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D-Day's Oldest Soldier

"Utah Beach" by John Paul Strain

Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt Jr. was born at the family estate in Oyster Bay, New York on 13 November 1887. He was the eldest son of Theodore Roosevelt and his second wife Edith Roosevelt. After graduating high school, Roosevelt attended Harvard College. Ted became a partner in the Philadelphia investment banking firm of Montgomery, Clothier and Tyler (the Tylers were his mother’s cousins). Although Ted enjoyed professional and financial success, he longed to serve in the military as an officer.

In 1914, Ted began the junior officer summer program in Plattsburgh, New York. He was commissioned into the Army as a major when the United States entered World War I in April 1917. Ted was one of the first U.S. soldiers deployed to France as part of the American Expeditionary Forces. In Europe, his regiment fought in several major battles including the Battle of Cantigny and the Battle of Soissons. In 1918, while still recovering from a poison gas attack, Ted was shot in the left kneecap. Luckily, while Ted was under medical care, he received a visit from his brother-in-law Dr. Richard Derby. After examining the injury, Derby transported Ted to Blake's Hospital (the same institution where Ted's brother Archie was convalescing). The move probably saved Ted's leg and, quite possibly, his life.

He was awarded several medals and commendations, including the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Chevalier Légion d’Honneur. Returning to the U.S. after the war, Ted became the governor of Puerto Rico (1929-1932) and later the governor-general of the Philippines (1932-1933). After leaving public service, Ted accepted a position as vice president with Doubleday Doran, a publishing company.

Ted continued military training every summer. By the outbreak of World War II in 1939, he had graduated from the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and was eligible for a senior commission. He returned to active duty in April 1941 and was given command of the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, the same group he fought with in World War I. Late in 1941, he was promoted to brigadier general.

After promotion to brigadier general, Ted led the 26th Infantry Regiment in the attack on Oran, Algeria on 8 November 1942. During 1943, he was the second-in-command of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division that fought in the North African Campaign under Major General Terry Allen. His contempt for personal danger and unorthodox tactics made him popular amongst his troops but often brought him in conflict with high command.

Generals Ted Roosevelt, Terry Allen and George Patton

Ted's collaboration and friendship with his commander, the hard-fighting, hard-drinking Allen, and their unorthodox approach to warfare, did not escape the attention of General George S. Patton. Patton disapproved of officers like Ted and Allen, who "dressed down" and were seldom seen in regulation field uniforms, and who placed little value in Patton's spit-shined ways in the field. Patton thought them both un-soldierly for it and wasted no opportunity to send derogatory reports on Allen to the Supreme Allied Commander. Ted was also treated by Patton as "guilty by association" for his friendship and collaboration with the highly unorthodox Allen.

When Allen was relieved of command of the First Division and re-assigned, so was Ted. After criticizing Terry Allen in his diary on 31 July 1943, Patton recorded that he was going to relieve both Allen and Roosevelt, noting that he had asked permission of Eisenhower "to relieve both Allen and Roosevelt on the same terms, on the theory of rotation of command," and adding, concerning Ted, "there will be a kick over Teddy, but he has to go, brave but otherwise, no soldier." Ted was also criticized by General Omar Bradley, who ultimately relieved both him and Allen of their commands after he assumed command of the 7th Army. According to Bradley, in both of his autobiographies "A Soldier's Story (1951)" and "A General's Life", he claimed that relieving both Allen and Roosevelt, was one of his most unpleasant duties of the war.

Nevertheless, Ted proved to be a competent general and was assigned as assistant commander of the 1st Infantry Division during the Allied invasion of Sicily. He also commanded Allied Forces in Sardinia and fought on the Italian mainland. He was the chief liaison officer to the French Army in Italy for General Dwight D. Eisenhower and repeatedly made requests of Eisenhower for combat command.

In February 1944, Ted was reassigned to England in preparation for the D-Day invasions of France. Understanding the difficulties many of the young American soldiers would be facing during the landings and hoping to use his rank and seniority to inspire confidence, Ted requested that he be deployed along with the first landing wave. His superior officer, Major General Raymond "Tubby" Barton initially rejected his request to enter the European Theater and lead the 4th Infantry Division, 8th Infantry Regiment into combat. In a personal letter to Barton dated 26 May 1944, Ted pleaded his case in seven succinct bullet points, noting that "I personally know both officers and men of these advance units and believe that it will steady them to know that I am with them." Barton eventually relented.

 "We'll start the war from right here!" Ted purportedly declared as his Higgins landing craft drifted about a mile from its target destination on Utah Beach the morning of the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy. At 56 years old, Commanding the 8th Infantry Regiment and the 70th Tank Battalion, General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was the oldest man and the only general to participate in the first wave of landings on Utah Beach on D-Day. Armed only with a pistol and his walking cane, he carried out reconnaissance and began directing his forces under heavy enemy fire. .

Amid withering fire from German coastal installations, machine-gun nests and densely packed minefields lining Utah Beach, Ted remained a calm figure guiding successive waves of scrambling soldiers to the beachhead. According to the American Legion, Roosevelt continued to befuddle the enemy as he limped back and forth to the Higgins boats, walking stick in hand, to keep the men moving. A sergeant from the 8th recalled encountering Ted on the beach "with a cane in one hand, a map in the other, walking around as if he was looking over some real estate." After the war, many of the men under his command recalled his calm and humorous demeanor as having inspired them to push forward.

By the end of the day, the 4th Infantry was able to penetrate inland six miles and of the 21,000 troops that landed, there were only 197 casualties. Ted's own son, Captain Quentin Roosevelt II, was among the first wave to land at Omaha Beach, making them the only father-son duo to come ashore on D-Day. Quentin survived the war only to die in a plane crash in China in 1948.

Once inland, Ted was often found among the rank-and-file soldiers, seated in his jeep, which bore the name "Rough Riders" in honor of the 1st Cavalry Brigade his father had led in battle during the Spanish American War.

Ted with his Jeep "Rough Rider" in France

Throughout World War II, Ted suffered from health problems. He had arthritis, mostly from his World War I injuries, and walked with a cane. He also had heart trouble, which he kept secret from army doctors and his superiors. Tragically, five weeks after the D-Day landings on 12 July 1944, Ted died from a heart attack in France. At the time he was living in a converted sleeping truck, captured a few days before from the Germans. He had spent part of the day in a long conversation with his son Quentin. He was stricken at about 10:00 pm, attended by medical help, and died at about midnight. On the day of his death, he had been selected by Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, now commanding the U.S. First Army, for promotion to the two-star rank of major general and command of the 90th Infantry Division. These recommendations were sent to General Eisenhower, now the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Eisenhower approved the assignment, but Ted died before the battlefield promotion. Of his death, Patton wrote: "Teddy R[oosevelt] died in his sleep last night. He had made three landings with the leading wave – such is fate... He was one of the bravest men I ever knew."

Three months later, for his cool valor under fire, Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation reads:

"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, Brigadier General 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."

In addition, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army Distinguished Service Medal, four Silver Stars, and the Purple Heart.

Ted was initially buried at Sainte-Mère-Église. Photographs show that among his honorary pallbearers were Generals Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton. He was later buried at the American cemetery in Normandy, initially created for the Americans killed in Normandy during the invasion.

His younger brother, Second Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt, had been killed in action as a pilot in France during World War I and was initially buried near where he had been shot down in that war (Read about him here). In 1955, his family had his body exhumed and moved to the Normandy cemetery, where he was re-interred beside his brother Ted. Quentin remains the only WWI soldier buried in that hallowed ground.

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