World War II paratrooper Tom Rice embodied what an American should be, according to Art Shaffer, who tandem-jumped twice with Rice, whose funeral was Saturday.
Rice is known most recently as the veteran who parachuted onto Coronado on his 100th birthday. To his friends and family, Tom Rice was extraordinary.
“He’s my hero,” said fellow WWII veteran Gill Nadeau, still speaking in the present tense. “He’s awesome. His memory is fabulous. He remembers everything. He makes me feel like I have dementia.”
Following the second of two services for the Coronado resident, Shaffer said: “It’s such an honor to know him, to be able to jump out of a plane with him and relive some of those experiences with him.”
“I just can’t put it into words,” said Shaffer, who jumped with him at Normandy and Coronado. “It has inspired me to be a better person and be a better American.”
Rice, who was born and died in his family’s home on Coronado, passed away from natural causes at age 101 on Nov. 17, the anniversary of his enlistment into the Army at Fort Rosecrans in 1942.
Rice’s ashes will be interred at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery at a later date.
Capt. Steve Shepard said at the morning funeral at Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church that Rice’s “final mission the last years of his life: telling the story of his fallen comrades and about the price of freedom.”
In honor of his fellow military brothers, Rice returned to France, parachuting into Normandy for the 50th and the 75th commemorations of D-Day (in 1994 and 2019).
In August 2021, Rice said he jumped on his 100th birthday to honor fellow soldiers who died in military service.
At that jump, Rice was asked what he planned for his 101st year. He planned to go back to Normandy, which he did in June. But his health declined after that.
During WWII, Staff Sgt. Rice served in the famed “Screaming Eagles” 101st Airborne Division and jumped on D-Day over Normandy, France.
Calling himself a risk-taker, he went on to lead a mortar squadron parachuting again into battle during Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, and later fought at the Battle of the Bulge, where he was wounded.
He was a Coronado High School graduate where he set records in track and played basketball. He became one of Coronado’s first lifeguards.
After the war, Thomas Marcus Rice attended San Diego State College, and went on to a 44-year teaching career at Chula Vista and Hilltop high schools, where he taught social studies and history and coached the track and cross country teams.
“I believe he knew his time was coming and had mentally gone to the eternal assembly area to prepare,” Sherpard said at the celebration of life. “He was back among his airborne brothers who were going to help him make that last jump and escort him home.”
Shepard said the lessons of Rice’s life were that humility is a strength and greatness is not found in rank or position, but in serving others.
“Live every moment, invest in others and don’t forget those who lost their lives in service to their country,” said Shepard, quoting Rice. “Validate their sacrifice by the way you value freedom, and the way you serve your country, community and your fellow man.”
At the afternoon public memorial, members of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, attended.
Because of his war efforts and subsequent visits to Normandy, Rice was beloved in France, said Denis van den Brink, representing France. Rice’s ancestors were French.
Shaffer said after the memorial: “He represents a time in American history when people were willing to give everything up, to go across the seas and help some other country, another group of people, another culture survive.
“It’s such an inspiration to know someone who is willing to do stuff like that.”
The family asked that in lieu of flowers people donate to Honor Flight San Diego. Rice was an active member of the group that takes veterans to Washington, D.C.