Photo By Scott Harper for The San Diego Union-Tribune
Photo By Scott Harper for The San Diego Union-Tribune

Lifelong Coronado resident Tom Rice played an important role in one of World War II’s most important battles. At age 22, Staff Sergeant Thomas M. Rice was among the first wave of American troops to set foot in Normandy, dropping in by air along with the rest of his 101st Airborne Division paratrooper comrades after 18 months of training and preparation. As his plane took heavy anti-aircraft fire, the pilot came in too fast and too low for jumping, evading fire and causing Rice to get hang up in the plane’s doorway. Beating the odds that claimed so many other paratroopers, Rice landed near Utah Beach – close to heavily armed Germans and miles from his intended drop zone. Eventually, he met up with about 50 other Americans, and they fought through Normandy for more than a month, sheltering in foxholes, living on scant supplies, and at one point capturing hundreds of German soldiers. He made one more combat jump in September 1944 into Holland as a campaign to build on the success of D-Day. Rice was honored with many military awards, including a Purple Heart with two Oak Leaf clusters, but the impact of his time in France wasn’t just physical. After he left the military, Tom Rice married, had five children and became a social studies and history teacher in Chula Vista. But throughout his 44-year career, he never revealed his personal history to his students. They knew he was in the military, but not which branch, or where he served or what he accomplished. Even years and decades later, Rice didn’t want to revisit the fraught memories.

Time seems to be healing his wounds, fortunately, for Rice is sharing his memories like never before. In 2004, he published a memoir called “Trial By Combat”, which details his experiences and captures them for future generations. In June 2014, at age 92, Rice made his third parachute jump in three years on the anniversary of D-Day to honor those who never came home, this time over Otay Lakes. And he went to Belgium in December 2014 along with other surviving members of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. As he told Stars and Stripes, coming back provides “closure if you can believe it. The scars are there, the wounds are healed, but we’re closing it.”

Photo By Nicholas McVicker for The San Diego Union-Tribune
Photo By Nicholas McVicker for The San Diego Union-Tribune

Evelyn Coy, 93, a World War II Navy WAVES veteran, Barbara Ellis, a Korean War Navy veteran, and nearly five dozen women veterans from the San Diego Chapter of WAVES National organization are still supporting the troops in the best way they know how. Despite varied specialties while serving from cryptology to personnel, the WAVES veterans now sew and stuff more than 20 travel pillows a week for the USO Center at Lindbergh Field. More than 10,000 service members pass through the Lindbergh Field center every month, and the travel pillows make flying, whether overseas on deployment or going home for the first time since enlisting, much more comfortable. The pillow project is two and a half years old, and offers the women an opportunity to gather every week at a pillow-making party to sew, swap war stories and support today’s troops.