Where to Lay an American Hero? The Burial Controversy of John Rice (Ho-Chunk)

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records.

Author’s note: I would like to extend a special thanks to those colleagues who went above and beyond to help with this post; Tammy Williams, Archivist at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library; Rose Buchanan, Archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records at the National Archives in Washington DC, Aaron Arthur, Still Pictures Archivist at the National Archives at College Park; and Rachael Salyer, Archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Modern Military Records at the National Archives at College Park.

The “Man from Independence” was furious. It was September 1951, and President Truman’s military advisor and close friend, Major General Harry Vaughan, brought him news from Sioux City, Iowa. A Ho-Chunk soldier, killed in the opening months of the Korean Conflict, was being refused burial in a local cemetery. The commander in chief was having none of it and so quickly decided that if the family wished it, Sergeant First Class John R. Rice would be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. This is that story.

Service photograph of John Rice, courtesy of the Sioux City Public Museum
Service photograph of John Rice, courtesy of the Sioux City Public Museum

Typically at this point in these blogs I remark how the story is found in Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Today’s blog does have one document from that record group, but in fact most of this story comes from the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library’s archival holdings, one of 15 presidential libraries, 13 with physical facilities, that the National Archives and Records Administration runs. To further flesh out the story we turn to additional records found in Record Group 111, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer; Record Group 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General; and Record Group 407, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office.

Page from Winnebago Reservation census taken June 30, 1926, showing the Rice family 
(National Archives Identifier 595276)
Page from Winnebago Reservation census taken June 30, 1926, showing the Rice family 
(National Archives Identifier 595276)

John Raymond Rice was born on the Winnebago Reservation in northeastern Nebraska on April 25, 1914, to Joseph and Fannie Rice. According to the Indian Census Rolls, 1885–1940, which the BIA usually took every year, Joseph passed away at some point during 1925, leaving behind his wife and four children: Richard, John, Henry, and Ada. There are no mentions of John’s early life in other digitized BIA records; a closer inspection of the undigitized BIA Winnebago Agency files at the National Archives at Kansas City could shed more light. According to his WWII draft card, found in the series World War II Draft Cards Young Men, 1940–1947 held by the National Archives at St Louis, John Rice registered on October 16, 1940. He noted he was unemployed, like so many others coming out of the Depression. Rice ended up in the US Army where he spent the war in the Pacific, earning a Bronze Star Medal, the Combat Infantry Badge, a Purple Heart, and four battle stars on his Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal over 44 months as a scout in the 32nd Infantry.

In 1945 Rice married Evelyn Wilcox, a local Caucasian woman from his home, and the two soon started a family while Rice kept on in the peacetime Army. Pamela Rae was born in November of that year. Jean Marie was born in May of 1948 and Timothy John followed the year later, in August of 1949. On April 20, 1950, the family was living in El Paso County, Colorado; the 1950 census notes his occupation as “Armed forces,” so ostensibly he was stationed at Fort Carson. Two months later, on the other side of the world, the Korean People’s Army, supported heavily by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, poured over the 38th Parallel on the Korean Peninsula, yanking the United States into yet another grueling land war and setting the Rice family on a course for tragedy.

Initially thrown off guard and pushed nearly back to the sea, United Nations forces fortified the Pusan Perimeter in late summer 1950 and began a counteroffensive. The Battle of Tabu-dong raged on through late August and into early September, as the two armies clashed for control of hill over hill. According to a US Army history, by September 6 American forces were driven off Ka-san mountain while enemy forces attempted to trap them with a roadblock that American forces pushed through. At some point during the day, SFC John Rice, leading a squad in Company A, 8th Cavalry Regiment, was killed by enemy fire. He was 36 years old.

Here we see an entry for SFC Rice in the “Korean War Casualty File, 2/13/1950–12/31/1953.” These born digital records are held by the National Archives Electronic Records Branch and can be accessed through the Access to Archival Databases here. (Note the data erroneously states that Rice was white. His record of interment also noted “White” but was amended in pencil to “Indian.”)

It would take nearly a full year for the body to return home to Nebraska, at which point Evelyn made plans to have him interred at the Sioux City Memorial Park in Sioux City, Iowa. Given she was white, the meeting with cemetery officials went off without any mention of the cemetery’s “caucasian only” burial rule. 

The elevation of the controversy was succinctly laid out in a August 31 memo from Major General Herman Feldman, Quartermaster General, to Major General Harry Vaughan. It all started with MSgt. John C. Boles. As the escort to Rice’s remains, he witnessed the whole spectacle at the burial and immediately called his commanding officer in Oakland, California, on August 28th. That officer called Feldman at 5:00 PM to alert him to the issue and state that 5th Army personnel would take care of it. On the very same day MSgt. Boles was reporting to his superiors, the story also hit the news wires. Lt. Edward Krischel, who was supposed to play taps at Rice’s funeral, told reporters that the body was being lowered into the grave when cemetery officials stepped in and stopped the proceedings, stating ‘“only members of the Caucasian race could be buried in the cemetery.” The story, along with outrage, spread across the country. Veterans organizations and Native American groups alike complained; even BIA Commissioner Dillon Myer telegraphed his outrage to the young widow.

In this closeup from a 1913 map of Nebraska found in the National Archives Cartographic Branch, we see the Winnebago Reservation where Evelyn Rice and her children were living and Sioux City, Iowa, where she had planned on burying her husband
(National Archives Identifier 26335533).
This newspaper clipping was saved by the White House and provides yet more narrative regarding the controversy. Newspaper resources from the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America project provide additional details of the Rice saga.

On August 29, the Army reached out to Evelyn and offered her a burial at any national cemetery. She chose Fort Leavenworth, and so Army personnel set about arranging transport for the casket. But Feldman had also reached out to Vaughan, who took the matter to the president. Make the offer of Arlington National Cemetery, Truman ordered, and a telegram to that effect was sent on August 30 to both the Winnebago Reservation and the mayor of Sioux City, whomever could find Evelyn first to ask. The telegram to the mayor notes that President Truman “feels that the National appreciation of patriotic sacrifice should not be limited by race, color, or creed.” In his reply, Clem Evans, acting mayor, appreciated “very deeply the commendable prompt action” and reiterated his repugnance at the situation. Despite the cemetery being privately owned and outside the corporate limits of Sioux City, he pledged the “cemetery office have taken steps to rectify the situation so that a similar incident cannot occur again.” Evelyn Rice was reached and accepted the president’s offer. John Rice would be buried with his fellow warriors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Telegram from Harry Vaughan to Clem Evans asking him to pass on to the Rice family that the Arlington Cemetery burial arrangements were made (National Archives Identifier 296760576).
Not everyone in Sioux City agreed with the cemetery’s policies. A group of teachers, including Esther Groth, Iola Wendel, Irma James, Francis Wadedo, D.W. McCraken, and J.B. Kuhler, drafted this strongly worded resolution on behalf of all Sioux City teachers to send to Evelyn Rice, the cemetery, local newspapers, and the White House, where this annotated copy was saved (National Archives Identifier 296760635).

Sioux City Memorial Park continued to maintain their stance, at one point “apologizing” to Rice but only by saying that their hands were tied by contracts. In further failing to read the room, they even printed a pamphlet to explain their side of the story. They “did not solicit the burial of Sgt. Rice” (emphasis theirs), they had no idea he was Native American or that Evelyn Rice lived on the Winnebago Reservation, and they had given Evelyn 10 days to read the contract that stated the whites-only rule. They went on in their flailing excuse, noting the race restrictions existed before they were in charge, that of course they were not racist, and that 90% (with no citation) of cemeteries had these sorts of covenants. The cemetery continued to hide behind legalese, arguing they would have been in breach of contract with others buried there had they allowed Rice’s burial to go forward. Then in closing, the cemetery explored a weird tangent, arguing that Arlington National Cemetery itself was discriminatory because they only allowed military members to be buried there. The cemetery was in the definite minority, though, as offers of free burial plots from other local cemeteries poured in. But by that time Truman had offered Arlington, and Evelyn had accepted.

Praise poured into the White House for Truman’s actions. The Barre Guild in Vermont offered free of charge a granite monument to be installed in Arlington. The offer was politely declined, with the White House telling them that in the section where Rice would be interred, everyone—including General of the Armies John Joseph Pershing—had the same upright headstone. The B’nai B’rith Guardian Lodge No. 1629 and Guardian Chapter sent U.S. savings bonds to the Rice children. The American Institute of Commemorative Art offered to design and place a special monument in Arlington as well, free of charge. Again, the offer was declined.

The Army flew the Rice family into Washington, DC, on September 4, 1951—almost exactly one year after Rice had been killed in action—and the next day SFC John Rice was finally laid to rest. Truman was traveling from San Francisco to Kansas City that day, so sent his Army liaison Colonel John Beishline in his stead. Major General Charles Palmer, Rice’s division commander in Korea “who had met the sergeant on the front lines north of Taegu,” attended. Senators Hugh Butler, Nebraska, and Guy Gillette, Iowa, were on hand. BIA Commissioner Dillon Myer also paid his respects by attending.

“Widow of SFC. John Rice Arrives in Washington.” The US Army flew the family in for the funeral; here on September 4 we see Evelyn Rice met by Lt. M.P. Martin at Bolling Air Force Base, along with John’s sister-in-law Thelma Rice and brother Henry Rice (Image 111-SC-376011-S, National Archives Identifier 530707).
In October Evelyn wrote Vaughan, asking him to convey her appreciation to the president 
(National Archives Identifier 296760584).

A month later Evelyn Rice wrote Vaughan to pass on her thanks to President Truman for the “great honor he bestowed upon my husband.” Evelyn passed away in 2005 and was reunited with John at Arlington National Cemetery.

Rest in peace, Sergeant Rice; you are not forgotten.

As noted, the records shown here or referenced from the Harry S. Truman Library are found in the file unit “Soldiers’ Bodies: Burial of Sergeant John R. Rice, OF 471B.” For more information contact the library at https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/about/contact

2 thoughts on “Where to Lay an American Hero? The Burial Controversy of John Rice (Ho-Chunk)

  1. From an editorial in the Des Moines Tribune, September 7, 1951, page 14:

    “The hypocrisy of refusing John Rice a grave anywhere in this country – when who has a better right? – was compounded somehow for an observer of the ceremonies in the showy and unctious way we seek to absolve ourselves from our crimes against ourselves.

    “John Rice became, unwittingly, a ‘minority problem.’ His forebears were not the minority when the first [European] immigrants arrived . . .
    As if we could wash it all away by draping our flag, which John Rice followed to his death and which .covers so often such a multitude of our own sins, across his coffin and carting it on a caisson, with soldiers tramping along behind, and a band, and officials representing various branches of the government and the [armed] services, and photographers rushing about and us reporters noting every little detail to prove to ourselves by a public record how fine a breed we immigrants are.”

    Presumably, this would not occur today. Nevertheless, that Herbert Hoover’s Vice President, Charles Curtis, remains the lone citizen of indisputable Native American ancestry to achieve such high office – and few have approached it – arguably shows that much has remained unchanged since the above words were printed.

  2. I am actually stunned that this could happen. I have heard some say that they want to go back to “the old days”. This is the “old days”. I
    live in Florida. Unfortunately, history like this will be hidden in order to
    “protect our children”.
    Thank you for this article. I so wish everyone would read this.

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