For most people, a summer trip to France is a chance to relax in beautiful surroundings and to savor the country’s fine food. For Tom Rice of San Diego, it’s an opportunity to relive the time he nearly died jumping from a C-47 Douglas airplane, then was shot at, again and again.
Despite being 97, Rice climbed once more into the bone-rattling fuselage of a C-47 and, while flying over the Normandy fields where he first saw action in 1944, leaped into the unknown.
Those on the ground watched the anxiety-inducing descent as, strapped to another parachutist dangling beneath a red, white and blue canopy, the old man coasted through the sky, another gigantic American flag billowing out behind him.
Reaching the ground with only a slight stumble on impact, Rice proudly gave V for victory signs with his hands and, wearing a 101st Airborne baseball cap, said he felt “great” and was ready to “go back up and do it again.”
Rice, along with thousands of others, was in Normandy to mark the anniversary of the June 6 D-Day military operations that 75 years ago saw Allied forces turn the tide of World War II toward eventual defeat for Nazi Germany.
Most participants were content with touring some of the broad landing beaches – with code names like Juno, Gold and Omaha – that saw legions of young men wade ashore into a barrage of German machine gun and artillery fire to push back German advances.
But Rice, who has recreated his Normandy parachute jump several times, was adamant the best way to pay tribute to the fellow soldiers who laid down their lives that day is to step back into the shoes of his younger self and take to the skies.
He was among several hundred parachutists recreating the events of June 6, 1944, many using simple parachutes similar to those used 75 years ago.
Despite the intervening years, Rice clearly recalls his experiences when, as a 22-year-old member of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, he was dropped into enemy territory to capture strategic infrastructure to safeguard the beach invasion.
Barely briefed on his mission and burdened down with equipment, Rice was first in line to leap from the aircraft when everything started to go wrong.
“I was thinking, ‘let’s get the hell out of here,’ because we were under fire,” he told CNN. “All the thoughts about what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it just passed through my mind so quickly and I was so focused on getting out of that aircraft.”
Unfortunately for Rice, to avoid enemy gunfire the C-47’s pilot had accelerated to 165 miles per hour, beyond the safe drop speed of 105 mph, and refused to slow down. When Rice came to jump, the force of the airspeed caused his arm to get trapped in the doorway.
After several comrades had pushed past and out into the air, Rice managed to free himself, but by now he had overshot his planned drop zone, landing into an unknown part of Normandy.
Regrouping with several others in the dead of night – they used passwords and cricket-noise clickers to ensure they weren’t the enemy – Rice says danger presented itself immediately when one of his fellow soldiers showed him a hand grenade that had been armed.
“The pin was pulled,” he recalled. “You can’t get the pin back in a hand grenade so I said, ‘all right, give it to me.’ I squeezed down on that thing like it was a part of my body, got everybody down and rolled over in the ditch and dropped it there.
“It went to the bottom of the water and I rolled back in the center of the road. It exploded and the war was on from there.”
Trying to find their way, Rice and several others later approached a farmhouse to ask directions to Carentan, a small town where he had been ordered to seize control of a canal head.
“A Frenchman came to the door and he was dressed in a long, white nightgown from shoulder to floor,” Rice said. “He had a nightcap on with a tassel in it. He had a dish with a candle in it, lighted.
“I stood there and just laughed.”
It was a brief moment of levity in a mission otherwise fraught by lethal encounters. On reaching Carentan, his team set up a defensive position, making makeshift alarms out of wire and tin cans to warn of enemy approach.
“At two in the morning we heard the rattling,” he recalls. “We just opened up with fire. All three of us had submachine guns going.”
Digging a grave
Rice continues his story with characteristic bluntness. His war tales dwell more on the chaos and brutality of conflict than on the heroics. He says he and his comrades shot and injured a German soldier, then completed the job by hand.
“One of the guys went out and with his trench knife finished him off,” Rice said. “Then we dragged his body into the apple orchard and we dug a grave site there for him.”
After holding the Carantan position for D-Day, Rice remained in Normandy for several weeks, involved in offensives and operations including the capture, at one point, of 400 German soldiers.
He says the campaign eventually claimed the lives of about 37% of his complement, but Rice went on to jump into occupied Holland, seeing action in Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive.
When the war was over, Rice returned to the United States and continued studies that had been interrupted by military service. He later worked as a teacher but went on to write books about his wartime experiences.
While returning to France to recreate his D-Day jump remains an important act of tribute for Rice, he says he hopes younger generations will take inspiration from the courage of his fellow soldiers, and seek out veterans to ask about their experiences.
“Talk to these people who have been there, who’ve experienced this, who have logged behind in their deep, convoluted sections of their mind, their experiences and get them to talk about it,” he says.
“Courage is very important and when you act on courage then you are developing your character.”
CNN’s Barry Neild contributed to this story