Hérouville-Saint-Clair, France — They were born on opposite sides of the country during the Great Depression, but a global war put both of them off Normandy on June 6, 1944, and eight decades after D-Day they’d be reunited in France again.
A Screaming Eagle with the 101st Airborne Division, Staff Sgt. Thomas M. Rice, 22, flew over the English Channel in a Douglas C-53-DO Skytrooper, bound for a Normandy drop zone outside the Nazi-held town of Carentan in the black of night.
His job would be to help take and hold the vital rail and road hub, shielding American troops coming ashore at Utah Beach from German counterattack.
At dawn, US Navy Coxswain 4th Class Dick Ramsey, 20, watched as his battleship Nevada pummeled German shore defenses, sometimes sending steel 17 nautical miles inland, dodging and dueling Nazi batteries the whole morning.
Researchers estimate there are only about 167,000 US veterans left from World War II, a bit more than 1% of those young men and women sent off to war.
Coffee or Die Magazine journeyed to Normandy to capture the stories of Rice and Ramsey, so their heroism won’t be lost to time.
Thomas M. ‘Tom’ Rice
When Tom Rice tells the story of the day he landed in France, he holds a gaze with his listener, almost as if he’s taking you back in time with him.
He’s inside the Mercure Caen Côte de Nacre, a hotel in Hérouville-Saint-Clair, waiting for a bus. He’s sitting about 45 miles east of Carentan, his D-Day objective in 1944, and what became the beginning of 192 days of combat for the paratrooper.
His Skytrooper was supposed to drop its stick of C Company, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, about 750 feet above the marshland of Normandy. But Rice figures he jumped at around 500.
“I always jumped No. 1, and I was the last guy to get in the plane,” Rice, 101, recalls, adding that with his bulky equipment and ammo, he tilted the scale at 286 pounds.
He recollects a round ripping through his chute on his way down, but he made it. He tossed his gas mask — $36 worth of extra weight — and buried his parachute. And then he began looking for krauts to kill.
“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.”
Within an hour, he was in Carentan, he recalled, but it would take four days to clear out the Germans during brutal door-to-door fighting.
“They could smell us and we could see them,” Rice remembers. “No showers, no nothing all those days.”
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.
Richard J. ‘Dick’ Ramsey
He hit boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station in 1943, weighing a whopping 143 pounds. When he left Illinois for the fleet, he’d gained 20 pounds of muscle.
“It was the Great Depression,” Ramsey, 99, tells Coffee or Die, so he was happy with two boots, a cot, and three hot meals every day.
Before the Navy, he’d built torpedo parts and then worked as a pipefitter in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, including on the newest battlewagons Iowa and Missouri. In the sea service, however, the brass assigned him to the Navy’s oldest battleship, Nevada.
It was the only battleship that survived both the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and D-Day. Trained as a coxswain, operating small boats scuttling from Nevada to other vessels and ashore, on D-Day he was confined to his perch atop his 5-inch anti-aircraft gun.
So he watched Nevada’s precise punishment of the enemy shore batteries, with shells sometimes dropping only a few hundred yards from US troops wading ashore.
Nevada saw a lot of war. It bombarded Normandy and four other shores — Attu, southern France, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa — and survived a hurricane and convoy duty, too.
There was the kamikaze plane that crashed into Nevada’s main deck off Okinawa, exploding against turret No. 3, killing 11 sailors and wounding another 49.
Ramsey speaks of the fighting in the Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands, and learning the Japanese had surrendered when he and his crew were in the Philippines.
The seaman was honorably discharged on Jan. 25, 1946.
Big Navy figured Nevada was too old for sea duty, so it was towed to Bikini Atoll in 1946 and marked as a target ship for the Operation Crossroads atomic experiments.
Nevada survived two detonations. But it was so washed in radioactive spray that it couldn’t be used again.
Towed back to Hawaii, the battleship was decommissioned Aug. 29, 1946.
Staff Sgt. Rice and Coxswain 4th Class Ramsey also had to figure out their place in a post-war world.
Rice was an Army combat veteran who’d grown up in a Navy town — Coronado, California — so he returned to the Golden State to finish college. An influx of GI Bill vets made it seem “too crowded,” he remembers.
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 recalls.
Rice’s father built the home where he was born and where he still lives. He and his wife raised five children, and he’s returned to Normandy several times over the decades.
In Carentan, he’s considered an honorary citizen, and he recalls a mural of him on a building, “about 30 feet wide and 50 feet long.”
Rice says he’s done 63 jumps in his life, estimating 48 were done in the Army. He parachuted into Normandy again at the age of 97 for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
On his 100th birthday, he leaped from a Douglas C-53-DO Skytrooper over California’s Hotel del Coronado.
“Perfect. I made a standing landing,” he says.
But he concedes that’s only happened three times in all his jumps. The others were a little messier.
Ramsey returned to the Brooklyn Shipyard, then caught on as a pressman for the Mercury Lithograph Co.
He’s living now with his daughter, Patrice, in Saugus, Massachusetts.