TOPICS > World

D-Day veteran recalls jump that didn’t go as planned

June 7, 2014 at 1:06 PM EST
As the country reflects on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, veteran Tom Rice reflects on his experience fighting that day. He started his day in the skies, and things did not go as planned. Rice shared his experiences with our colleagues at KPBS in San Diego. Susan Murphy reports.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

TOM RICE: We sat in our steel bucket seats and the take-off time was 10:41.

SUSAN MURPHY: 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.

TOM RICE: I can’t recall exactly how long the flight was other than maybe 57 minutes – 59 minutes.

SUSAN MURPHY: Only 22 years old – Rice was among the oldest of the 18 paratroopers on board the c-47 military transport plane.

The once-avid runner says he had no time during the flight to worry – he was busy assisting his jumpmaster with equipment.

TOM RICE: Then I moved up to the front to make sure everyone was alert and awake and cigarettes were out.

SUSAN MURPHY: Their mission – dubbed Operation Overload — 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.

TOM RICE: Now there’s 45 aircraft in a v of v’s shape. I was in the third one to the right.

SUSAN MURPHY: From the plane’s open back door, Rice watched enemy fire streaking up from the ground as they approached their jump location.

TOM RICE: We were yawing and pitching trying to get away from the flack and all those candleworks coming up at us.

SUSAN MURPHY: Heavy fog and enemy fire caused pilots to panic and break up their formations. Still, Rice says, the red light above the back door of the plane came on.

TOM RICE: That means we’ve got five minutes to go, so the lieutenant got us all standing. And the order there – stand up and hook up.

SUSAN MURPHY: Rice was always the first jumper out of the plane — So when the green light came on, he jumped — and got snagged.

TOM RICE: My armpit got caught in the lower left hand corner of the door.

SUSAN MURPHY: He swung himself out, with a load of gear on his back that outweighed him.

TOM RICE: I normally weighed 137 pounds. That night I weighed 276.

SUSAN MURPHY: He says 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.

TOM RICE: So we were spread 400 square miles. Only 15 percent of us got together for the first five or six days.

SUSAN MURPHY: Rice spent 37 days fighting in Normandy, living out of holes, and equipped with just three days of food.

He says he lost many friends, and saw things eyes weren’t meant to see. He’s never forgotten.

TOM RICE: No… that stays.

SUSAN MURPHY: His living room mantel is filled with memorabilia and awards, including a Bronze Star, oak leaf cluster and Purple Heart.

TOM RICE: These are the two metals that the French department of the ancient warriors gave me.

SUSAN MURPHY: He hasn’t always openly shared his war stories. After retiring from the military, he got married, had five children and was history teacher in Chula Vista for 44 years. But his students were never aware their teacher was a walking history lesson.

TOM RICE: They figured I was in the military but I never told them a word about – I was in the Airborne.

SUSAN MURPHY: Now, at 92, Rice uses every opportunity to share his accounts of D-Day and World War II. He knows his aging generation of D-day veterans is fading.

TOM RICE: I developed a lot of camaraderie with those guys. Cause you have a lot in common with them.

SUSAN MURPHY: Rice plans to commemorate the 70th anniversary like he does every anniversary– by jumping out of an airplane.

Rice was among the first American troops to set foot in Normandy. Even at a distance of seven decades, the day continues to shape his life.