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WW II Veteran Tom Rice Is Focal Point Of D-Day Ceremonies In Normandy

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Posted: Friday, July 6, 2018 1:52 pm

Chances are as he approaches the age of 97, World War II Veteran Tom Rice is having more fun than anyone you know. Rice, a 1940 graduate of Coronado High School, a full-fledged member of the Greatest Generation, with a French Legion of Honor Medal and numerous other combat decorations to prove it, traveled to France three weeks ago to participate in the 74th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion. As we celebrate July 4th, we should also celebrate the life and accomplishments of a genuine American hero who fought on the Front Lines during World War II.

His recent trip to Normandy wasn’t Army Staff Sgt. and squad leader Tom Rice’s first foray into France. June 6, 1944, Rice along with comrades-in-arms from the Army’s 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles, Paratroop Division, 501st Parachute Infantry, Company C, parachuted and landed two kilometers behind the German fortifications on Utah Beach, Normandy, France.

Rice’s return in 2018 came with infinitely less danger attached, as he was part of a five-person invasion force, nicknamed Team Tom, which included Tom’s wife Brenda Carlson Rice, Coronado neighbors Christophe and Dawn Dugas, plus their daughter Kathleen Dugas. Christophe is a native of France, Dawn is fluent in French, and Kathleen is about to spend her final two years of college studying in France. She also performed a beautiful rendition of “La Marseillaise,” the French National Anthem, during one of the ceremonies associated with D-Day last month.

Dawn Rice said prior to her trip as part of Team Tom, “We decided some time ago to accompany Tom to France this summer, to visit family. We thought it would be great to organize a jump. Over the years Christophe and Tom have formed a wonderful friendship and Christophe has had the honor and pleasure of introducing his French family and friends to Tom. These have been very touching moments for us, as Tom has related his experiences of World War II with our French family, who has been able to thank Tom for his heroism in liberating France. Our goal is to honor Tom, both locally and in France, for the service he as given to both our countries.”

Brenda Rice said of the Dugas Family, “There wouldn’t have been a trip without the assistance of Dawn and Christophe Dugas.”

As it develops, Christophe and his twin brother Fabrice, who lives in the south of France near Montpellier, started putting a plan in place to revolve around the Anniversary of D-Day. Air France sponsored Team Tom for their flights. The Montpellier, France Airport, which was celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the rebuilding of their facility, sponsored Tom’s tandem parachute jump taken to honor his fellow paratroopers on D-Day. This marked the six consecutive year for Rice to jump.

A full program of events evolved for the 10-day trip. According to Brenda, Tom was treated like a later-day version of Elvis Presley by the French, posing for numerous photos, signing hundreds of autographs and shaking hands with the locals. One of the more significant events of the trip was the re-enactment of the evacuation of city of Carentan, Normandy. Rice was one of the 101st Airborne Paratroopers who helped free the city 74 years ago. The reenactment began with citizens of Carentan evacuating the town, wearing mid-1940’s garb, and ‘fleeing’ due to the intense fighting nearby. More than 250 reenactment paratroopers in full uniform and combat gear walked 16 miles to the La Barquette Locks. Rice shook hands with every one of the paratroopers and he walked with them for the first three-eighths of a mile.

Brenda Rice described the scene, “After Tom said goodbye to the troops, he got in a beautifully restored World War II Era Jeep for the trip to town. He was on the dais for the program and while we were waiting for the paratroopers to arrive, people were asking Tom for his autograph. The advantage of being with Tom while he’s in uniform is you get to go to the front of the line, but you can’t leave until a good half hour afterwards because everyone wants to meet him.”

On an historic note, the Battle for the La Barquette Locks lasted from June 6-10, 1944, with the primary combatants being German soldiers from the 3rd Battalion of Grenadier-Regiment 1058, 91st Infantry Division and Rice’s 1st battalion of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The locks had tactical importance, as the area near Carentan is below sea level. If the locks were opened or destroyed, particularly during high tide, the surrounding marsh area would become a salt lake. All transportation in and around the area would be negatively impacted as well.

Another major part of Rice’s return to France was his D-Day parachute jump with a French paratrooper. “He was the best they have,” Rice said of his tandem jumper. “They didn’t want anything to happen to the American. We jumped from 13,000 feet and the chute opened up between 4,000 and 5,000 feet. The descent is at 120 miles an hour. It was one of the best jumps I have ever done. Three of us on the jump were carrying flags. I carried the 101st Airborne Flag and there was an American flag and a French flag. We were all in the air at the same time. During the jump, they closed the airport, with no air traffic coming in or going out. Christophe and Fabrice jumped and there were about 20 of us total. They all went out of the plane before I did, and they made a big circle and joined hands. I joined them for five or six seconds in the circle.”

An informal, but much-appreciated honor, was accorded to Rice while he was admiring the wings French Paratroopers wear on their uniforms. As a sign of respect from one paratrooper to another, the Frenchman removed his wings from his uniform and pinned them on Rice.

Other honors Rice included medals from the Mayor of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, and a beautiful bronze medallion from the Mayor of the Village of Carentan, who declared June 6, 2018, Tom Rice Day in the city. Rice also attended a World War II Film Festival held at the Utah Beach Museum.

Rice has become a major celebrity in the Normandy region. If you have seen the movie, “The Longest Day,” made in 1962, one of the central characters is Pvt. John Steele, who is portrayed by the late comic and actor Red Buttons. Steele was a member of the 82nd Airborne, who parachuted into Sainte-Mere-Eglise. His parachute became entangled on the church tower in the center of the city, leaving him hanging on the side of the church. The combat-wounded Steele was captured by the Germans, escaped, and later returned to help liberate the city. Steele became a folk hero in the area. Rice said, “The French are making me out to be the John Steele of La Barquette. The of Battle of La Barquette was overlooked for such a long period of time, because it was spread out over such a great distance. I wrote about it and I was there. They wouldn’t let me leave Carentan until I promised to come back next year.”

Rice commented on his favorite portions of his recent trip to France. “There was so much. The march and re-enactment at La Barquette was outstanding. The jump was also one of the highlights, but that was pretty much standard. Meeting the French people, finding out what their attitude was, and what they are like was also enjoyable. I was really surprised by the attitude of the French. In a way I represented all of the United States Army and the American people. I was the only American at Montpellier, which was an honor and a responsibility.”

Brenda Rice answered the same question by saying, “Meeting all of the people and sharing their gratitude to every American from that time. The mayor of Carentan said to Tom, “You wrote in your book ‘Trial by Combat,’ that the people of France never forgave the Americans for the devastation from World War II. Forgiveness has long ago turned into eternal gratitude.”

Don’t get the impression that Rice’s combat service was limited to the early few days of June 1944, although that was harrowing enough. When asked how many of his 18 fellow company members survived the jump on D-Day 1944, Rice replied, “I have no idea. We were supposed to land in Zone B and due to the weather, we landed in Zone D, on the far western edge of the Drop Zone, two kilometers away. We were under fire from the Germans. We were spread over so many square miles it was unbelievable. It took us a week to a week and a half to reassemble. We lost eight company commanders, and a Lieutenant Colonel who was our Asst. Battalion Commander.”

My impression from our first story collaboration in April 2015, was that Rice and the Screaming Eagles, essentially fought their way across Europe. Rice was involved in the Battle of Penomet, which resulted in the capture of 400 German troops; he parachuted 60 miles behind the German lines as part of the Market Garden Campaign in Holland; fought and was wounded during a reconnaissance patrol at the Battle of Bulge. Rice eventually fought his way to Adolf Hitler’s hideout at Berchtesgaden. Tom said, “I was in the SS headquarters and I picked up a copy of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ done in rice paper. It was a nice, elegant artifact.”

Rice was wounded twice in battle and had three operations on his arm and leg. His medals include a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, the Combat Infantryman Badge, two Presidential Unit Citations, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign (EAME) Campaign Medal with five Battle Stars, and the French and Belgian Fouragierres. April 8, 2015, Rice received the National Order of The Legion of Honor in the rank of Chevalier (Knight), the highest honor bestowed by the Government of France, in commemoration of his service during World War II.

Rice retired from teaching after 44 years in the Sweetwater School District and for 23 of those 44 years, he also taught at San Diego City College. Rice taught at Chula Vista and later Hilltop High Schools, where he also coached the track team, running with the team during their workouts.

Speaking of workouts, Rice is in the initial stages of preparing for his return to France in 2019 for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. Brenda and Tom have made a deal that if Tom walks a mile a day, she’ll find him a trainer, so he can start lifting weights to get his upper body in shape for next year’s jump. Tom explained, “When you are free-floating from 13,000 feet down to 5,000 feet, there is a lot of pressure on your arms.”

Courtesy of Honor Flight San Diego, Tom will be a participant in Coronado’s July 4th Parade. In the meantime, a bidding war of sorts has broken out for the self-described Teacher, Athlete and Soldier. It seems the market for the services of a World War II Vet with the physical bearing and mental acuity of Rice is quite strong. Brenda Rice said, “We’re getting invitations from three different groups for next year’s trip to France. Christophe is taking all the offers, which has to include Team Tom. He doesn’t go anywhere without the team. I’m sure they want him to jump at Utah Beach. Imagine how many people will be there for that.”

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