William Rice, 93 years old, is a South Bristol native who grew up on and around the water. He went to South Bristol High School “for a couple of years” and dated Miss Gertrude Gamage.
School didn’t hold much interest for the young man so he left. He worked on an egg farm on Rutherford Island awhile before enlisting in the Navy in 1943. The South Bristol youngster had never been away from home until he went off to boot camp. ” I won’t say I was homesick,” he said, “but I sure couldn’t wait to get home.”
Rice spent WWII going back and forth across the Atlantic on Navy ships, working on the deck most of the time. He crossed the ocean 22 times with convoys and fleets.
Back at home, Gertrude finished high school and went on to a year of business school. “I wanted to do my part, so I went to Washington DC,” she said.
She worked as a civilian employee of the Department of the Navy in the capital for over a year.
William wrote to Gertrude from shipboard. “I still have those letters, “said Gertrude.
On every leave in the United States, he came right back home to South Bristol.
Shore leave to come home was Rice’s favorite thing about the war years. “Leave had to be approved by the executive officer,” said Rice, “One time I had put in my request and next thing I know I was getting called up to see the Ex-O. I was some nervous.”
He made his way up to the wheelhouse where the new executive officer stood holding his leave request. “Are you really from South Bristol” asked Lieutenant Commander Arthur P. Glidden, a Newcastle native.
The officer just wanted to see the boy who was from “back home.”
Rice was relieved.
“Hearing my name on that PA system and getting called up only happened when something was wrong,” he said, “So I was pretty happy to meet a fella from back home and find out he was my new Ex-O.”
Rice, like most of the men on board, missed good cooking while at sea. “The food was lousy most of the time, except when we had duty in the Mediterranean Sea” he said. “Then we had better chow; wasn’t as good as home cooking in South Bristol, but it was okay.”
On Aug. 6, 1945, Rice was serving in the Pacific Fleet when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The fleet was standing by to attack Japan if needed.
It is a memory that haunts him. “We didn’t see anything, but we didn’t attack either,” he said. “We sailed in to the harbor with the fleet as victors.”
He stopped a moment in his story telling and grew quiet. “I still wonder how many people died that day,” he said. “There was women and children and old folks, too. We had to do it. They said a lot of allied lives was (sic) saved, but I still wonder about those people.”
Rice recalls shore leave he had in Tokyo later on “All of us guys traded with the Japanese for souvenirs,” he said. “I traded candy and smokes for Japanese rifles and ammo.”
Rice brought his souvenirs home to a special resting place. He pointed out Lake Pemaquid visible from his back yard in Damariscotta and said with a grin, “That is where that ammo is, right under the lake, where it can’t ever hurt anyone.”
With 22 Atlantic crossings completed, Rice wanted to be home in South Bristol more than anything. When his discharge came, he “was grinning ear to ear,” he said, “I hightailed it home and when I got to Boston I hitchhiked to Bath.”
He took the bus to Damariscotta. “I have no idea how I got to South Bristol,” he said. “I guess people just gave me rides, but I was so happy to be home I can’t even remember that part.”
Rice returned home in January 1946. He proposed to his high school sweetheart that Valentine’s Day and married her in April that year. The Rices raised three daughters and have several grandchildren. They have been married for 69 years.
Rice returned to work at the Gamage boatyard after the war until he retired. Many photographs of the wooden ships from the Harvey Gamage boatyard hang on the walls of their Damariscotta home.
“We go down to Camden when the boats come in,” said Gertrude, “Some of the owners let us know when they will be there.”
“We built some beautiful boats,” said William. “We sure did.”
Rice still works full days as caretaker for several summer families. “They are good to me,” he said, “I guess I’ll do it a few years more.”
William Rice wears his hat with the Navy insignia a lot more often these days. The World War II veteran has noticed a change in how people act when they see his hat over the last few years. “Lately, people stop and shake my hand, and they say ‘thank you’,” he said, smiling.
Just a few weeks ago, Rice took his wife out to lunch at a seafood place in Wiscasset.
“I went to pay for our meal and the lady said a man had paid already and said ‘Thank you for your service’,” he said, “No one ever did anything like that before. Maybe I’ll wear that hat all the time.”