Normandy Research Foundation

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D-Day's Old Man

March 27, 2016

 Surrounded by explosions, confusion, panic, as well as dead and dying soldiers he somehow remained focused on the beach that morning. He looked out of place in this life and death struggle for a foothold on the continent of Europe. While others scrambled seeking cover and safety, his movements were intentional.  The deliberate movements of a man who appeared to be looking for something momentarily lost. He was an old man standing alone watching much younger men run and scatter. This most unusual man felt something was wrong in the first moments of the battle. The run into the beach was difficult as the seas were rough and the currents were swift. Further complications were caused by drastically reduced vision from the fog, drizzle, and the flying dirt, dust and smoke from the bombardments. The old man on the beach walking with a cane and holding a pistol, was about to make one of D-Day’s most important decisions. Gathering his subordinates he announced to them that they had landed off course and were over two kilometers from their objective. Without doubt or reservation he finished surveying his surroundings and announced to the younger officers, “We’ll have to start the war from here.”1

 

On Utah Beach at H-Hour a fifty six year old general was one of the first men to step onto French soil. He was the only general to land with the first wave on any beach, American or British on D-Day. War was no stranger to the old man, he was wounded in World War I, shot in the knee. Now twenty five years later, his arthritis was serious enough to require him to walk with a cane. He had chronic heart problems, which he kept secret from his superiors.  As he landed on Utah Beach his son, a captain, was landing with the first wave on Omaha Beach. He was the son of a legendary President of The United States and he volunteered for two world wars.  Of him General George Patton once quipped, “Great courage. But no soldier.”2

 

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. or Ted as he was called, made one of D-Day’s most critical decisions under fire on Utah Beach. Roosevelt was the deputy commander of the Fourth Infantry Division which landed way off course and therefore, would not have access to the beach exits needed to clear the beaches quickly. With thousands of men and hundreds of vehicles on the water and arriving on a strict timetable, Roosevelt was under great pressure to make his decision. Difficult decisions were no stranger to General Roosevelt.

 

The son of one of America’s most beloved Presidents. Ted’s Father was a man larger than life: a politician, author, Nobel Prize winner, and adventurer. Theodore Roosevelt, or TR had nearly single handedly started the great movement that created our national parks. And Ted’s father was also a great American war hero. And five years before D-Day, Ted Roosevelt’s father achieved mythic proportions when his face was carved into the timeless memorial at Mt. Rushmore, beside: Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. 

 

This most famous of Americans nearly won the Spanish- American War in a single battle in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A fellow soldier described TR’s ride into American legend as, “… [He] led his Rough Riders in two daring charges up Kettle Hill and the adjacent San Juan Hill… [a] pivotal battle of the Spanish-American War…  No man, who saw Roosevelt take that ride expected he would finish it alive…the bravest thing he’d ever seen,..” 3

 

Growing up with America’s most famous soldier taught young Ted that military service to his country was expected. His father would ask him to imagine famous battles in history and together they would think and rethink the actions taken. TR could make history come alive, keeping his son entertained and educated. 

 

Like his Father, Ted would attend one of the Nation’s most elite boarding schools, Groton School in Groton Massachusetts. Then onto Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduating in 1909. When war in Europe broke out in 1914 Ted was ready and waiting to fight.

 

Ted Roosevelt Jr and two of his three brothers went to fight in the Great War, World War I. Ted was commissioned a Major, and eventually he became a Lt. Colonel and commanded the 26th Infantry Regiment.  Ted Roosevelt traveled to France with American hero, General “Black Jack” Pershing. Young Ted fought in many battles and was wounded and even gassed in 1918. War was remarkably painful for Theodore Roosevelt Jr. in other ways, “…Heroic and tragic indeed. By the time of the Armistice [11 November 1918], Theodore Roosevelt Jr. [the eldest of Theodore Roosevelt's four boys] and Archie Roosevelt [the second-youngest] were both gravely wounded… Quentin, the baby of the family, was dead.” 4

 

Returning from war, the still young Ted needed to make a living. Painful war wounds and the overwhelming loss of his youngest brother and his father in January of 1919, would not hold him down. Like his father before him he turned to politics. And like his father, in 1920 he was elected to the same body politic the New York State Assembly. While in the State Assembly, in 1921 he was appointed by President Warren Harding to be Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  The same post his father had held in 1897 under President William McKinley. But here the similarities ended. Unlike his father who was famous for fighting corruption, Ted was charged with corruption during the Teapot Dome oil leasing scandal. It cost him his job and some of his legacy. To regain his position and standing, he decided to run for Governor of New York - as his father had done 26 years earlier.  

 

In 1898 Theodore Roosevelt Sr. was elected Governor of New York. In a close and bitter political battle Roosevelt won by the slimmest of margins. Now Ted Jr. was ready to try to save his name and reputation, again following in his father’s footsteps. 

 

In 1926, he ran against Alfred E. Smith and the New York Democrat political machine.  His cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned aggressively against Teddy. It was a bitter and personal battle as FDR’s wife Eleanor, constantly reminded the electoral of Ted’s corruption charges. Ted lost the contentious election by a slim margin, and held his cousins responsible.

 

Ted was down but not out. However, he was done following in his father’s footsteps. He would accept Presidential appointments as Governor of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. His terms were very successful as he focused on social issues like education and poverty. With the election of his cousin Franklin as the 32nd U.S. President, Ted returned home and gave up politics forever. When asked after Franklin’s election how they were all related he said, “Fifth cousin about to be removed.” 5  

 

When he returned to the United States he began a successful business career. He worked for Doubleday Publishing Co., and the American Express Company.  He was also active with the Boy Scouts of America. Like his father before him, public and charitable service was a necessary part of life as a Roosevelt. His peaceful life would not linger for long. In just a few short years the sabers of war were rattling in Europe and Ted knew it was a matter of time before the United States went to war. This would be the second time he would volunteer in the service of his country at war. 

 

Ted Roosevelt Jr. re-enlisted into the US Army eight months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the spring of 1941, Roosevelt took command of his old World War I unit, the 26th Infantry Regiment. It was now attached to the most famous infantry division in the US Army, the 1st Infantry division, The Big Red One. Roosevelt was promoted to Assistant Division Commander, and to the rank of Brigadier General. A rank his famous father never achieved. 

 

The 1st Infantry Division began the war in French Algeria. They landed on November 8, 1942 at Oran, Algeria. There they would fight against Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps in the deserts of Northern Africa. They would be introduced to the German way of war at Kasserine Pass in February of 1943. The 1st fought on until May of 1943, when the Germans surrendered.

 

When the Allies invaded Sicily, the 1st Infantry division and General Roosevelt were involved in some of the toughest fighting of the war. The 1st Infantry Division, under the command of General Roosevelt and his superior, General Terry Allen developed a reputation for getting the tough jobs done. For all their accomplishments Generals Allen and Roosevelt were relieved in Sicily. They were too lax for General Patton, and General Omar Bradley. Of Roosevelt’s dismissal, General Patton wrote in diary, “…he [Roosevelt] has to go, brave but otherwise, no soldier.”6   It was Bradley who ultimately fired them from their beloved 1st Infantry Division, writing,”…[Roosevelt and Allen were guilty of] loving their division too much" 7 

 

Roosevelt had suffered much in his life at the hands of America’s political and military establishments. Somehow lost was his unselfish sacrifice for his country.  Ted never shrank from the family traditions of duty and service to one’s country. He accepted his firing in the summer of 1943. Ted was down but not out, and by February of 1944, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was helping with the preparations for the invasion of Normandy. 

 

In 1944, Ted was 56 years old. His new assignment was as commander of the 8th Infantry Regiment, of the 4th Infantry Division. The 8th was called the Fighting Eagles. They could trace their historical roots to the American Civil War, and World War I. And they would make history again as they landed in Normandy at H-Hour, the first Americans ashore at Utah Beach. 

 

Roosevelt’s requests to land with his regiment were denied by his commanding officer. General Barton, 4th Infantry Division commander, citied Roosevelt’s age and health problems when he denied Ted’s request to land at H-Hour. Disappointed, Ted put his request in writing, and expressed his willingness to use his family’s political influence to get what he wanted. General Barton finally agreed that Ted could go in with the Fighting Eagles in the first wave at H-Hour. Roosevelt supported his requests to land at Utah, with thoughts of his untested soldiers, saying to General Barton, “They’ll figure that if a general is going in, it can’t be that rough.”8  

 

Roosevelt had once said, "I will always be known as the son of Theodore Roosevelt and never as… only myself,”9   At H-Hour on D-Day, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. stepped off a landing craft and walked out from under his father’s long shadow and into his rendezvous with history. He was the oldest man ashore in the first wave; he was also the only General who landed on D-Day with the first wave on any beach.

 

Before long the old man on the beach realized that something was very wrong. He never panicked, he just studied the beach, shoreline and the lone roadway off the beach.  He understood he was not where he was supposed to be, and that meant everyone else on the beach and coming ashore was in the wrong place. Undaunted, walking with a cane, he gathered his officers together and explained they were not where they should be. Roosevelt knew time was not on his side. He was ashore and that was the first objective of D-Day. Getting off the beach was the second objective. With only one beach exit to the road inland he told his men, “We’ll start the war from here” 1

 

One writer described General Roosevelt on D-day morning at Utah Beach, “With German artillery rounds landing all around, [Roosevelt] welcomed each new US assault wave… cool, calm, and collected, inspiring all with humor and confidence, reciting poetry and telling anecdotes of his father to steady the nerves of his men. Roosevelt pointed almost every regiment to its changed objective…untangling traffic jams of trucks and tanks all struggling to get inland and off the beach.” 10

 

The aged General stayed on Utah Beach until his superior, General Barton arrived. All the time he was on Utah Beach, Ted did not know the fate of his son Quentin who ironically landed with the 1st Infantry Division, in the first wave at bloody Omaha Beach. From the sands of Utah Beach, Ted led his regiment inland to take the fight across France.

 

On July 11, 1944, time and his troubled heart caught up with General Roosevelt. He suffered a fatal heart attack and died near Ste-Mere Eglise, France. General Barton recommended Ted for the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest battlefield decoration. The citation reads in part, “For gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty…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… He thus contributed substantially to the successful establishment of the beachhead in France.” 11

 

When General Theodore Roosevelt was laid to rest in Normandy, it was with his beloved soldiers. Not surprisingly he is one of two generals buried in the American Normandy Cemetery. At his funeral he had six pallbearers who were all generals, among them were George Patton and Omar Bradley, the men who fired him in Sicily from the 1st Infantry Division. When asked many years later, about acts of bravery in the second world war, General Omar Bradley said, [Roosevelt’s actions on Utah beach were the] “single greatest act of courage he witnessed in the entire war.” 12   After receiving the news of Ted’s death, General Patton wrote to his wife, “He was the bravest soldier I ever knew.” 13

 

Theodore Roosevelt’s widow was presented with his Medal of Honor by his cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR said quietly to Mrs. Roosevelt, “His father would have been proudest” 14 

 

D-Day’s old man rests with his soldiers in the Normandy American Cemetery on the bluffs above Omaha Beach. After the war, his brother Quentin was removed from his World War I grave and reinterred in the Normandy cemetery, beside D-Day’s old man, and forgotten hero, Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

 

Amelia McNutt, Director

Normandy Research Foundation

March, 2016

 

Footnotes

1. Lacey, Jim. A Great and Terrible Day: D-Day Showed the Greatness of The American People,

http://www.nationalreview.com/article/268846/great-and-terrible-day  June 6, 2011

 

2. Renehan, Edward, Jr. The Lion's Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War … New York: Oxford University Press. 1998. P. 34 

 

3. Renehan. The Lion's Pride. P. 199

 

4. Ibid, P.3

 

5. Jeffers, Harry Paul. Theodore Roosevelt Jr: The Life of a War Hero. Presidio: Novato, CA. 2002. P. 198

 

6. Blumenson, Martin. The Patton Papers, Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1974. P. 309

 

7. Dawson, Joe. From Omaha Beach to Dawson’s Ridge: The Combat Journal of Captain Joe Dawson. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 2005. P.104

 

8. Poe, Ted. The Tallest Warrior on the Longest Day. 

http://humanevents.com/2012/06/06/the-tallest-warrior-on-the-longest-day/ 

Jun 6, 2012. Retrieved February 9, 2016.

 

9. Watson, Robert. Hidden History: Roosevelt's son a forgotten hero

http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2010-07-25/news/fl-rwcol-roosevelt-oped0725-20100725_1_teddy-roosevelt-franklin-roosevelt-hills

July 25, 2010. Retrieved February 10, 2016.

                                          

10. Ashby, Timothy. Unsung D-Day Hero: Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Part Two.

http://timashby.com/unsung-d-day-hero-theodore-roosevelt-jr-part-two/

June 6, 2014

 

11. Roosevelt, Theodore, Jr. Medal of Honor Citation. Brigadier General, 

US Army, Normandy Invasion, 6 June 1944. G.O. No.77, 28 / 9 / 1944.

http://www.history.army.mil/html/moh/wwII-m-s.html#ROOSEVELT

 

12. Poe, Ted. The Tallest Warrior.

 

13. Morris, Seymour, Jr. American History Revised: 200 Startling Facts That Never Made It into the Text Books. New York: Penguin Publishing Group. 2010 P. 134.

 

14. Black, Conrad. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. New York: Public Affairs. 2003. P. 912.

 

 

 

References

 

Black, Conrad. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. New York: Public Affairs. 2003. Print.

 

Blumenson, Martin. The Patton Papers, Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1974. Print.

 

Dawson, Joe. From Omaha Beach to Dawson’s Ridge: The Combat Journal of Captain Joe Dawson. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 2005. Print.

 

Jeffers, Harry Paul. Theodore Roosevelt Jr: The Life of a War Hero. Presidio: Novato, CA. 2002. Print

 

Lacey, Jim. A Great and Terrible Day: D-Day Showed the Greatness of The American People, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/268846/great-and-terrible-day.  June 6, 2011

Morris, Seymour, Jr. American History Revised: 200 Startling Facts That Never Made It into the Text Books. New York: Penguin Publishing Group. 2010 Print

 

Poe, Ted. The Tallest Warrior on the Longest Day. 

http://humanevents.com/2012/06/06/the-tallest-warrior-on-the-longest-day/ 

Jun 6, 2012. retrieved February 9, 2016.

 

Renehan, Edward, Jr. The Lion's Pride : Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War … New York: Oxford University Press. 1998. Print

 

Watson, Robert. Hidden History: Roosevelt's son a forgotten hero

http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2010-07-25/news/fl-rwcol-roosevelt-oped0725-20100725_1_teddy-roosevelt-franklin-roosevelt-hills

July 25, 2010. Retrieved February 10, 2016.

 

 

 

 

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