Last summer we noted the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944, which led to the surrender of Germany some 11 months later. Soldiers from the United States, Great Britain, Canada and other allied nations combined in the biggest military operation in history, before or since. There were a great many casualties, some 9,000 among American soldiers and sailors alone. It was not the costliest battle in US history; the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 resulted in 46,000 casualties, counting both sides. But in terms of strategic importance, it was certainly one of the most critical battles in American history. Had the invasion been repulsed, it is entirely possible that Germany would have been able to hold out long enough to achieve an armistice with the Allies. With the Germans’ ongoing development of jet aircraft, long-range bombers and missiles and atomic weapons, it is not inconceivable to imagine that an even more devastating conflict would eventually have occurred, one which we might very well have lost.
Heir to a powerful legacy.
Of the thousands of American troops who participated in D-Day, only one general officer went ashore with the first wave: Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. The son of our 26th president, TR Jr, known to family, friends and fellow warriors as Ted, lived a life every bit as strenuous and gallant as his more famous father. Born in September 1887 as the first child of Theodore Roosevelt and his second wife, Edith, Ted Jr. attended Harvard and became a successful businessman while still in his 20s. After war broke out in Europe in 1914, Ted Jr. joined many of his contemporaries in undergoing military training at a summer camp set up by General Leonard Wood, who had commanded Theodore Roosevelt in the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War in 1898. After the US entered the war in 1917, Ted Jr. was called to active duty in the Army and sailed to France, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and commanded the 26th Regiment in the 1st Division. He participated in many battles, was wounded and gassed, and was awarded mulitiple honors by both the US and France for his gallantry in combat, including the Distinguished Service Cross.
His three brothers also served, and the youngest, Quentin, was killed in action when his fighter plane was shot down by the Germans just weeks before the armistice was declared. Between the wars Ted Jr. turned to politics. After helping found the American Legion, he served in the New York State Assembly and as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a post his father had also filled, under President Harding. While in that post he was embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal, although he was eventually cleared of any charges of wrongdoing by a Senate committee. That would come back to haunt him, though, when he ran for governor of New York in 1924 and his opponents, including his cousin Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of his distant cousin Franklin, used the scandal against him, helping to lead to his defeat in the election. Ted recovered nicely, serving as governor of Puerto Rico (1929-32) and governor-general of the Philippines (1932-33).
Back in uniform.
Recalled to active duty in 1941, he was given command of the 26th Infantry Regiment in the 1st Infantry Division and promoted to brigadier general. He served with valor during the North African campaign but clashed with George Patton and Omar Bradley. Both generals felt Roosevelt was too chummy with his men, and Bradley eventually relieved Roosevelt of his command. Reassigned to a unit in Italy, Ted Jr. fought on the Italian mainland and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily. Sent to England in early 1944 to help prepare for the Normandy invasion, he eventually wangled his way to another combat command. His father had experienced what he called his “crowded hour” when he led his Rough Riders up San Juan Heights during the Spanish-American War; now, 46 years later, the son would see his on D-Day. Having successfully pestered his commanding officer, Ted was given command of 4th ID’s 8th Infantry Regiment and 70th Tank Battalion for their landing on Utah Beach. At age 56, he was the oldest man to go in with the first wave on any beach, and also the only one to have a son going ashore at the same time—Captain Quentin Roosevelt II was going in on Omaha Beach. Hampered by arthritis to the point where he had to use a cane, Ted still led from the front. He quickly discovered they were about a mile off course. After personally reconnoitering the beach to find the nearby causeways that would lead them inland, he returned to the beachhead and worked with his battalion commanders to revise their plan of attack. As the men and vehicles came ashore he directed them personally, often under enemy fire. His good humor and courage inspired the troops to press on. Roosevelt’s leadership was directly responsible for the division’s ability to achieve its objectives that day, despite coming in far off course. Years later, Omar Bradley was asked to name the single most courageous act he had ever seen in combat, and he said, “Ted Roosevelt on Utah Beach.”
A hero lives on.
More than a month later, on July 12, Roosevelt was behind the lines, conversing with his son Quentin. At headquarters, Bradley was composing a request that Ted be promoted to major general and be given command of the 90th Infantry Division. The next day, General Eisenhower called Bradley to approve the orders and was given the stunning news that Ted Roosevelt had died the night before. Stricken with a heart attack around 10pm, he fought his final battle for some two hours with the help of doctors and medics, but he died near midnight, two months and a day shy of his 57th birthday. He was buried in the American cemetery in Normandy. Eleven years later the body of his younger brother, Quentin, was exhumed and re-interred next to his big brother. On September 28, 1944, Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. His progeny would carry on the Roosevelt heritage of military service. Besides Quentin’s exemplary service with the Army in Europe, Theodore III was a Navy combat pilot in the Pacific. Cornelius, named after Ted’s great-grandfather, served in the Navy during the war and later worked for the CIA. Theodore III’s son, Theodore IV, fought in Vietnam as a Navy SEAL.
Few families have given so much to America as the Roosevelts. Ted’s citation for the Medal of Honor is a brief but vivid and heroic glimpse into the life of a man who, in his quest to live up to the legacy of his father, made his own indelible mark on American history:
For gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, in France. After 2 verbal requests to accompany the leading assault elements in the Normandy invasion had been denied, Brig. Gen. Roosevelt’s written request for this mission was approved and he landed with the first wave of the forces assaulting the enemy-held beaches. He repeatedly led groups from the beach, over the seawall and established them inland. His valor, courage, and presence in the very front of the attack and his complete unconcern at being under heavy fire inspired the troops to heights of enthusiasm and self-sacrifice. Although the enemy had the beach under constant direct fire, Brig. Gen. Roosevelt moved from one locality to another, rallying men around him, directed and personally led them against the enemy. Under his seasoned, precise, calm, and unfaltering leadership, assault troops reduced beach strong points and rapidly moved inland with minimum casualties. He thus contributed substantially to the successful establishment of the beachhead in France.