Tom Rice – Island Icon

Written by Coronado Historical Association Volunteer Peggy Eddy

This article was originally published in the November 2021 Issue of Coronado Magazine. To read this article and more from Coronado Magazine, click here or the button below.

On August 15, 2021, long-time Coronado resident and WWII hero Tom Rice celebrated his 100th birthday by tandem parachuting over our island and landing on the Hotel del Coronado beach. Most certainly, his welcome that day was in huge contrast to the day Tom jumped into France on D Day in 1944.

In his one hundred years, Tom has lived a life worthy of full-length film.  Born on August 15, 1921, to a Navy Chief Petty Officer and his wife, Tom first lived in the small home his father built on H Avenue in 1919 after returning from WWI.  “My Dad used redwood to confound the termites,” he shared.  When Tom was quite young, his older brother died of pneumonia which left his sister and him as the remaining children in the family.

Following a move in 1932 to Norfolk, Virginia, Tom’s dad was sent to the Panama Canal Zone. In 1934, Tom’s father died during a routine flight, prompting his mother to move the family back to California.  For a short time, they lived with Tom’s fraternal grandmother in San Francisco where Tom remembers never attending school. 

Later in 1934, Tom’s mom moved the family back to Coronado. Due to financial constraints, his mom arranged for Tom to live with neighbors across the street and his sister boarded at a school in San Diego. In 1938, his mother was able to build a “bigger house” on H so the family could live together.  Always making kind gestures, Tom gave up his bedroom for his sister and set up an 8×8 canvas tent in their backyard complete with an Army cot and wooden floor as his “room”.  

Tom loved school.  With his remarkable memory, Tom recounted, “Burge was our English lit teacher. We had to memorize a lot of things- I can still recite Beowulf.”  Tom especially liked math. Tom asked the older boy with whom he lived for help with word problems. “I never understood why we had to solve those,” he recalls. “Didn’t make sense to me, but he helped me a lot.  I did well in school. There were high expectations for the girls and boys to excel, and it was quite competitive.”

Fatherless, Tom became close to Harold Niedermeyer, the athletic coach at Coronado High School.  “I ran track, and he really became a father figure to me all four years. I was pretty good at the three-fourths mile event,” he humbly reminisced. 

Tom said of his high school friends, “We weren’t a gang at all, just guys having fun together.”   Although they excelled academically, they enjoyed pulling off an occasional prank.  Tom recalled finding out that their Chemistry teacher kept a cigar hidden in a tree near the high school.   “We figured out he left school early so he could have a smoke over lunch. We decided to replace his cigar with a piece of rope dipped in tar.  That must have surprised him!  We also toasted hot dogs and buns over Bunsen burners in the lab.”

Some of his favorite memories of Coronado when he was growing up were catching gophers for the quarter “bounty” the fire department paid, dances during high school years at the North Island Officers’ Club, and delicious hamburgers at “a place at 800 Orange”.

Following his graduation in 1940, Tom attended SDSU, getting rides via the ferry from friends with cars. Ever the student, Tom amassed 60 units in two years as an engineering undergrad.

His academic pursuits were interrupted when Tom saw an Airborne poster in September of 1942, motivating him to immediately volunteer for Army Air Corps service. Twenty-four hours later, Tom took his military oath and went to basic training. He purposely tossed aside his glasses to qualify for paratrooper status. After basic, and nineteen long weeks of intensive training in Georgia, Tom joined the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the renowned 101st Airborne Division. In November of 1942, during airborne training Tom made his first jump from a DC-3, which he says was the scariest moment of his life. 

From 1942 to 1946, Tom served his country valiantly.  On D-day, Tom was the first in his squadron to jump out of his aircraft over Carentan, France. Tom also fought in the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne. 

Tom was discharged from the Army as a Staff Sergeant in December of 1946. Within three weeks, he returned to SDSU. Due to an overcrowded engineering department, Tom pursued teaching. After more than thirty years of teaching and coaching track at Chula Vista and Hilltop High schools, Tom retired. He recalls that it wasn’t until he started teaching Advanced Placement U.S. History that he shared his heroic war time experiences with his students.

Always eager to volunteer, after WWII, Tom and his friends initiated the first lifeguard services in Coronado.  Using an old jeep the city gave them, the volunteer lifeguards marked dangerous spots in the ocean with colored poles in the sand and rotated duty. Tom and his wife Brenda still live in the 1938 “big house”. The biggest change Tom has witnessed in Coronado is the “destruction of old homes and construction of bigger houses.”

Not content to rest on his laurels and still physically fit, Tom’s goal is to parachute over Carentan, France on his 101st birthday to honor all those who served in the 101st Airborne Division.

Beloved hometown hero, academic star, avid runner, volunteer extraordinaire, courageous paratrooper, decorated soldier, dutiful lifeguard, dedicated teacher, talented coach, author, and consummate patriot are just some of the words that aptly describe this Island Icon, Thomas M. Rice.

This article was originally published in the November 2021 Issue of Coronado Magazine. To read this article and more from Coronado Magazine, click here or the button below.

More Photos of Tom Rice:

Tom Rice and Family

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