LISTEN to Part I of Tom Rice on Hometown Heroes —-or—- LISTEN to Part II of Tom Rice on Hometown Heroes
93-year-old Tom Rice of Coronado, CA appears on episodes #352 and #353 of Hometown Heroes, recalling his experiences as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, Company C during World War II. You’ll hear Rice remember growing up in the military-minded San Diego area, where he was when he found out the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, and how the distance running star of the Coronado High School Islanders decided to volunteer for airborne duty during his sophomore year at San Diego State.
The idea of paratroopers jumping behind enemy lines was revolutionary at the time, and Tom’s remarkable memory takes us on a detailed journey back through the kind of training he experienced at Camp Toccoa and Fort Benning in Georgia. He remembers his first combat jump vividly. Taking off from England late at night on June 5, 1944, his C-47 came under enemy fire as it approached the drop zone in France.
He was to be the first of eighteen men to jump out of the plane and parachute into the darkness. Listen to Hometown Heroes to hear Tom remember the plane being hit by enemy fire as he jumped out, only to find that he was caught on the door and couldn’t get free of the plane. You’ll hear him explain how that situation was remedied, and what he experienced once on the ground, including the scene at a French farmhouse that elicited memories of a Charles Dickens classic. He’ll also detail how his first day of combat, famously dubbed “The Longest Day,” did not end without his suffering his first wound of the war. He remembers the outnumbered American paratroopers producing an impressive victory. Read this official military history of “The Fight at the Lock” to add to your perspective, and gain an understanding of where Tom was when he describes heading to guard duty at Le Barquette Lock. An improvised defense strategy for that outpost at the lock allowed Tom and his crew to foil a German patrol, and he’ll take you back to the tense overnight moments when they wondered how many enemies were in their midst.
Among the other stories Tom shares about what was going on in that sector is the tale of Father Francis Sampson, a Catholic chaplain who was about to be executed by his German captors, but escaped thanks to the intervention of a German chaplain, and went on to become a Major General in the U.S. Army. Read “A Padre in Jump Boots” if Tom’s memories made you want to learn more about Father Sampson. After the D-Day operation, Tom remembers preparing to jump seventeen times before Operation Market Garden finally deployed the 501st PIR again, landing in the vicinity of Veghel in the Netherlands. The reception Tom and his fellow paratroopers received in Veghel was unforgettable. Listen to Hometown Heroes (episode #353) to hear what special gifts the Dutch people handed out to the American soldiers who arrived there. Rice spent roughly three months in Holland, experiencing combat on nearly a daily basis. He doesn’t hold back on his true feelings about Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, or the Market Garden operation in general. After finally coming off the lines, Rice went to Paris on leave, and pulled off a feat you won’t hear about very often. He climbed up a leg of the Eiffel tower. Rice says he has always been a “risk taker,” and also reflective of that characteristic are his selfless actions on December 22, 1944.
His respite in France had been interrupted by what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, and Tom headed towards Belgium feeling a bit unprepared. “I had my sub-machine gun,” he remembers. “But little, if any, ammunition. I didn’t have a jacket. I had no gloves. I might have had a K-ration or two in my pocket, that’s about it.” He arrived in Bastogne on December 19 to a pretty bleak scene you’ll hear him describe in the interview. It would be three days before he received any food, and when he did, it was delivered in a pretty unique way. Tom explains that on Hometown Heroes, as well as the patrol later that day that would leave him with wounds in his left leg and right arm. When he recognized the potential for an ambush of his six-man squad, he stood up to communicate, making himself a target for enemy weapons. “I knew the risk I was taking,” he remembers. Hit in his left leg, he called over another man to administer morphine, then decided to stand again to see if the leg was broken. Again, he presented a clean target, and this time, an enemy bullet hit him in the right arm. As he went back down into a frozen ditch, he heard another round “pop” just inches from his ear. Rice sent the rest of the man back to safety, while he hid behind a frozen haystack for hours, hoping the Germans wouldn’t set that haystack on fire. You’ll hear Tom explain how he eventually made it back to safety and the medical attention he needed, thanks to the courage of a fellow paratrooper named John W. Curtis, who came to Rice’s aid, and helped drag him along the frozen ditch until they reached a jeep.
Taken to the Sisters of Notre Dame convent in Bastogne, Tom was cared for by nuns there until he was transferred to the 121st Field Hospital. You’ll hear about a nurse he remembers fondly, as well as what happened when confusion over him and another patient named Rice led to a mishap when Tom was scheduled for surgery. He would recover enough to participate in the G.I. Olympics at Nuremberg Stadium in 1945, return to San Diego State where he became associated students president, and would go on to a long career in education in his native southern California. Tom coached Track & Field and Cross Country, and taught U.S. history and government classes for decades at Chula Vista HS and Hilltop HS. He also taught at San Diego City College. He still lives in his native Coronado, and since entering his 90s, he has made an annual tradition of skydiving on June 6th to mark the anniversary of D-Day and recognize the more than 13,000 paratroopers who jumped that day. “The idea is to honor those guys, as best I can,” he says. “For what they did, whether they were wounded, captured, killed, whatever.” Jumping out of a plane and free falling 9,000 feet is still a thrill for Tom, and he’s thankful that his annual jumps help keep alive the memories of the men with whom he served. If you encounter this incredibly fit 93-year-old, please thank him for serving our country, and ask him if he has any skydiving tips for you.