross they made from tree limbs. Looking at his uniform, they realized he was a paratrooper, too.
Rice spent more than a month in combat in France and was wounded by shrapnel. In September of 1944, he jumped into Holland as part of Operation Market-Garden and later fought in Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was wounded again, shot several times. One bullet took out part of a bone in his right arm.
He was awarded a Bronze Star with an oak leaf cluster and a Purple Heart with two clusters for his actions during those campaigns.
A generation disappears
Before the war, Rice wanted to be an engineer. But something about the mechanics of death and devastation that he saw made him change his mind.
He became a teacher.
He taught for 44 years at Chula Vista and Hilltop highs. One U.S. textbook he used had a photo of Eisenhower talking to the D-Day paratroopers, but Rice didn’t tell his students he was there.
It felt like bragging, unseemly when so many others had lost their lives in combat.
Rice got married and had five children and never talked much about the war. A lot of World War II veterans were that way. Then came events surrounding the 50th anniversaries of various battles, including D-Day, and the remembrances flowed more openly.
Now the so-called Greatest Generation is disappearing. Of the 16 million Americans who served in the war, about 500,000 are still alive, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. They die at a rate of about 360 per day.
Almost everybody he knew back then is dead, Rice said. He felt that acutely on a recent visit to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Touring the exhibits, he saw a jump list for Company C, with his name on it.
“They made a big deal about it,” he said.
According to Tom Gibbs, the museum’s special programs manager, “It was a rare moment, experienced by very few museum visitors.”
They asked him if he was really that Tom Rice and he recited from memory his Army serial number.
That’s not all he remembers. And because he remembers, he jumps.
He’ll do it for as along as he can, he said. He’s already been invited back to France for next year’s D-Day events, which will mark the 75th anniversary of the invasion.
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