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The World War I Pursuit Pilot

Quentin Roosevelt was born in Washington, D.C on 19 November 1897. He was the youngest child of Theodore Roosevelt and Edith Kermit (née Carow) Roosevelt, joining siblings half-sister Alice, sister Ethel, and brothers Ted (Theodore III), Kermit, and Archie. Quentin was three years old when his father became president, and he grew up in the White House. By far the favorite of all of President Roosevelt's children, Quentin was also the most rambunctious.

Abetted by a group of young boys known as the "White House Gang," Quentin carved a baseball diamond on the White House lawn, flung spitballs at presidential portraits, and dropped snowballs on Secret Service agents from the White House roof.

Quentin’s mother fondly referred to him as a "fine little bad boy." He quickly became known for his humorous and sometimes philosophical remarks. To a reporter trying to trap the boy into giving information about his father, Quentin admitted, "I see him occasionally, but I know nothing of his family life." When a woman asked him at a social function how he dealt with "common boys," Quentin responded: "I don’t know what you mean. My father says there are only four kinds of boys: good boys and bad boys and tall boys and short boys; that’s all the kinds of boys there are." The family soon learned to keep him quiet during dinner when important guests were present.

Quentin started his education at Force Elementary School and then attended the Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Later he was a student at the Evans School for Boys and Groton School. Quentin consistently scored high marks and displayed the intellectual prowess of his father. He was admitted to Harvard College in 1915. By the time Quentin was a sophomore at Harvard, also like his father, he was showing promise as a writer. While enrolled there, he met and fell in love with Flora Payne Whitney, the granddaughter of wealthy railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt.

All the Roosevelt sons had military training prior to World War I. With the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, there was a heightened concern about the nation's readiness for military engagement. Only the month before, Congress had belatedly recognized the significance of military aviation by authorizing the creation of an Aviation Section in the Signal Corps. In 1915, Major General Leonard Wood, a friend of Teddy's since the Rough Rider days, organized a summer camp at Plattsburgh, New York, to provide military training for business and professional men at their own expense. It would be this summer training program that would provide the basis of a greatly expanded junior officers corps when the country entered World War I.

During August 1915, many young men from some of the finest East Coast schools, including Quentin Roosevelt and two of his brothers, attended the camp. When the United States entered the war, commissions were offered to the graduates of these schools based on their performance. Quentin, just out of the rigors of Groton and Harvard, did not really enjoy the training, but stuck it out anyway.

When President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany on 2 April 1917, Quentin decided to drop out of Harvard. When the American Expeditionary Force was organizing, Theodore wired Major General John J. Pershing and volunteered to form a division and have his sons accompany him to Europe as privates. Pershing, who was a friend of Roosevelt dating back to the Cuban campaign, and had served under him when T.R. was president, accepted the proposal, but the War Department and President Woodrow Wilson overrode the decision. Roosevelt took the issue to Congress, but Wilson prevailed. In the end, all four of Theodore's sons served in World War I as officers, but Theodore spent the war making speeches for the Red Cross.

With American entry into World War I, Quentin thought his mechanical skills would be useful to the Army. Just engaged to Flora, he dropped out of college in May 1917 to join the newly formed 1st Reserve Aero Squadron, the first air reserve unit in the nation. He trained on Long Island at an airfield later renamed Roosevelt Field in his honor. Today, a shopping mall sits on the site that is also named Roosevelt Field.

When he was finally sent to France, Lieutenant Roosevelt first helped in setting up the large Air Service training base at Issoudun. He was a supply officer and then, in time, ran one of the training airfields. For Quentin Roosevelt, life in France could be difficult. His older brothers, already on the front lines, mockingly called him a slacker as he lingered in flight training. Quentin also disliked that some people thought he had only gone to war for publicity. "I owe it to the family — to father, and especially to Arch and Ted who are out there already and facing the dangers of it," Quentin wrote his mother about his wartime service.

He maintained his cheerful sense of humor. Writing to Flora, Quentin described how his plane grew cold at high altitudes. He quipped: "Aviation has considerably altered my views on religion. I don’t see how the angels stand it."

Quentin's Nieuport 28

By 25 June 1918, Quentin Roosevelt happily told his mother that he’d be going to the front lines. "I am now a member of the 95th Aero Squadron, 1st Pursuit Group," Quentin wrote. "I'm on the front — cheers, oh cheers — and I'm very happy." Tragically, it was one of the last letters he would ever write.

Quentin had one confirmed kill of a German aircraft during the German spring offensive, which he shot down on 10 July 1918.

Four days later, on 14 July 1918, Bastille Day, Quentin took to the sky with other American pilots to offer air support during the Second Battle of the Marne. But as he and his unit finished their mission, seven German planes appeared out of the fog. That day, he was flying a French-built Nieuport 28 aircraft. The Nieuport 28 was a nimble, fast machine, but it was outclassed by the new generation of German aircraft, particularly the Fokker D.VII, which was widely considered the finest aircraft of the war.

Lieutenant Edward Buford Jr, who flew with Quentin that day, recalled the dogfight:

Four of us were out on an early patrol and we had just crossed the lines looking for Boche observation machines, when we ran into seven Fokker Chasse planes. They had the altitude and the advantage of the Sun on us. It was very cloudy and there was a strong wind blowing us farther across the lines all the time. The leader of our formation turned and tried to get back out, but they attacked before we reached the lines, and in a few seconds had completely broken up our formation and the fight developed into a general free-for-all. I tried to keep an eye on all our fellows but we were hopelessly separated and out-numbered nearly two to one. About a half a mile away I saw one of our planes with three Boche on him, and he seemed to be having a pretty hard time with them, so I shook the two I was maneuvering with and tried to get over to him, but before I could reach him, his machine turned over on its back and plunged down out of control. I realized it was too late to be of any assistance and as none of our machines were in sight, I made for a bank of clouds to try to gain altitude on the Huns, and when I came back out, they had reformed, but there were only six of them, so I believe we must have gotten one.

Quentin went down behind German lines outside of Chamery, France, a little village of Coulonges-en-Tardenois (now Coulonges-Cohan). When investigating the crash site, the Germans found Quentin's body. Papers in his pocket identified him as President Roosevelt's son. They noted that Quentin had been hit twice in the head by bullets and must have died instantly. Shocked to learn that they had killed the son of a president, they gave Quentin a funeral.

Funeral services held by the Germans were witnessed on the 15th by Captain James E. Gee of the 110th Infantry, who had been captured and was being evacuated to the rear. He described the scene:

In a hollow square about the open grave were assembled approximately one thousand German soldiers, standing stiffly in regular lines. They were dressed in field gray uniforms, wore steel helmets, and carried rifles. Near the grave was a smashed plane, and beside it was a small group of officers, one of whom was speaking to the men. "I did not pass close enough to hear what he was saying; we were prisoners and did not have the privilege of lingering, even for such an occasion as this. At the time I did not know who was being buried, but the guards informed me later. The funeral certainly was elaborate. I was told afterward by Germans that they paid Lieut. Roosevelt such honor not only because he was a gallant aviator, who died fighting bravely against odds, but because he was the son of Colonel Roosevelt whom they esteemed as one of the greatest Americans.

For propaganda purposes, Germans made a postcard of the dead pilot and his plane. However, this was met with shock in Germany, which still held Theodore Roosevelt in high respect and was impressed that a former president's son died on active duty.

On 18 July, in a great allied counter-attack, the village where Quentin fell was retaken from the Germans, and his grave was found by some American soldiers. At its head was a wooden cross that had been fashioned from two pieces of basswood saplings, bound together with wire from his Nieuport, on which was printed: "Leutnant Q. Roosevelt, Honored and Buried by the Imperial German Army." Soldiers from the 303 Engineers raised a proper wooden cross to replace the earlier one. They also marked the spot where the airplane had fallen with a small monument spike.

In his memoirs, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, commander of the 94th Aero Squadron, described Quentin's character as a soldier and pilot in the following words:

As President Roosevelt's son, he had rather a difficult task to fit himself in with the democratic style of living which is necessary in the intimate life of an aviation camp. Every one who met him for the first time expected him to have the airs and superciliousness of a spoiled boy. This notion was quickly lost after the first glimpse one had of Quentin. Gay, hearty and absolutely square in everything he said or did, Quentin Roosevelt was one of the most popular fellows in the group. We loved him purely for his own natural self. He was reckless to such a degree that his commanding officers had to caution him repeatedly about the senselessness of his lack of caution. His bravery was so notorious that we all knew he would either achieve some great spectacular success or be killed in the attempt. Even the pilots in his own flight would beg him to conserve himself and wait for a fair opportunity for a victory. But Quentin would merely laugh away all serious advice.

A clipping from the Kölnische Zeitung obtained through the Spanish Embassy gave this account of the fight:

The aviator of the American Squadron, Quentin Roosevelt, in trying to break through the airzone over the Marne, met the death of a hero. A formation of seven German airplanes, while crossing the Marne, saw in the neighborhood of Dormans a group of twelve American fighting airplanes and attacked them. A lively air battle began, in which one American (Quentin) in particular persisted in attacking. The principal feature of the battle consisted in an air duel between the American and a German fighting pilot named Sergeant Greper. After a short struggle, Greper succeeded in bringing the brave American just before his gun-sights. After a few shots the plane apparently got out of his control; the American began to fall and struck the ground near the village of Chamery, about ten kilometers north of the Marne. The American flier was killed by two shots through the head. Papers in his pocket showed him to be Quentin Roosevelt, of the United States army. His effects are being taken care of in order to be sent to his relatives. He was buried by German aviators with military honors. The German pilot who shot down Quentin Roosevelt told me of counting twenty bullet holes in his machine when he landed after the fight. He survived the war but was killed in an accident while engaged in delivering German airplanes to the American Forces under the terms of the Armistice.

Quentin Roosevelt’s death impacted his family, his country, and even the world at large. Theodore Roosevelt mourned the loss of his son and felt guilty about his death. "To feel that one has inspired a boy to conduct that has resulted in his death, has a pretty serious side for a father," he wrote. "And at the same time I would not have cared for my boys and they would not have cared for me if our relations had not been just along that line."

Americans across the country mourned Quentin, too. One town in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania even changed its German-sounding name from "Bismark" to "Quentin."

But ultimately, Quentin Roosevelt’s death was a family tragedy. When WWI ended, a reporter asked Theodore Roosevelt if he had a message for the French. "I have no message for France," the former president replied. "I have already given her the best I had." Bowed by grief, Theodore Roosevelt died just six months after his son did. Quentin’s body remained in France, per his parents' wishes. "We feel that where the tree falls, there let it lie," his father wrote.

Quentin Roosevelt left behind a legacy of service, patriotism, and sacrifice. To date, he is the only child of an American president to ever die in combat.

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