Local Coronado resident Tom Rice found closure after his most recent trip back to Normandy where he completed a tandem parachute jump as part of the 75th anniversary of D-Day ceremony. Rice said the jump was amazing, “I had been training to strengthen my upper body for the last 6 weeks so I felt good, the cloud layer was a little lower so we jumped at 6,000 feet an it was warmer than we were expecting since we scheduled to jump at 13,000 feet.” He went on to say that this jump was so much better than the original night jump on D-Day that he describes as the “worst jump of my life.” On top of the bullets flying, the unusual flight pattern the aircraft took, and the night’s conditions, Rice also had a sprained ankle and got caught up on the aircraft when he exited the aircraft making for a difficult start to a long campaign.
Rice became a history teacher after graduating from SDSU, and his understanding and love for history came through during our interview. During his 97 years he has witnessed so many incredible moments, both good and bad: the first man walking on the moon, the Kennedy assassination, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, but the most powerful moments for him were during his time with the 101st Airborne. He spoke for over an hour recounting his training, preparation for battle, and what it was like landing on the beach of Normandy on D-Day and the 37 days of patrols after that.
He also shared details about the follow-on operation Market Garden in Holland and later his time at the Battle of Bulge where he was shot multiple times in the arm and leg, ending up in the hospital. His injuries were severe enough that they told him he would be sent home to the states, but he refused to go, wanting to return to his unit and finish what he started. As the war came to a close and the fighting had ceased in many areas, Rice became part of the unit’s competitive team competing in track against other units across Europe.
Upon return to the states after the war, Rice went back to his studies at SDSU, was student body president for a year and coached cross country for a short time, and later taught history at a Chula Vista High School. Like many veterans of WWII, Rice didn’t talk much of his war experiences as he said, “GIs who came back all suffer from the fame, blame, and and shame that constantly surrounds us.” But later in life, he came to appreciate the importance of sharing his story and has been active in tours and telling the history of his time in the 101st Airborne. He shared stories of what type of soldiers they were selecting for Airborne division and said they wanted innovative, intelligent athletes who love adventure, and he fit each of those criteria. He would go on to face many unbelievable scenarios in war that couldn’t be taught in a classroom; instead he said, “They taught us to develop character to deal with chaos, from chaos we reduced it to danger, then from danger to inconvenience, then we forget it and get the job done. There was chaos in front of us every day.” This training helped keep him alive against the odds. Of those assigned to the 101st Airborne Division that jumped on D-Day, 182 were killed, 557 wounded, and 501 missing.
Rice has returned to Normandy, and all of the areas in which he fought, throughout the years, and each time he gains a bit of closure. He also meets others veterans or family members of veterans who are looking for closure as well and they share stories of the past, attempting to close that chapter in their lives.
Rice now lives with his wife Brenda in his family’s original home built in 1938 in central Coronado. He fondly remembers his youth in Coronado, growing up in a military town, going to dances every Friday and Saturday night. He is the son of a Naval Aviator who sadly died in an plane crash in Panama when Tom was just a child. He is aware he is an anomaly as an Army veteran in a Navy town and is proud of the fact that he is the only 101st Airborne veteran from Coronado. He plans to continue to share his story and return to Normandy every year on the anniversary of D-Day as long as he can.