Andrew Dys

York County’s most decorated war veteran faces one last battle: Cancer

In the intensive care unit at Piedmont Medical Center, a place of clear plastic tubes and machines that hum and beep, comes a sound that does not fit.

It washes over the rolling sound of gurneys, of scribbling nurses, officious doctors.

The sound is a cackle.

A laugh, from deep down somewhere that only a guy who survived Pearl Harbor and three wars afterward and uncountable hundreds – maybe thousands – of deaths, can bring it up.

“They say it’s cancer,” said the man in the bed, his forearms, shoulder and chest covered with those military tattoos of tigers and wings and places that describe a life around so much death in wars. “The lung.”

The laugh comes back.

“I lived 89 years, and in March it will be 90 years,” said the one and only L.C. Rice. “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.”

Lloyd Claud Rice is not just some veteran in a hospital. He is the one York County veteran looked at, listened to, stared at when he puts on that old uniform with so many medals on it that it looks like a costume – because there is no way one man could have lived through so much.

But Rice’s uniform is not a costume. It is American greatness.

When the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2889 Honor Guard rolled over in two vans to the hospital to see Rice a couple of days ago, nobody knew what was going on with all these guys in uniforms marching down the hall.

But those men showed up because Rice was is a member of that honor guard. He is a reason there is such a thing, because his whole life is honor.

After surviving Pearl Harbor aboard a ship and helping to clean up the dead, Rice served on another Navy ship that was sunk. The dying were around him as shrapnel ripped his flesh.

He was later sent on a mission so secret, to deliver a ship to the Russians, that his family could not be told where he was. Rice was gone for so many years, his wife back then thought he was missing in action.

“She married another guy,” Rice said, “and when I come back finally, she said she’d come back to me. I said, ‘No, you live your life.’

“Everybody thought I was long dead. I wasn’t close to dead.”

Instead of going back to his parents and 10 brothers and sisters on Rock Hill’s Cauthen Street after all those years in World War II – including being stationed about 10 miles from the atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1946 – Rice enlisted in the Army.

He was a drill instructor, paratrooper and jump instructor, then was up to his elbows in blood in combat in Korea. He saw rockets blow the heads off men with whom he had eaten just hours before. He watched friends and soldiers who worked for him die as they fought side by side in the cold.

A picture of a young soldier named Little Willy remains to this day in Rice’s wallet – 60 years after Rice sent him on a mission that ended with Little Willy dead.

Then it was on to Vietnam, where Rice was one of the first U.S. soldiers into that awful war. Rice followed wars and the dying followed Rice – but it never caught up with him.

After more than 32 years in the service, Rice retired. He dealt cards in Las Vegas, ran a roadside filling station in Texarkana, lived on a boat in Florida.

Then, finally, he came home.

In the past few years, Rice – who outlived two wives but never had any kids – has proudly attended just about every veterans event there is. He’ll talk to anybody, from kids to senior citizens, to tell them about the service.

And what service to country really is.

The VFW threw him a birthday party last March and Rice sat happily there at barside with a pretty girl on each arm. No general ever looked smarter.

At that same VFW on Wednesday, just a minute or two after noon, three Vietnam combat veterans sipped a silent toast to L.C. Rice as he battles cancer.

Rice knows how important the military is and how awful war is. He has killed so much and seen so much death and cheated death for more than 70 years.

He has survived whatever that atomic bomb disgorged just miles from him in 1946 that very well could have harmed his health then and later and even now – and he is still as sharp and tough as ever.

A cemetery plot with his name on it at Grand View Cemetery in Rock Hill – inside the veterans’ honor circle at the back of the acres and acres of graves – remains empty.

“I bought it, but I ain’t ready for it,” Rice cackled Wednesday from that hospital bed.

It is unclear if radiation and chemotherapy or surgery will be the route doctors and Rice himself eventually choose. He might need to get stronger, possibly at a rehabilitation center for a few days, before a decision is made.

A niece and nephew, close family for years, come to the hospital to see him each day. Many from his VFW post have been in to see him.

Rice’s heart sure works.

When he was checked into the hospital and a pretty nurse smiled at him, his heart machine monitor leaped. It looked like a California earthquake reading on a seismograph.

L.C. Rice stretched a little bit Wednesday, and all those tattoos from those wars showed themselves from the sleeves and neck of the hospital gown. It seemed impossible that this toughest of all soldiers and sailors could be in a bed surrounded by tubes and monitors.

But even legends get tired after a long stretch of shooting the breeze about the horrors of wars, the delicious taste of an ice cold beer – and the beauty of young lady nurses.

He stuck out his hand for a shake. The grip was an iron vise.

In two weeks, Rice is scheduled to ride in a convertible as a featured guest in York’s annual Veterans Day parade.

“I plan on being right there in the parade,” Rice said. “I’ll ride in that parade. It would be an honor.”

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