Rock Hill Pearl Harbor survivor, combat vet of three wars, dies at 89

Herald columnistFebruary 12, 2013 

— At hospice, the generation that saved America and the world died.

For the first and only time, 89-year-old L.C. Rice lost a battle.

This last battle by the last of York County’s six local sons at Pearl Harbor in 1941, was lost only because even L.C., who never lost a fight, could not beat death.

Even if the battle with death wasn’t a fair fight, and like all opposition in war, death was a liar.

Even after a friend for so long named Gloria Machin put her cellphone to L.C.’s ear, and played a video.

“L.C. listen,” she said.

The late Whitney Houston sang from the phone, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The song of wars and dying and heroes.

“Glory, glory, hallelujah!” she sang. That military song heard so often. “His truth is marching on.”

Unconscious, still, a single tear from L.C.’s left eye rolled down his cheek.

Soon after, the end of came in the deep of night Monday, with a few family surrounding L.C., who was known since childhood always as just “L.C.”

The opponent was not a Nazi German soldier, or a fascist Japanese, or a communist Korean or Vietnamese. L.C. fought for a week in a coma, without food, because this toughest of all soldiers refused a feeding tube.

In the end, cancer had the most divisions, battalions, platoons.

L.C. had guts. He fought. York County’s most decorated soldier – who fought for years in three wars – would not die.

Until finally, as a nephew put it, “L.C. won the last war, too.”

And L.C. was gone.

Yet the battle L.C. waged to survive was just like his life. His guns blazed. His will remained iron.

“Death followed me,” L.C. said in 2011, “but I ran too fast for it to catch me.”

Even L.C. Rice has now been caught by death.

‘Warrior to the end’

The final rounds of the only fight of L.C.’s life that he ultimately couldn’t win – the fight to survive – had been going on for about a week at the Wayne T. Patrick Hospice House.

The enemy that stalked him this time was lung cancer. An esophagus that would not allow him to eat. When he tried, food aspirated into his lungs. He had pneumonia. His kidneys had stopped working.

But the battle, the war, was something to behold.

It was heroism.

For a moment just before noon Thursday, in Room 7 at hospice, the only sound was the rattling breath of the old man dying in the bed. Wet breathing, gurgling; final. Eyes closed.

Eight people came together around the mechanical bed, joining hands. A tough, gray-haired man named Steve Rice, crying, grabbed my left hand.

At the head of the circle, a niece who had given so much named Ellen Lavender and a nephew named Doug Rollins each grabbed a hand of the dying man.

Rollins grabbed my right hand to complete the circle.

The nephew began a prayer, asking God to look down on the man in the bed who had always seemed not a man at all, but immortal.

A man who ran a whisper ahead of death in three wars, starting at the very moment that World War II began for the United States, when Japanese bombs and bullets rained down on Pearl Harbor the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

Seconds later, L.C. – a machinist seaman on the USS Pennsylvania battleship, in dry-dock without weaponry to shoot back – held a dying sailor whose name L.C. never knew. The body was nothing but torn flesh and cracked bones, face missing, bloodied torso.

L.C., just 18 and fresh off a Rock Hill mill hill and cotton farm, shouted into the man’s ear, “You ain’t dyin’ for nothin'! I promise you!”

Then he set about to get the wounded out of harm’s way and help gather the dead.

L.C. served in the military for another 32 years after that attack, during wartime and peacetime in the Pacific and France, in Korea and Vietnam. He was a man who killed so much and yet saved so many. A man who somehow did not die himself.

A man who killed and trained others to kill, because that is what his country told him he must do so people who would live free shall not perish from the earth.

In that prayer Thursday, the nephew Rollins said these words:

“Please, God, remember all those men and women in those places of this wonderful world that Uncle L.C. held in his arms as they were dying, and how he always wanted to make those countries safe places where little children could grow up into men and women and have lives filled with love.”

Lloyd Claude Rice – always “L.C.,” never Lloyd – gurgled and his body and his spirit fought as these words were said because that is all this man did for his whole life.

“A warrior right to the end,” said a niece, Mickey Robinson.

And in the greatest honor of my lifetime, this dying warrior said he wanted me to be there with him.

A dying man asks for company

Feb. 4. My phone rang.

It had done so a hundred times in years of trying to hear as much as I could of what L.C. Rice’s life was all about, how he was the veteran’s veteran. Many times the voice on the phone was L.C. himself.

The voice on the other end on this Monday was a woman, a friend of L.C.’s named Mary Pace.

“L.C. is in the hospital again,” she said. “He has agreed to go to hospice. He keeps saying your name. He is asking for you.”

Late that Monday, at Piedmont Medical Center’s intensive care unit, L.C. admitted something to me he had never allowed his body and mind to admit before, throughout so many battles:

“It’s time to go. I got no guns left.”

He fell into sleep Tuesday at hospice and the family and friends and a York County community that had one native son killed, one man wounded, and four other men survive Pearl Harbor, waited for it’s last survivor to do what all soldiers do.

But he did not die.

L.C. lived out Tuesday asleep, every breath heavy, gurgling.

A few minutes after 11 a.m. Wednesday, Lee Dye, a hospice pastor and a veteran himself, walked into Room 7 where the warrior struggled.

Family and friends stood. Some from the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, groups where L.C. was not a member but a legend, stood.

L.C. loved women all his life, treated all like queens with great respect. Pam Patterson, the VFW bartender, was there at hospice. She brought her respect and her love and her tears.

There were no wives or children there, because L.C. had none. He outlived two wives and lost a third. He never had any kids.

Unless you count the hundreds, maybe thousands, of soldiers who lived because L.C. protected them in wars, taught them how to survive.

Craig Charlton, first vice commander of the American Legion post, Vietnam veteran, saluted and his sturdy jaw quivered.

This was not just some guy lying in this bed.

Mary Ann Walker, the tireless friend who held L.C.’s power of attorney – his trusted aide-de-camp, in Army terms – stood vigil as she had for so long.

Dye then pinned a medal to L.C.’s hospice gown. It is a ceremony done for all veterans at hospice. It is often the last military recognition a veteran gets, because hospice is where people go to die.

Even tough, scarred, wounded warriors like L.C., shrapnel still in his neck and shoulder at 89.

“Thank you, Mr. L.C. Rice, Sgt. L.C. Rice, for all you have done for your country that you loved so much,” Dye said. “In the Navy and in the Army. In three wars. You are like no other man in America. You sir, are a hero.”

Then Dye, and all the men in the room who were all veterans, saluted.

“I salute you,” whispered Dewitt Hull, L.C.’s nephew and another trusted helper and friend, tears rolling down his 77-year-old face.

L.C. still did not die.

When it looked like death was there, L.C. had always survived.

Off to the Navy

L.C. Rice was the last survivor of a family of 11 children. On his father’s farm in the Bethesda community southwest of Rock Hill, and on Cauthen Street in the mill village inside the city, L.C. grew up tough after arriving with a wail in March 1923.

He got some schooling, not a lot. Not because he wasn’t trying, but because he was poor during the Great Depression, when everybody was poor. He had to work.

“He always used to say he could only go to school one day a week because he only had the shoes one day and Granddaddy needed the shoes for work the other days,” said Ellen Lavender, that niece who spent the last weeks and years as a close helper.

L.C. made it through lower grades, went to work, and at 17 hitchhiked to Charlotte to join the Navy in 1940. He was underage, so Uncle Sam sent him home. His father went back with him soon afterward, signed the papers, and L.C. Rice was a seaman.

He was sent to the West Coast, then on to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where the Pacific fleet was stationed. He was on the Pennsylvania when the Japanese attacked.

“We assisted any way we could, helping the living and collecting the dead,” L.C. told me two years ago, on the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. “You could say World War II was born that day. The devil was born. Wars are no damn good. This was no movie.

“You see so many people die, and you know that until a war is over, so many people you know are gonna die because of that day.”

L.C. then was ordered to a different ship. This one was to be taken to the Russians – an ally during World War II. He was gone so long, on this secret mission, that a sister in Rock Hill demanded from the Navy an answer about his whereabouts.

The Navy finally sent word: It could not say where he was. L.C. Rice was officially unaccounted for.

Once they found him, L.C. was sent to still another ship to be part of a flotilla helping in the Allies’ plunge into France. Near the Cherbourg port, eight ships were sunk. Hundreds died. On L.C.’s ship, 54 men were killed. Many more were wounded.

L.C. – shrapnel in his neck, chest and arm; bloodied and bent, but unbowed – swam in the icy water, pulling survivors to safety.

Once the war finally ended, L.C. did not come home.

He was on a ship assigned in 1946 near Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, where the hydrogen bomb was tested. L.C. stood on deck less than 10 miles from where the worst weapon ever exploded blew up. Without question, radiation entered his body.

That radiation stayed with him the rest of his life, and L.C. and others always maintained the exposure probably caused other health problems in that tough body that seemed invulnerable.

Finally, he made it back to his home port on the West Coast. As soon as his feet hit dry ground, L.C. rushed to find the woman he had married in a quickie marriage, not uncommon as sailors headed off to war.

The wife, astonished, blurted out: “I thought you was dead. I married somebody else.’

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that L.C. told that story to his family and to me.

He told of how he told the woman to live her new life, how he turned on his heels like soldiers do, and walked off without looking back, because she deserved a life.

“Everybody thought I was long dead,” L.C. said. “I wasn’t close to dead.”

“I thought I had heard most, if not all, of the stories, but even I hadn’t known about the wife,” said Hull, the nephew. “The man lived such a life.”

The Army, and Korea

After the Navy, L.C. Rice was lost. He was in his mid-20s and had been at war for six years. So he walked to the Army recruiting station and joined up.

In the hospital, just before Veterans Day 2012, after his lung cancer diagnosis, L.C. recalled that the service was all he knew.

“I didn’t know anything but how to follow orders,” L.C. said.

L.C. soon became a sergeant in the infantry, later a drill sergeant. By 1950, the United States was fighting in Korea.

L.C. Rice soon was there.

The people in the hospice room this week talked about L.C.’s two tours in Korea and the awful conditions there as the soldiers fought for their lives.

“He would say how the soldiers would come back and take off their boots and their toes would come off right there from the frostbite,” was one remembrance.

I pitched in how L.C. had one such story with me.

“One fella in Korea, it was cold as it can get on this here earth, and he was gutshot right next to me,” L.C. told me a few years back. “He calls out, ‘Sarge, lookit. Got it right in the belly. What did you get for Christmas?’

“Then he dies right next to me as I am lookin’ at him.”

He told me about a firefight during which a rocket took the head off the American soldier two feet from him as they both ran for cover. The man ran three, four steps before his headless body finally crumpled.

L.C. beat bombs and bullets, pleurisy and pneumonia in Korea, and somehow survived.

Hull recalled the story of the nameless Korean orphan, his parents killed in the war, “adopted” by L.C.

“The little boy grew up right there and only spoke English, and cuss words he sure knew because all those soldiers, and Uncle L.C. was one of them, used to cuss a blue streak,” Hull said.

“L.C. would drive the little boy in a Jeep around the little mountain to the school where they were trying to teach him Korean and school subjects. The boy would run back and beat the Jeep. He was like his son.”

The kid lived in the barracks. Nobody told Sgt. L.C. Rice no.

“That was Uncle L.C., worried about a child in a war that he didn’t want to die,” said a nephew, Steve Rice.

When L.C. left Korea the first time, he told another sergeant to watch the kid.

“Uncle L.C. used to wonder whatever happened to that boy,” Hull said. “He would talk about that kid. It was like a parent talks of a son who never came home.”

Back in California between deployments, Korea became bloodier and L.C. readied to go back. The day before he shipped out, L.C. met a couple in a park, young newlyweds, who saw his uniform and asked him about the war.

“It’s the worst thing anybody ever saw and anybody who goes is lucky to survive it,” L.C. told the couple, recalling his words so many years later.

L.C. took the Purple Heart, earned from his World War II wounds, off his uniform and gave it to the couple.

“I won’t be alive after this next time to save it, so keep it safe,” he said. “Remember me.”

Back in Korea, L.C. led a platoon again.

“Little Willy,” everybody in the hospice room said, when recalling that tour.

“Little Willy” was a young Army soldier who always volunteered for patrols, Sgt. L.C. Rice would never allow him to go on tough missions.

“Too green, too eager,” L.C. recalled.

But finally L.C. did send “Little Willy” with seven other men on a reconnaissance mission. All but one returned.

“Little Willy,” last name unknown, was dead.

“I will never forgive myself,” L.C. told me a few years ago. “I sent that boy off to die. I did it. I saved men and I killed men, but I sure as hell sent him.”

In L.C.’s wallet, tucked in a drawer in a night table in that hospice this past week, a picture of “Little Willy” still rested. It had been there since 1952.

Airplanes and Vietnam

After Korea, L.C. spent years training soldiers at Fort Jackson in Columbia and Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

He was one of the original members of the Golden Knights, the Army’s official parachute team. L.C. made thousands of jumps from airplanes and trained countless soldiers – from privates to generals.

At hospice this week, after brass at Fort Bragg learned that L.C. was dying, the Army sent a framed photograph by urgent mail, thanking Sgt. L.C. Rice for his service as a paratrooper.

The honor arrived Thursday, was placed at the foot of his bed, where all could see it.

Except L.C. himself. He hadn’t opened his eyes for two days.

In the early 1960s the United States started sending Army “advisers” to a long, thin country nobody had ever heard of. In the beginning, mostly experienced soldiers were sent to Vietnam.

L.C. was there for years. The Army of South Vietnam was trained by L.C. and other tough combat veterans who had survived Korea and World War II. L.C. taught discipline. He taught what he had done for so long.

“I taught killin’,” L.C. told me once. “And I did killin’.”

Finally, in the mid 1960s, L.C. Rice came home – and he never went to war again.

But he continued to train soldiers, saying that if he trained men right, maybe those men would live through the un-Godly carnage that was Vietnam.

“I figured if I could train someone,” he said a couple of years ago, “they might not die somewhere in a war, like all the death I had seen.”

L.C. was an “E-7,” sergeant first class – the roughest, toughest, hardest men in uniform.

Once in Florida, Ellen Lavender met a Vietnam veteran who told her a story.

“This guy starts saying how in basic training he had the meanest, roughest, toughest sergeant, and the sergeant’s name was L.C. Rice,” she recalled. “I was shocked. The man said that what he learned from Uncle L.C., how to be a soldier, saved him in Vietnam.

“That man said he would be dead if not for Uncle L.C.”

In the early 1970s, L.C. retired after almost 33 years in the military. His arms and chest were covered in military tattoos from the exotic places where he fought.

He had no idea how to do anything else but train soldiers to survive and train soldiers to kill. He also knew how to kill and always used to say how he hoped he never saw death again.

He would not until it was his own.

A little bit of everything

L.C. spent years dealing cards at a Las Vegas casino, then running a little grocery store/filling station in Texarkana, Texas, then living on a boat in Florida.

“I was living a life that I didn’t know anything about,” he told me a few days ago in the hospital. “I spent years taking orders or giving orders, or both.

“In the world, you decide yourself.”

Finally, L.C. came home to Rock Hill, to grow old in the place where he had been a boy.

The last two decades

In his 70s and 80s, L.C. devoted almost all his time to the Rock Hill VFW and American Legion, and to veterans in general.

He was one of the first in the Honor Guard unit that served at military funerals and ceremonial functions. He played taps for years on a bugle – whether he had a tooth in his mouth or not, which near the end he sure did not.

So many times, when the Pearl Harbor anniversary or a military holiday would approach – sometimes for no reason – he would call me and say, “Let’s siddown and talk.”

Talk meant he would talk. He would remember those wars and the dead and the living.

So many times, he went to see off local troops with the National Guard as they left for Iraq and Afghanistan. And he was there to welcome them home.

“Every one of them comes home different than when they left,” he told me at one departure ceremony. “Not a boy ever comes home from a war. You come home a man, those that do come home.”

He spoke at schools – even while fighting throat cancer, which he beat – wearing jump boots and an Honor Guard uniform so heavy with combat ribbons and medals that it sagged on his bony chest.

At one school, a kid asked him, as only an 11-year old can, “Mister, you sure seem kinda old to be fightin’ in a war.”

L.C. told that boy: “I wasn’t always old, son. When I was young, I fought in three wars, and I am here to tell you that serving your country is the greatest thing you can do. But wars ain’t great.”

The boy, like all kids who heard L.C. Rice speak, was mesmerized.

He helped veterans’ posts raise money and donated some of his own.

L.C. helped lead the charge to have a veterans memorial built at Glencairn Garden in Rock Hill. He was recognized by the city and went to every service there. He wore his uniform, and he saluted those who were gone.

Sometimes his voice would crack, and he would say that he hoped no young guy ever left for war again.

And he lived on.

He would laugh at the VFW, sipping a cold beer at the bar. He took friends fishing and to the Cherokee casino in the North Carolina mountains.

“Life is to be lived,” L.C. told me once, perched on a stool at the VFW. “I am alive.”

The he winked at the bartender.

“Young lady, I’ll have another.”

L.C. always appeared, and sometimes spoke, at the annual Memorial Day weekend ceremony in York that honors York County’s war dead. He was honored there just a couple of years ago, given a standing ovation.

He would lead volunteers in placing American flags on the graves of veterans at area cemeteries before Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

He would stick flags near his own pre-paid plot at Grandview Memorial Park in Rock Hill, inside the exclusive veterans memorial section of the cemetery.

The last time he took me out to that grave spot, before he was hospitalized in the fall, L.C. cracked:

“You buy something early and get it paid for, so you don’t be a burden on anybody. You make plans and you prepare for what is coming; 32 years in the service, you learn about being ready. I will be buried right here – but I ain’t just yet ready to go in feet first.”

The end

In October, L.C. was home at the bachelor pad he has kept for more than 20 years. He couldn’t catch his breath. He was taken to the hospital, where he charmed the nurses before finding out that he had cancer again.

L.C. asked someone to call me and get me over there to see him. As I walked in the door, he said:

“I lived 89 years, and in March it will be 90 years. I lived through all that killin’ and dyin’, so I suppose I will just live through this, too. I got a lot of living left to do. This enemy, cancer, I’ll beat it, too.”

But he could not beat it. The breath never came back. The cancer never left. He spent some time at a rehabilitation center, and there was some talk of chemotherapy and treatment, but L.C. wanted no part of that.

Finally, on Feb. 4, he was back in the hospital. He summoned me.

That night, L.C. and his nephew and I almost got thrown out of the hospital for making too much noise, laughing. L.C. told some jokes that would make a stevedore turn red.

“You come see me at the hospice tomorrow when I get there,” L.C. said.

I shook his hand.

It was firm and strong, that shake. The tattoo, 70 years old, on his left forearm was blurry on the wrinkled skin over those old ropy muscles.

“Gotta stay strong, a pretty girl might want to go out on a date,” L.C. said that night. “Appreciate you coming to see an old soldier.”

For the next week, dozens and dozens of veterans, many with their families in tow, came through L.C.’s room after he moved to hospice.

In that room, I shook L.C. Rice’s hand one last time on Feb. 5. He pulled me close.

He had asked this of others far closer to him than me, but he wanted to ask me.

“You are my friend,” L.C. whispered. “Do you think God will forgive me for all those people I had to kill? All that killin’ I did? In them wars?”

No more cackling laugh. No more light banter.

L.C. Rice had asked me the question that was the one that mattered more in his life of service to his community and country. It was a questions that could not be answered by a guy with a pencil behind his ear. A guy who only wrote about heroes.

I gulped. I was crying as I leaned in.

“God forgave you, if he even had to forgive you – and I don’t think there is anything to forgive, Mr. Rice,” I spat out. “It’s the rest of us who need forgiving. Not you.”

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •

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