San Diego D-Day Paratrooper Remembers Historic Jump 70 Years Ago
Part one of a two-part series
Thursday, June 5, 2014
Aired 6/5/14 on KPBS Midday Edition.
Aired 6/5/14 on KPBS News.
Friday marks seven decades since the greatest military invasion in history, known as D-Day. San Diego resident and Army Veteran Tom Rice was one of 160,000 troops who landed in Normandy, France on June 6, 1944.
Tom Rice has vivid memories of that night 70 years ago when he flew across the English Channel in the pre-dawn hours of D-Day.
"We sat in our steel bucket seats and the take-off time was 10:41," Rice recalled.
Only 22 years old, Rice was among the oldest of the 18 paratroopers on board the C-47 military transport plane. All were part of the 101st Airborne Division, 501st Parachute Infantry, Company C.
The once-avid runner and lifelong Coronado resident said he had no time during the flight to worry. He was too busy assisting his jumpmaster with equipment.
"Then I moved up to the front to make sure everyone was alert and awake and cigarettes were out," said Rice.
Their mission, dubbed Operation Overlord, was to parachute behind enemy lines in German-occupied France near the beaches of Normandy. They were to secure bridges, roads and canals just hours before a massive sea and land invasion of 5,000 ships and nearly 140,000 American and allied troops.
For Rice, the mission was the culmination of a year-and-a-half of intensive training.
"Now there’s 45 aircraft in a 'V' of 'V's shape. I was in the third one to the right," he said.
In all, more than 1,000 planes stretched for miles across the sky. From the plane’s open back door, Rice watched enemy fire streaking up from the ground as they approached their jump location.
"We were yawing and pitching, trying to get away from the flack and all those candle-works coming up at us," recalled Rice.
Heavy fog and enemy fire caused pilots to panic and break up their formations. Still, Rice said the red light above the back door of the plane came on.
"That means we’ve got five minutes to go," he explained. "So the lieutenant got us all standing, and the order there: 'stand up and hook up.'"
Rice said the plane was traveling too fast and too low to jump.
"We’re doing 165 miles an hour and Lt. Janson told the pilot, 'We can’t jump at this speed,'' Rice said, "and he called the pilot on the intercom and the pilot wouldn’t do anything. And as far as I can determine, we were at about 350 feet."
Rice was always the first jumper out of the plane, so when the green light came on, he jumped, and got snagged.
"My armpit got caught in the lower left-hand corner of the door," said Rice. "So I’m outside the aircraft—number two and three man go over me."
He swung himself out, with a load of gear on his back that outweighed him.
"I normally weigh 137 pounds," he said. "That night I weighed 276 with all my equipment."
He said he twisted, freed himself, opened his chute and plunged in pitch darkness toward heavily armed Germans, miles from his intended drop zone. He made a hard landing in a field near Utah Beach.
Many paratroopers died when they fell into rivers and drowned from the weight of their gear. Others were shot and killed during their descent.
By nightfall on June 6, more than 9,000 American and allied troops were dead or wounded.
Rice used a clicker, called a cricket, and code words, such as "flash" and "thunder," to unite with other Americans.
"You would go 'crick crick' and say nothing, do nothing. Wait for somebody to pick it up," Rice explained. "If an American did pick it up, he would go 'crick crick' again. We’d 'crick, crick, crick' toward each other."
Rice said his impromptu squad encountered a group of Germans who were on their way back from a party and marching toward Utah Beach.
"We went into combat with 50 of us and we ran into the 6th German Parachute Infantry Regiment of over 400 of them," said Rice.
"They didn’t even know where we were, so we cornered them, and we fired on them, we stopped them," he said.
Rice spent 37 days fighting in Normandy, living out of foxholes, and equipped with just three days of food. He lost many friends, and saw things eyes weren’t meant to see. He’s said he's never forgotten.
"No, that stays," he said. "You carry it with you."
Rice's D-Day memorabilia and awards, including a Bronze Star, oak leaf cluster and Purple Heart are displayed on his living room mantel.
He said he hasn’t always openly shared his war stories. After retiring from the military, he got married, had five children and was a history teacher in Chula Vista for 44 years. But his students were never aware their teacher was a walking history lesson.
"They figured I was in the military, but I never told them a word about, I was in the Airborne," said Rice.
Not even when he taught lessons about World War II and D-Day.
"That stuff was still too heavy and I just didn’t do it."
Now, at 92, Rice uses every opportunity to share his accounts of D-Day and World War II. He’s jotted down hundreds of pages of details in a book he recently published called “Trial By Combat.” He knows his aging generation of D-day veterans is fading.
"I developed a lot of camaraderie with those guys cause you have a lot in common with them," said Rice.
Rice plans to commemorate the 70th anniversary like he does every D-Day anniversary—by jumping out of an airplane, this year over Otay Lakes in South County.
Rice was among the first American troops to set foot in Normandy — young, scared and not sure if he’d survive. Even at a distance of seven decades, the day continues to shape his life.