“John was a real gentleman and a great American,” wrote Don Shaw to Evelyn Rice, the widow of Sgt. 1st Class John Raymond Rice, on Aug. 30, 1951.
Shaw was a Vancouver, Wash., World War II veteran who served with Sgt. Rice in the South Pacific. After the war, the two men kept in touch by writing letters. Shaw learned that day from a newspaper story why he hadn’t heard from his buddy in an unusually long time.
Sgt. Rice had been killed in Korea on the Pusan perimeter near Tabu-Dong on Sept. 6, 1950. He was leading a squad of riflemen on a “most hazardous” mission.
“While diverting the enemy from close range contact…he himself became the target and was killed,” the St. Augustine Indian Mission’s Trumpet Call reported. He left a wife, three small children, his mother, brothers, sisters, other family members, many friends and Army buddies.
The newspaper story’s focus, however, was not Sgt. Rice’s heroism but rather, as Shaw described it, “the trouble in Sioux City.”
Memorial Park, a private cemetery at the southeast edge of Sioux City, had halted the Tuesday, Aug. 28, 1951, burial of Sgt. Rice just before his casket was to be lowered into the grave. Why? Cemetery bylaws restricted burials to “Caucasians only.” Sgt. Rice was a Winnebago Indian. A different final resting place would have to be found for the soldier who had sacrificed his life in a “bleak, wet valley” thousands of miles from home.
News of the war hero’s halted burial spread throughout the country, all the way to the White House. It enraged residents of Sioux City, the nearby Winnebago Reservation and citizens throughout the nation. How could a soldier who had given his life for our country be treated with such utter disrespect?
Outside of family, friends and Army buddies, few had known of Sgt. John Rice before the “trouble in Sioux City.” Now his name and all that it stood for ignited a national call to honor him. Now his memory as a gentleman, a “perfect soldier” and a great American compelled a local and national examination of conscience about justice, decency and the meaning of democracy.
John Raymond Rice was born on April 25, 1914, and grew up on the Winnebago Reservation in Northeast Nebraska, 20 miles southwest of Sioux City, Iowa. His Indian name was “Kay-La-Che-Manika” or “Walking in the Blue Sky.” He attended school at St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago, and the Indian boarding school in Genoa, Neb.
As a teen-ager and young adult, he farmed and was an amateur boxer. He enlisted in the Army on Dec. 24, 1940. He was one of 25,000 Native Americans who served in WWII; some 22,000 on the front lines.
Sgt. Rice was assigned to the 32nd (Red Arrow) Division, fighting in campaigns for New Guinea and the Philippines. He was an infantry scout for three years. He was wounded and contracted malaria.
In February 1945, he married Evelyn Wilcox whose family farmed on the Winnebago Reservation. Evelyn had known John most of her life. She knew he loved the Army. Two months after he was discharged, he re-enlisted. For two years he served in an Army escort unit, accompanying deceased soldiers back to their homes for burial. Race was never an issue, according to Evelyn.
Sgt. Rice was stationed in Colorado Springs, Colo., Fort Sheridan, Ill., and served in Korea with the Eighth Regiment, First Cavalry Division. On Sept. 6, 1950, he was killed by enemy fire.