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The oldest man in the first wave on D-Day

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, Jr.

Teddy with his cane hours before he died of a heart attack in Normandy
 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Born September 13, 1887, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt III was the eldest son and second eldest child of President Theodore Roosevelt. His father expected much of him; he gave him a real rifle when he was nine, and would talk to him about history and famous battles while walking to the office together. Graduating from Harvard, young Roosevelt became a successful businessman, but military matters were never far from him or his family.
 
In 1915, with the Great War already under way in Europe, Roosevelt and two of his three brothers attended a summer camp, receiving military training at their own expense. When the U.S. joined the war in April 1917, Theodore Roosevelt senior asked General Pershing to allow his sons to join the American Expeditionary Force as privates. Due to their performance at the camp, Pershing accepted them as officers instead: Theodore as a major and Archie as a lieutenant. Their brother Kermit volunteered with the British army, and Quentin, the youngest of the boys, had already joined the Army Air Service, where he served honorably until his death in a dogfight in 1918.

The Roosevelts (Teddy standing on the right)
(Photo: Getty Images)
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Teddy was considered the best battalion commander in the 1st Division (which became known later as "The Big Red One", named after its shoulder patch), who cared so much for his men he bought them combat boots from his own money. He was gassed and wounded, and ended the war as a lieutenant colonel. With the war winding down, he was one of the founders of what later became the American Legion, the nonprofit organization of U.S. war veterans. He was nominated as its first national commander but turned down the honor as he was harboring political ambitions and didn't want to discredit the Legion by using it for his own gains.

Teddy in uniform during WWI
(Photo: Library of Congress)

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Between the world wars, while attending the refresher courses and training as a reservist, he followed in his father's footsteps as a politician, serving as Governor of Puerto Rico and Governor-General of the Philippines, but the advent of World War II saw his return to the military in 1941. He commanded the same 26th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division he had served with in the Great War and was soon promoted to brigadier general. Fighting in North Africa, he showed a direct, hands-on approach to command, making decisions right on the front line, staying as close to the action as possible. He was heavily criticized by General Patton for his habit of eschewing regulation field uniforms – “brave but otherwise, no soldier” Patton once wrote of him – and by Bradley for having a relationship with his soldiers that was bad for discipline. Roosevelt was relieved along with the commander of the division, Major General Terry Allen, but continued serving as assistant commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Sicily, Sardinia and the subsequent operations in Italy.

Teddy in an “informal” uniform in Tunisia
(Photo: Pinterest)

In February 1944, he was sent to England to participate in the preparations of the Normandy landings as Assistant Division Commander of the 4th Infantry Division assigned to land at Utah Beach. Anxious to get back into action, he made several verbal requests to the commander of the division, Major General Raymond Barton, about being allowed to go with the first wave of troops. After refusal, he made a written petition, arguing for the need to have a general on site even as further waves of troops arrived: “The force and skill with which the first elements hit the beach and proceed may determine the ultimate success of the operation.... With troops engaged for the first time, the behavior pattern of all is apt to be set by those first engagements. [It is] considered that accurate information of the existing situation should be available for each succeeding element as it lands. You should have when you get to shore an overall picture in which you can place confidence. I believe I can contribute materially on all of the above by going in with the assault companies. Furthermore, 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 relented despite heavy misgivings, as he was sure that Roosevelt, 56 and walking with a cane due to arthritis, would die in action. Thus, Ted Roosevelt became the oldest soldier in Normandy and the only general to land with the first wave. As a side note, his son, Quentin Roosevelt II, named after Ted's brother who had died in World War I, also landed in the first wave, but on Omaha Beach.

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Teddy played by Henry Fonda (on the left) in the movie The Longest Day
(Photo: Pinterest)

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When they hit the shore, Roosevelt was informed they've drifted a mile and a half off course. With cane in one hand and a pistol in the other, he personally reconnoitered the area behind the beach, then came back to his men and uttered his immortal words: “We'll start the war from right here!” Like he suggested in his letter to Barton, he greeted subsequent waves of troops, informing them of the changes in the plan and keeping up the morale of the men – often with enemy fire kicking up the dirt nearby. In the iconic film from 1962 about the D-Day landings, The Longest Day, he was played by Henry Fonda. It showed his struggle to be allowed to land in the first wave and his landing on Utah Beach. Following D-Day, he used a Jeep named "Rough Rider" which was the nickname of his father's unit, the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, during the Spanish–American War in 1898.

Teddy riding his Jeep called “Rough Rider” close to the front in Normandy
(Photo: Reddit)

Roosevelt didn't live long enough to enjoy the fame he earned on the beach. In addition to arthritis, he also had heart problems, a condition he kept secret. On July 12, 1944, just a month after the landings, he suffered a heart attack during the night and died within the hour. As a twist of fate, General Bradley had selected him for promotion to major general and commander of the 90th Infantry Division (the unit suffered from serious leadership problems among its ranks) earlier that day and Eisenhower was to call in the morning to approve the recommendations. He was buried in the temporary military cemetery in Sainte-Mère-Église. His funeral procession was led by a group of generals, including Bradley, Patton and Barton. The photos of the funeral were taken by Private First Class Sidney Gutelewitz who, at the time, did not know whose funeral it was. He realized what he had photographed when, several years later, he contacted the Department of Defense to ask about it.

The funeral march of Roosevelt with General Bradley and Patton on the left
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Today, he's buried at the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach (Plot D, Row 28, Grave 45), next to his brother Quentin, the WWI pilot, who was reinterred there in 1955 upon the request of his family, making him the only soldier resting there who did not die in the Normandy campaign. Since Theodore was about to be appointed as commander of the 90th Infantry Division at the time of his death, there is no indication of a division on his grave marker. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, thus becoming the first one to earn it in the 4th Infantry Division. In 2001, his father was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Spanish-American War. In addition to Arthur and Douglas McArthur, they are the only father and son to each be awarded a Medal of Honor.
 
Teddy’s Medal of Honor citation is as follows:
“For gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, in France. After two 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.”

Roosevelt’s grave marker in the Normandy American Cemetery
(Photo: Author’s own)

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