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Vietnam vet dreamed of Navy career


For Dave Rice of rural Harwood, ND, every day seems like Veterans Day. Dave was involved in the military for 42 years before retiring in 2011. He has volunteered in various groups and helped veterans for nearly all of his adult life.

Dave Rice with his kids, Katie and Chad, during the Honor Flight this past spring. Dave’s children assisted with meals, pushing wheelchairs an anything else needed to help the veterans who made the trip. Contributed photo Photo by Lisa Ridder

Dave’s interest in the military started as a young boy, growing up on a farm in eastern North Dakota. He had a neighbor that would tell stories about his days as a Navy pilot during World War II. Dave was good friends with the pilot’s kids and always enjoyed hearing him tell stories about his Navy days. He wasn’t the only motivation for Dave’s decision to join the Navy, but he did have a big impact on his decision.

“I graduated from Mayville High School and I didn’t know what I wanted to do next,” said Dave. “I didn’t have the money for college. I was an OK student, but not a fabulous student. I didn’t feel like I was ready for college. If I joined the service, I could qualify for the GI Bill and later afford college without going into debt.”

Although Dave made the decision to join the service, he was only 17 and required parental consent to actually join. His father passed away when he was in high school, and his mother worried and feared he would be sent to Vietnam.

“She was worried and was a bit of a mother hen,” said Dave. “As far as I was concerned, it was the Navy or the Air Force. My two older brothers were in the Army (one served in Korea and the other stateside) and they didn’t recommend that. The Air Force Base in Grand Forks seemed intriguing and I’d be close to home, but it really wasn’t the end result I was looking for, as I wanted to see some of the world before I settled down. I finally decided on the Navy.”

But first, it took some convincing for his mom to sign off on the new adventure.

“My mom didn’t want me to join and didn’t want to sign for me, but my brothers finally convinced her to sign for me, telling her if I joined the Army, I’d probably be sent to Vietnam. She finally gave in and signed for me to join the Navy. Six months later, I was there... in Vietnam,” he said with a chuckle. “Honestly, going to Vietnam wasn’t even really in the back of my mind.”

Dave reported for active duty in October of 1969. He turned 18 while completing boot camp in San Diego, California. He then completed advanced training in electronics. After that, Dave was able to go home on leave prior to reporting for duty on the USS Oklahoma City (CLG-5), a light cruiser.

“When I was home on leave, we knew that my orders were to meet my ship which was home ported in Yokosuka, Japan,” said Dave, “What we didn’t know is that the area of operation would be off the coast of Vietnam. The first letter to my mom was really tough to write, ‘Gee mom, guess what?’ We wrote letters often, but my mom still worried.”

Dave also didn’t realize that reporting for duty on the USS Oklahoma City would be just the beginning of a lifetime of adventure and service dedicated to supporting and helping other veterans.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Dave said. “I had no serious reservations, no fear or second thoughts about sailing into the Vietnam waters. You have to trust your shipmates, and I did. I was part of the quartermaster navigation unit, which consisted of 13 people. We were close. I believed I had the best job on the entire ship. I was on the bridge with the “Officer of the Deck” and the Captain. When we left Japan, it was our responsibility to determine the course of speed. We’d go down to chow and everyone wanted to know where we were? We always knew where we were at, where we were going, when we would get there, and how long it would take.”

Even though Dave loved his job, there were many long and exhausting days on the ship.

“We were out to sea for 45 days straight, conducting bombing missions off the coast of Vietnam, and then we would sail away do refueling or rearming, and then go right back on the gun line again,” he said. “We did what was referred to as port and starboard. We worked 12-hours shifts, doing different watches every day, seven on and seven off, five on and five off. When we weren’t doing that, we helped with reloading and refueling, sometimes for 18 hours a day.”

Dave Rice and Jerry Doyea from the 40 & 8 Veterans Organization. They were teaching their Flag Education Program, “Flags for First Graders” in February, 2014. Contributed photo

Being out to sea never really bothered Dave, except for one time.

“It was hot, and we were out to sea during typhoon season,” Dave said. “The ship was bobbing around like a cork out there in the ocean. A big wave hit the ship, knocked out the AC, the heat got to me and I got sick. It was the one and only time.”

Along unexpected adventures, Dave hoped the Navy would provide him with a chance to see the world. The Navy delivered.

“When we traveled between the coast of Vietnam and Yokosuka, Japan, we would stop different places,” he said. “We probably visited eight to 10 different countries. Some of the places we visited were: Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Singapore was a very clean city, and we visited there every time we crossed the equator. We also visited Thailand once when we were in that area of the world. Hong Kong had great restaurants, tailor shops, and a big city atmosphere.”

After about 18 months, Dave had a chance to take another assignment, but he liked his job, he liked and trusted his shipmates, and decided to stay and complete his time on the USS Oklahoma City. Dave served on the ship from June of 1970 to October of 1973. He didn’t find coming home difficult, and he worked in the Mayville area before starting at NDSU the following fall.

“I got a few dirty looks and that type of thing in the San Diego Airport when I returned home,” said Dave. “However, once back here, I found people in North Dakota and Minnesota to be nothing but supportive, patriotic, and welcoming. I was able to use my GI Bill to obtain my college education at NDSU. I obtained both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree in Agriculture Economics. After graduation, I taught a sophomore-level economics class at NDSU for one year, before moving to a research position. I retired from NDSU after working as a computer specialist for the NDSU Extension Service.”

Once Dave settled into the Fargo area, one by one he became involved with many community, regional, state, and federal organizations. Many of them related to serving veterans, but not all. Rice was State Commander for both the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW). He has membership in countless veterans’ related organizations. He is in three different local military funeral honor groups. He has been a member of the Honor Flight Board of Directors – Fargo Chapter, and an Honor Flight volunteer since the beginning.

“I have been a volunteer bell ringer with the Salvation Army for many years,” he said. “I usually volunteer with people from various veterans’ organizations, or on behalf of those organizations. I have even taken my granddaughters with me, hoping to promote volunteering at an early age. I also volunteered with the Red Cross for several years.

Dave is humbled and proud of every affiliation, membership, volunteer experience, honor and recognition that he has been fortunate enough to be a part of and/or receive.

Dave Rice (middle) is honored at the Red River Valley Fair for his service to our country. Contributed photo

“My friend and former co-worker Judy Lundstrom and her husband, Darnell, whom I also worked with at the NDSU Extension Service, nominated me for the Red River Valley Fair Hometown Hero Award,” said Dave. “There were five of us that received that honor. They treated us really well. One of the items we were presented with was a quilt from the Quilts of Valor group that Judy is a part of.”

“Every year I would think someone should really have nominated Dave. Finally, my husband and I decided we would nominate him,” Judy said.

Not only can Dave be seen volunteering all over the area, he can also be heard on the radio.

“I do an hour-long monthly radio show, for veterans, at a local radio station,” he said. “I have done it for several years. In the past, I hosted the show with other people, and now I do it on my own. I research all the topics, select them, and arrange speakers. I look at the calendar and use it when picking topics too. Some topics are repeated each year. For example, September is suicide prevention month, so I always have a show on it, because it’s so important. The show is not just for veterans, it’s also to bring info and awareness to the general public as well.”

As Dave shares about his topics for his radio show, he shares that he, like many veterans, still struggles from time to time.

“I sometimes wonder if it would have been easier to deal with what we did if we would have actually seen the carnage we created,” said Dave. “We would get damage assessment reports of our shelling missions on enemy installations, and KIA estimates from shelling troop movements. The mind wanders late at night trying to visualize the human remains scattered along the roadway. I’d much rather forget about it, but it keeps creeping back in my mind.”

Dave continues to share and get to know other veterans by working with them on various projects.

Two volunteer opportunities that hold a special place in Dave’s heart are the 40 & 8 Flags for First Graders Program and Honor Flight.

“I started doing the presentations for 40 & 8 in 2008,” Dave said. “I usually have two or three helpers with me. The volunteers are the American Legion and AMVETS. We schedule with 37 different schools in Fargo-Moorhead and surrounding communities. We do presentations around Veterans Day and Presidents’ Day. We usually visit with a total of about 2,200 first graders each year. This year we are doing the first and second graders due to COVID-19. We have 4,300 students this year, 2,300 in second grade, and 2,100 in first. We give each student a small flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance with them. It’s one of my favorite projects that I am a part of. It is just really fun and rewarding. It was also very special for us, because we were able to do the presentations in each of my granddaughters’ schools. They lived in West Fargo then, but they now live in Colorado.”

Honor Flight is another of Dave’s favorite projects.

“Our last flight was in the fall of 2019. I have been on every flight since the beginning,” he said. “We have a 160-passenger plane reserved with about 90-95 veterans scheduled (this spring). We have 450 on the waiting list. People have to apply to get to go, and they can only go once. Top priority for the flight are the terminally ill, and then it’s WWII, Korean, and Vietnam veterans. I am on the Board of Directors. I also help with fundraising. I serve as a main point of contact on the trips, and also have bus captain duty.”

Along with serving four and a half years in the Navy, Dave served in the Navy Reserve for 37 ½ years, retiring in 2011 with 42 years of service.

Dave is a life member for both the American Legion and VFW. He is also a member in numerous other veterans-related organizations, and a volunteer with several others.

When Dave is not helping in the community or with various veterans-related organizations, you can find him with his family and friends.

2021 Reunion. Contributed photo.

“I made so many friends over the years,” he said. “I keep in touch with a number of people from the USS Oklahoma. In the fall of 2021, I was able to attend my fourth USS Oklahoma reunion. It was in Colorado, so I got to also spend time with my daughter and her family before I headed to the reunion. When they lived here, every Wednesday after school and during the summer was Grandpa Dave and Donna’s day. I used to hunt deer, goose, and duck. I was part of a softball league for many years. I am currently a member of a seniors golf league, and I also golf with my son. My wife, Donna, and I love working in the yard, and we do a lot of flower and vegetable gardening.”

Dave and his family have been longtime season ticket holders for the FM RedHawks Baseball games. They also hosted players as well, welcoming them into their home and family for the season. They no longer host players, but his son, Chad, does. The family has always enjoyed the experience and getting to know the players. Dave is also able to use some of his military experience by serving as the unofficial color guard coordinator for the RedHawks, arranging color guard volunteers for about six games per season.

“My first wife, Rita, had a long battle with breast cancer,” he said. “When she passed away, the following spring, the RedHawks held a breast cancer awareness night in her honor. To this day, they still hold the event, but it’s now a general cancer awareness night. Since the beginning, the Rice family has been invited to throw out the first pitch of that game. I was really grateful to them for offering to do that event. I furnished the team shirts for the first event, and I wrote the script for the announcers to use.”

Does Dave do a lot of traveling now that he’s retired?

“I actually don’t do a lot of traveling on my own,” he said. “It’s all pretty much been related to work or one of the veterans organizations/events I have been a part of.”

So, would Dave do all of this over again?

In a blink of an eye, without thought or hesitation, he responded, “Absolutely! In a heartbeat.”

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