Rock Hill Pearl Harbor survivor recalls 'helping the living and collecting the dead'

12/07/2011 12:00 AM

12/07/2011 6:41 AM

The bombs started falling and the machine guns started rattling. The sound crashed around the USS Pennsylvania at dry dock in Pearl Harbor.

Eighteen-year-old Lloyd Claud Rice, just off a night watch, came running up on deck to see what was going on.

The date was Dec. 7, 1941, and Rice - who had hitchhiked from his home off Cauthen Street in Rock Hill to Charlotte to enlist 11 months earlier - found himself a part of history.

At that time, though, nobody thought it was history. The only thought was survival and fighting back - and the emotions of rage, anger and betrayal.

"The damn Japanese was killing us right as we was there," recalled Rice, 88, who has been known for decades as L.C. and only L.C. "Just before they were playing nice, and here is ships on fire and people getting killed all over the place."

The Pennsylvania, because of repairs in dry dock, had no ammunition for its cannons and big guns. All the men on board could do was rush to help others. A seaman died in the arms of L.C. Rice.

"We assisted any way we could, helping the living and collecting the dead," said Rice. "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."

Among the 2,403 people who died that awful day 70 years ago today was Ardrey Hasty, 18, of Rock Hill.

Bill Lovelace, 18, of Rock Hill, lost a leg that day - one of the 1,178 who were wounded - but lived for decades afterward until 1983.

Rock Hill's Asbury Hoke and Ralph Martin survived and told their tales of heroism and survival for years until dying as old, honored men, a few years ago.

It is believed that in this area, L.C. Rice is the last surviving veteran of the Pearl Harbor attacks that started World War II, said Don Vinsack, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2889 in Rock Hill.

"L.C. is, to my knowledge, the last living legend," Vinsack said.

The VFW and American Legion will hold a ceremony at 11 this morning at the Veterans Garden wall at Glencairn Garden in Rock Hill. Rice will place a wreath on the Navy insignia.

"I feel it is my duty to do it," said Rice. "I lived. So many people died. Not just that day, but in the war afterward. Thousands and thousands of men, dead in Europe and the Pacific.

"I spent my whole life trying to live up to them."

And what a life it has been for L.C. Rice, the Pearl Harbor survivor.

After the attacks, Rice was sent to a different ship to be delivered to the Russians - an ally in World War II.

The posting was so secret, he was gone so long, that his sister sent a letter to the Navy asking where he was. Was L.C. dead or what, the letter demanded. The Navy wrote back that it could not say.

Rice, a machinist, was sent to the Allied invasion of France, at Cherbourg, where his ship was sunk. So many men he knew died, again, around him. Of 10 ships in that group, eight were sunk with hundreds dead. Rice was wounded, his body riddled with shrapnel.

"Death followed me," Rice said, "but I ran too fast for it to catch me."

Then Rice was sent to the Pacific again, where the ship he was on was torpedoed at Okinawa in the last battle of the Pacific war.

"Fifty-four men died that day, right under our feet," Rice said.

In 1946, when the war ended and scientists took over the killing for a while, nuclear bombs were tested at Bikini Atoll, right between Hawaii and the Philippines in the South Pacific.

Rice was on a ship just miles away. Cancers that he fought and beat later in life he blames to this day on the radiation from those blasts.

"I was as close to the bomb as Rock Hill is to Fort Mill," Rice said.

But after he was done with the Navy, Rice did not file any lawsuit, or moan and complain. He did then what tough Rock Hill boys do: He enlisted in the Army.

Rice became a paratrooper, a drill instructor and fought in combat in Korea, where he had to kill so many men in horrors that are too brutal to talk about.

"Wars, killing, it is terrible," said this great old man. "You never get used to killing. Killing is what wars are. Not generals with shiny stars. Not admirals. It's men dead with their legs gone."

Then Rice was sent to Vietnam as one of those early "advisers" who were part of that horrible war.

It is unknowable how many men Rice trained, taught, seasoned over all those years, men who survived in those wars and became husbands and fathers, because of how tough and hard and disciplined he was.

"I figured if I could train someone," he said, "they might not die somewhere in a war, like all the death I had seen."

Finally - after more than 32 years of nothing but war or training people for war - L.C. Rice retired.

He spent time dealing blackjack in Las Vegas at the Dunes Hotel, owned and ran a small grocery store/filling station in Texarkana, Texas, then bought a boat and lived in Daytona Beach, Fla., for years.

Nobody in Rock Hill knew anything of his Pearl Harbor experience, or anything afterward.

It wasn't until 1978 that Rice came home to live. Rice became an instant legend who never would talk about what he did to earn it - but word leaked out.

Barside at the VFW and American Legion, Rice would put a foot on the rail and sip a cold beer that he sure had earned. People, veterans included, some combat veterans, too, would just stare at this tough son of a gun.

The last few years, Rice - twice a widower with no children - has spent his time with the Honor Guard of the VFW, and he accepts as many offers to talk about his experiences as he can keep.

"Doctor told me to give up the Honor Guard," Rice said. "I told him I would, but I didn't. I'm almost 89 years old. What am I gonna do, get old?"

To this day, word gets around anywhere Rice shows up in a rare appearance barside at the VFW or Legion hall for maybe one beer - his money is no good. One does not charge a legend.

The application to get Rice a few extra dollars a month on his disability, his veterans benefits, from the atomic blast exposure, is again being reviewed, with help from U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney's office and the York County Veterans Affairs office.

But L.C. Rice does not worry about what politicians do, what the government does.

He has prepared for today's 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks that started his 33 years of dealing with death and dying and killing and keeping young men from dying while teaching them that awful act of killing, and readies his Honor Guard uniform.

He shines the brass until it gleams.

He will wear the uniform today.

"The honor is for the dead and those who survived and everybody who was hurt and shot to pieces," Rice said. "You don't honor any war. You hope there never is any wars. You honor those who died in it, though.

"Pearl Harbor is where it started, 70 years ago. I was 18 years old. Grew up fast that day. We all did - those who wasn't dead."

Want to go?

Post 2889 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion Post 34 will hold a 70th anniversary Pearl Harbor service at 11 a.m. today at the Veterans Garden at Glencairn Garden. The event is open to the public.

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