COVENTRY — On Dec. 7, 1941, a young Coventry resident was among more than 2,400 Americans killed in the attack that launched the United States into World War II. Nearly four years later, the same war claimed his brother’s life.
“I want people to know their town,” Norma Smith, treasurer of the Coventry Historical Society, said of the organization’s display in the Coventry Public Library, dedicated to brothers Wilson Albert and Donald S. Rice. “I think that these stories should be told.”
Within a glass case inside the library, old telegrams and newspaper clippings tell the story of the late Rhode Islanders, of their lives in Coventry and of their deaths in war. Side-by-side photographs show the two in uniform; between the sepia-colored images, their military medals are lined up.
A member of the Coventry High School class of 1939, Wilson Albert Rice was just 20 years old when he perished in the Japanese bombing of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. A seaman aboard the USS Curtiss, he was the town’s first World War II casualty.
Cpl. Donald Rice, a member of the U.S. Ninth Army Offensive, was killed in action in Germany on April 18, 1945 — just months before the war’s end. He was 24.
“These guys were kids,” Smith said of the brothers.
Members of the historical society were going through some of their artifacts when they came across items related to the Rice brothers. With Memorial Day approaching, they thought it would be appropriate to display the items so that residents could learn a bit about the local war heroes for whom Coventry’s Rice Memorial Field is named.
“I just thought it would be good to put it out there for people to realize what others have contributed. This is a visual of that,” Smith said. “I think people need to know where we’ve been in order to know where we’re going.”
While many other families lost loved ones during World War II, Smith added, the story of the Rice brothers is particularly powerful, since one brother was killed near the beginning of the war and the other at the end.
The display, which will be up in the library through the end of May before hopefully moving to a permanent home in the Town Hall, is one of the first projects the Coventry Historical Society has undertaken in some time.
Founded in 1971, the group recently held a meeting at the Read School — which, Coventry Historical Society President Sandy Lukowicz noted, was recently renovated, thanks largely to a grant secured by then-planning director Paul Sprague. It was the group’s first meeting in years, and its members are eager to make plans for the future.
The society is currently working on building up a treasury so that it can afford proper preservation of its artifacts. A craft fair being organized for September will help raise money toward that effort, and the society hopes to plan more fundraisers down the road, as well.
The Coventry Historical Society has been storing its collection in the Summit library. But the building is old and has fallen into disrepair; its roof leaks, the air quality is poor and animals have found their way into the crawl spaces beneath its floors.
“We’re trying to find a place to relocate all of the artifacts,” Lukowicz said. “The building is deteriorating, and it’s not suitable for us.”
Among the items inside are old newspaper articles, books, mill tools and various other objects depicting the heritage of Coventry’s villages. Some of the artifacts are damp, Smith said, and they need to be moved.
“Eventually we want to show all of these things to the public so that we can educate the people of Coventry,” Lukowicz added. “There’s just such a cool history here.”
In addition to getting the artifacts to a safe location, where exhibits like the Rice brothers display can live permanently, the society would like to digitize them so that they can also be viewed remotely and for years to come.
“A lot of people don’t know our history,” Smith said of preserving Coventry’s memories. “And it’s not that it’s outstanding… but it’s ours.”
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