Tom Rice, a US Army veteran from the 101st Airborne Division, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, jumps out of a C-47 into a drop zone near Carentan, Normandy, June 6, 2019, to re-create his D-Day parachute jump 75 years before. Rice died early Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, in his home in Coronado, California. US Army photo by Staff Sgt Elizabeth Pena.
Tom Rice, a World War II Screaming Eagle legend of the 101st Airborne who fought at Carentan and the Battle of the Bulge, has died.
His wife, Brenda, told Coffee or Die Magazine that he passed away at 12:33 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17, in the California home his father built in Coronado. He was 101.
“Tom lived an amazing life,” she said. “He lived 101 years. And he fought hard until the end. He said, ‘The first 100 years were easy. But the last one got tough.'”
Rice’s memorial service is planned for Saturday, Dec. 3, at Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church in Coronado.
Rice was featured in a Veterans Day story by Coffee or Die, where he recollected his harrowing days in France during World War II.
Tom Rice, a World War II Army veteran with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, is honored June 3, 2022, by a reenactor at “la Barquette” in Carentan, France, where he landed on June 6, 1944. Photo by Noelle Wiehe/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Thomas M. “Tom” Rice was born on Aug. 15, 1921, in Coronado, to Marcus and Katherine Rice.
His father was killed by a military air crash in the Panama Canal Zone in 1934.
He joined the Army on Nov. 17, 1940, at Fort Rosecrans near San Diego.
On June 6, 1944, Staff Sgt. Rice, 22, plummeted out of a Douglas C-53-DO Skytrooper toward a black drop zone at the edge of the transportation hub of Carentan.
His mission was to take and hold the town, shielding from German counterattack troops wading ashore on Utah Beach.
Tom Rice looks out over Omaha Beach on June 6, 2022, on the 78th anniversary of D-Day in France. Photo by Noelle Wiehe/Coffee or Die Magazine.
His stick of C Company, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment troops were supposed to leap from about 750 feet above the marshland of Normandy, but Rice told Coffee or Die he jumped at around 500.
“I always jumped No. 1, and I was the last guy to get in the plane,” Rice recalled, adding that with his bulky equipment and ammo, he tilted the scale at 286 pounds.
He spoke of a Nazi round ripping through his chute, and then four days of fierce door-to-door fighting by US soldiers who’d never killed before.
“We didn’t know how to kill,” he says. “We had to learn how to do that fast. And if you could sit on a dead German’s body and eat your K-ration while you’re being shot at, you can kill.”
World War II veteran Tom Rice signs a copy of a World War II newspaper bought at an antique shop during a visit to France on June 3, 2022. Photo by Noelle Wiehe/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Then came war in the hedgerows, and from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, the Battle of the Bulge.
A German sniper put two rounds into Rice and he had to recover in a Belgian hospital.
His war ended with an honorable discharge on Dec. 21, 1945.
Rice was an Army combat veteran who’d grown up in a Navy town — Coronado — so he returned to the Golden State to finish college.
Soldiers assigned to a cannon company in the 90th Infantry Division fire an M3 105mm howitzer during fighting near Carentan, France, June 11, 1944. US Army photo.
An influx of GI Bill vets made it seem “too crowded,” he remembered.
He quit engineering and studied education. When he got out, he taught for more than four decades at a pair of secondary campuses — Chula Vista High School and Hilltop High School — and also at Southwestern Junior College.
He kept memories of the war to himself.
“I never told them a thing,” Rice told Coffee or Die.
Rice later reunited with one of his former Chula Vista students, Donnie Edwards.
Edwards is the founder and president of Best Defense Foundation, a nonprofit that helps aging veterans return to their battlefields.
D-Day veteran Tom Rice, from Coronado, California, shakes hands with a US Navy nurse, Cmdr. Abreail D. Leoncio, the senior medical officer recruiter assigned to Navy Talent Acquisition Group Southwest, during Rice’s 100th birthday celebration at historic Hotel del Coronado, Aug. 15, 2021. Rice was one of the thousands of men who jumped behind enemy lines into France on June 6, 1944, D-Day. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James Hong.
“He almost felt that it was his continued duty to go back and keep the history alive,” Benjamin Harper, Best Defense Foundation's director of operations, told Coffee or Die. “It may be the teacher in him or the leader in him or perhaps just who he was as a person, but he almost acted as though it was his mission to go back and tell the story.”
“We were apprised of him going into hospice, and BDF as a whole has been there to support his family, and we'll of course continue to forever because we, Best Defense Foundation, see Tom Rice as family here," Harper added. "He is our family and so we, of course, offer condolences to his family and friends. And we want to do our part in keeping his legacy and history alive forever.”
Disclosure: Black Rifle Coffee Company, the parent corporation of Coffee or Die Magazine, is a major donor to the Best Defense Foundation.
On June 8, 2018, Tom Rice attends a parade in honor of the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne division during the 75th D-Day anniversary, in Carentan, France. US Army photo.
Rice and his first wife, Barbara, raised five children. She died in 2011.
Brenda Rice fondly remembered Tom parachuting on his 100th birthday from a Douglas C-53-DO Skytrooper onto the beach by California’s Hotel del Coronado.
“Perfect. I made a standing landing,” he told Coffee or Die.
Rice hoped to jump again this year, but Brenda said a fall in February delayed that. But he still wanted to try.
The Mayor of Carentan, Jean-Pierre L’honneur, along with the US Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Commander of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Maj. Gen. Brian WInski, the Command Sergeant Major of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Command Sgt. Maj. Bryan Barker, World War II veteran Tom Rice, and his wife, Brenda, bow their heads for a prayer during a memorial ceremony in Carentan, France, June 7, 2019. US Army photo by Sgt. Henry Villarama.
Rice figured he’d performed 63 jumps in his life, 48 of them while a soldier in the Army.
He parachuted into Normandy again at the age of 97 for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
“It’ll be a big memorial service,” Brenda Rice told Coffee or Die. “It’s been amazing all the people who keep calling, telling me how much Tom touched their lives. Many are students who say that he completely changed their lives.”
Officials from the 101st Airborne Division praised Rice as a "legend" and a "humble man who just wanted to do his duty for his country" and "never considered himself a hero or special in any way."
World War II veteran Tom Rice congratulates the 21 Soldiers who reenlisted during the 101st Airborne Division reenlistment ceremony in Carentan, France, June 7, 2019. US Army photo by Sgt. Apolonia L. Gaspar.
"His first experience in combat was parachuting into the dark flak-filled skies above Normandy-dropped at 160 mph as the pilots of his C-47 tried to evade the enemy fire," said division spokesperson Maj. Daniel Mathews in an email to Coffee or Die. "Three months later, Rice parachuted into Holland and fought in Bastogne, where he was severely wounded. Nothing could keep him from rejoining his unit, though. He returned just in time for the capture of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest and seeing the war’s end."
"He was a hard man to keep up with," Mathews added. "He was part of the Greatest Generation. His energy and passion for moving forward in life were unyielding."
"Thank you, Sir, for being an inspiration and showing us that with the right mindset, you can achieve anything. 'Screaming Eagles,'" he wrote.
Read Next: ‘He Was Like My First Father Figure’: A Retired Marine Finds His Calling Teaching NJROTC
Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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