Sons of famous fathers have many advantages in life – particularly if dad’s fame is due to or has lead to wealth. Yet having a famous father is not completely without its disadvantages.
What disadvantages? Try living up to expectations, for one. Many sons of famous fathers simply can’t.
Everybody knows the story of Teddy Roosevelt – who later became the 26th US President – and his heroism at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. Many even know that he was belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor for that act over 80 years after his death. And he’s considered one of the more successful Presidents in US history.
Imagine trying to live up to that legacy. Imagine trying to do that when you’re a slender bantam-rooster kinda guy vice a strapping fellow like your dad. (The other individual in this photo was about 6 ft 1 in tall and around 200 lbs.)
Now imagine doing exactly that – living up to such a legacy. And imagine that almost no one remembers.
You’re talking about Theodore Roosevelt Jr’s life.
Father and Son
Even though his father reportedly never expected him to amount to much, Theodore Roosevelt Jr succeeded in virtually everything he did in life. Indeed, in every respect but politics Theodore Roosevelt Jr’s record compares well with his father’s. And had he not been back-stabbed by his cousin Eleanor during his 1924 campaign for Governor, the Governor of New York named Roosevelt who ran for President in the early 1930s might well have been named Theodore vice Franklin.
In the military sphere, the elder Roosevelt’s exploits are well-known. But those of the son generally aren’t – and that’s a shame.
Indeed, the younger Roosevelt’s military record and heroism – though not nearly as well-known as his father’s– actually makes his father’s pale by comparison. The elder Roosevelt was indeed an exceptional man, and a hero of the Spanish-American War. But Theodore Roosevelt Jr proved himself a hero and an exceptional man many times over before his untimely death.
Consider: the elder TR fought in one, short war. He did so in his late 30s. During this war, he performed admirably as a commander – and became famous for a single, exceptional act of heroism. His war lasted a few months; then he went home in good health to resume his life and career. Impressive.
The younger TR fought in two longer wars. During the first, he performed multiple exceptional acts of heroism. He was seriously wounded, and would feel the effects of those wounds the rest of his life. He returned to the fight and led his troops again. He was gassed. His first combat service was during his early 30s.
Then some 20+ years later, the younger TR did it all again. He again performed multiple exceptional acts of heroism while leading troops in combat. Only this time around, fate decreed he wouldn’t make it home.
In between, he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy; Governor-General of Puerto Rico; Governor-General of the Philippines; Vice-President of Doubleday Publishing; and Chairman of American Express Corporation. Along with maintaining his standing in the US Army Reserve and being instrumental in founding the American Legion, of course.
Theodore Roosevelt Sr indeed served with distinction in the Spanish-American War, and was denied a Medal of Honor due largely to politics – a slight corrected many years later. But prior to D-Day, Theodore Roosevelt Jr had received the following recognition for military heroism:
- Awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for service as a Major during World War I (May and July 1918, France). He was wounded during the July action in the knee, also earning him entitlement to the Purple Heart.
- Awarded the Silver Citation Star (the present-day equivalent is the Silver Star), for service as a Major during World War I (May 1918, France)
- Awarded the Silver Citation Star, 2nd Award, for service as a Major during World War I (October 1918, France)
- Awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for service as a Battalion and Regimental Commander during World War I.
- Awarded the Silver Star (2nd OLC), for service as a Brigadier General during World War II (North Africa, 1943)
- Awarded the French Croix de Guerre twice – once in each World War.
Then on 6 June 1944, the younger Roosevelt performed acts of heroism for which he would posthumously be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Think about that for a moment. During less than three years of combat service (Oct 1917 – Nov 1918 and Nov 1942 – Jul 1944) Roosevelt was awarded the top 4 US military decorations – the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, and Silver Star (3 awards) – plus the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat.
That works out to an average of one decoration for exceptional heroism for roughly each 6 1/2 months of combat-zone service. Impressive indeed.
Relief and Redemption
During World War II, Roosevelt served in North Africa and Sicily as the Assistant Division commander of the 1st Infantry Division. While an able leader, Roosevelt was also no saint. He reportedly drank as heavily and was as raucous as MG Terry Allen (the 1st Infantry Division’s CG and a notorious hell-raiser himself). Roosevelt was also neither a “spit and polish” aficionado nor a disciplinarian. These qualities led to friction between Roosevelt and both Patton and Bradley. During the Sicilian Campaign, the friction eventually became too much; Bradley relieved both Roosevelt and Allen of duty.
Afterwards, Roosevelt served in other assignments in Sicily, Italy, and England. But his goal was to lead men in combat again. Bradley finally relented and gave him such an assignment: Assistant Division Commander of the green 4th Infantry Division, which had yet to see action in World War II. Bradley thought Roosevelt would provide a steadying influence on the then-green 4th Infantry Division – but Bradley also wrote Roosevelt, “You will probably get killed on this job.”
Roosevelt would get his wish to lead men in combat once again. And contrary to Bradley’s prediction, he would not get himself killed – though he would indeed never see home again.
Roosevelt was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as Assistant Division Commander, 4th Infantry Division, at Utah Beach, Normandy, on 6 June 1944. His Medal of Honor citation can be found here.
IMO the citation doesn’t really do Roosevelt’s heroism justice.
After receiving his assignment as Assistant Division Commander, Roosevelt asked multiple times for permission to go ashore at Utah Beach with first assault wave. Permission was twice refused by his Division Commander. The third time Roosevelt made his request in writing, laying out his argument for doing so in an extended letter. This time his CG reluctantly relented and approved Roosevelt’s landing with the initial assault wave – thinking he was sending Roosevelt to his death.
Roosevelt landed in first wave in a plywood Higgins Boat. Rumor has it BG Roosevelt was the first man off his boat at Utah Beach. That may or may not be true. But he was one of the first two men off that boat – the varying accounts agree on that.
However, there is no question that Roosevelt was the first Allied General to set foot on Normandy’s beaches on D-Day. He was the only Allied General to land with the first wave of the amphibious landings in Normandy.
Unfortunately, Murphy was alive and well at Utah Beach on D-Day. Roosevelt’s units landed off-course by somewhat over a mile. So much for predetermined objectives, routes, scheme of maneuver, and the like.
Roosevelt quickly determined that the original plan for Utah Beach was not workable. He also knew that he had to get his troops off the beach and inland quickly.
The phrase attributed to Roosevelt, “We’ll start the war from here!” – made famous in the book and movie The Longest Day - is not apocryphal. Roosevelt indeed made that statement in conference with some of his subordinate officers on Utah Beach after the off-target landings had been realized. And then he backed up his words.
Roosevelt rapidly developed an alternative plan of advance for the landed units. He then directed the new plan’s execution.
Roosevelt walked the beach as new units arrived, limping, nearly continuously exposing himself to enemy fire. He met nearly each arriving regiment, briefed them on the changes necessitated by the off-course landings, and directed their joining the fight.
Roosevelt was pretty much oblivious to enemy fire on Utah Beach. He often pointed out landmarks and objectives to newly-arriving units while standing – using his cane as a pointer. And, like Patton, he occasionally directed traffic.
He did this at age 56 – he was the oldest man to land on D-Day. And the cane he used wasn’t for show. Roosevelt needed that cane to get around. His arthritis from wounds to his leg he received during World War I was so severe it had nearly kept him from returning to active duty in the first place.
Roosevelt also did all of this while suffering from advanced heart disease that he’d concealed from nearly everyone. To hide his heart condition, he’d “gutted it out” during his division’s pre-landing training, regularly marching in full infantry field gear and pack with his men.
And he did all of this continuously for a period of roughly four hours, until his Division Commander landed and could be briefed on the situation.
Roosevelt’s career – and life – were to end not long thereafter. As was also the case with Patton, he would not die in combat.
Thirty-six days after D-Day – sometime after midnight on the night of 11-12 July 1944 – Roosevelt died in his sleep, apparently of a heart attack. The advanced heart disease that he’d concealed in order to land at Utah Beach finally caught up with him. He is buried at the American World War II Cemetery in Normandy. His appointment as Division Commander of the 90th Infantry Division was on Eisenhower’s desk awaiting signature the morning Roosevelt died.
Roosevelt would probably have chuckled at the twin ironies.
On learning of Ted Roosevelt’s death, Patton wrote to his wife: “Teddy Roosevelt died in his sleep last night. He was one of the bravest men I ever knew.” When asked years after World War II to name the most heroic act he’d ever witnessed in combat, Omar Bradley replied: “Ted Roosevelt on Utah Beach.”
High praise indeed – from two men who’d be in a position to know firsthand a great deal about military heroism.
— — —
Perhaps I’m a bit biased here. I am fast approaching Roosevelt’s age at his death.
My first (and only) combat deployment began after my 50th birthday. I understand full well looking in the mirror and thinking, “Aren’t you really way too old for this shit, fella?” – and then volunteering for the assignment anyway, being selected, and going. So I can understand, in some limited way, why Roosevelt felt compelled to go to Utah Beach.
But understand what Roosevelt did, or how he found the incredible courage to do it? Lord, no.
My mind reels when I think about what Roosevelt did at Utah beach on D-Day, 1944. Landing in the first wave of an opposed amphibious landing on one good leg, using a cane, and with a heart he knew could blow literally at any second. Reorganizing things on the fly after his unit was landed more than a mile off-course, and successfully determining and directing the necessary changes to plans. Walking around on an open beach, completely exposed to enemy fire and oblivious to danger, for hours while ushering newcomers off said beach. Directing traffic under those same conditions. Pointing out landmarks and objectives for newly-arrived units with his freaking cane.
What Roosevelt did on Utah Beach that day is completely off the scale of normal human behavior, and should inspire both shock and awe. Roosevelt was no green troop – he’d been in combat many times. He’d been wounded himself before, seriously, and had many other close calls. He was in such poor health that he should never have been on Utah Beach that day. He knew full well the incredible risk involved.
Yet there he was, doing his duty exceptionally well – in a highly-visible and inimitable manner. He was doing so in one of the most dangerous situations of all. And his heroic example – and his skill – inspired his men to do great things.
Perhaps Bradley was right.
Rest in peace, Sir. You’ve earned it.