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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Tom Rice ('46) with "No Forgotten Fronts" author Lisa Shapiro. Tom Rice ('46) with "No Forgotten Fronts" author Lisa Shapiro.

D-Day Remembered

Two Aztecs parachuted into France on June 6, 1944. Only one of them came home.
By SDSU News Team

During the 1940-41 academic year, Herman Addleson and Tom Rice ran cross country for what was then San Diego State College. Addleson was a three-year letterman when he graduated in the spring of 1941 and Rice was well into his second year on campus that next fall semester when the attack on Pearl Harbor disrupted everything.

Both men wound up serving in the United States Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Rice in the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment and Addleson in the 502nd. Each kept up with fellow Aztecs around the world through a newsletter compiled by a favorite professor, Lauren Post, affectionately known by former students as “Doc.”

On May 1, 1944, Addleson wrote Post a letter from his assignment in England: “Seems like a lot of Aztecs are over here, yet I haven’t been able to get around to locate any, except Tom Rice & Guy Sessions, buddy paratroopers. We are all going to give those Nazis hell on ‘D’ day...”

In a letter to Post dated the very next day, Rice mentioned an encounter with Addleson who was stationed nearby. “I hope I run into a few more Aztecs soon,” it read.

Within weeks, the former San Diego State teammates were on different planes as part of the same mission, codenamed Operation Overlord. The date was June 6, 1944, forever after to be known as D-Day.

The invasion

The Allies had assembled the largest invasion force in history to break the Nazi grip on Western Europe. Addleson and Rice were among the troops assigned to fly across the English Channel, parachute into Normandy, and engage the enemy in a fight for France. 

Both men jumped braving heavy artillery fire from below, but with very different outcomes. Accounts regarding Addleson vary in detail, but with the same conclusion; he perished after landing in water either in a channel or in a low-lying field intentionally flooded by the Nazis.

The plane carrying Rice overshot its intended drop zone – likely intentionally after pilots got word of the flooding – but Rice landed safely. Once on the ground, he established his bearings and dutifully carried out his orders.

In a hand-written letter dated June 28, 1944, Rice offers Doc Post a detailed account of his D-Day jump and subsequent actions. The letter is part of the World War II Servicemen's Correspondence Collection, 1941-1946, in the SDSU Library’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives.

The letters in the collection are the subject of the book, “No Forgotten Fronts: From Classrooms to Combat,” by Lisa K. Shapiro, released in 2018. Shapiro spent four years researching and writing the book, which features several letters written by or mentioning Addleson and Rice.

Family connection

Publicity surrounding “No Forgotten Fronts” led Charles Wax (’72) to contact the author. His uncle had married one of Addleson’s sisters and he had always wanted to learn more about the war hero whose framed photo his aunt  kept on her bedside credenza.

Shapiro invited Wax to a March meeting she had scheduled at the home of Tom Rice. “I didn’t know much about Herman and she said that Tom knew him, so I was hoping maybe to learn something,” Wax said.

At their meeting, Rice enthralled his guests with a detailed description of his D-Day jump where he was first in line to lead his squad from their C-47 transport aircraft. As he leaped, Rice caught his arm on the door and found himself dangling in midair, smacking the side of the plane.

“I just began to turn my arm and I got out of it and it ripped my watch off,” he recalled, adding drolly, “and I hope some good Frenchman got it.”

For the better part of two hours, Rice shared stories from his war experience – including being shot by a sniper - with astonishingly vivid recall of everything from the names of small villages to the middle initials of fellow soldiers. “What is amazing is his unbelievable memory of detail,” Wax observed.

“It’s living memory,” Shapiro added. “To me, standing next to Tom, the history is literally still alive.”

Hallowed ground

Both Aztecs were highly decorated for their service. Addleson received a Purple Heart while Rice counts two Purple Hearts and a French Legion of Honour medal among his many decorations.

Addleson is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Wax, whose father and uncle also served in World War II, has been to Normandy twice to pay tribute and to visit the D-Day battle sites.

“It’s very hallowed ground there,” he said. “It’s very, very moving.”

Rice returned there himself this month for the D-Day 75th anniversary observance. At 97, he recreated his jump from the historic invasion.

This jump, his 61st, was different. By French law, he was required to jump in tandem with another parachutist.

This time there were TV crews and spectators and no danger of hanging in midair hoping to survive enemy gunfire.