Memorial Day Ethics Hero Emeritus: Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., 1887–1944

Teddy Jr

The latest inductee into the Ethics Alarms Heroes Hall of Honor has a familiar name that burdened him with exorbitant expectations his entire life. Yet against all odds, he managed to add to its prestige.

With some notable exceptions that you can probably name, being the son of a President of the United States has proven to be a burden and often a curse. Being the oldest son of our most flamboyant President was particularly hard on Teddy Roosevelt’s boy who shared his name, and through young adulthood, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.  experienced migraine headaches and other symptoms of anxiety and stress. The President was even cautioned by a family friend and physician that his constant badgering was ruining his son’s health.

Young Ted still followed his father’s path to fame by enrolling at Harvard, then became a partner in a Philadelphia investment banking firm. With the U.S. entry into the Great War, Roosevelt enlisted in the army, fought in Europe, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and was gassed and shot in the kneecap in 1918.  Roosevelt received the Distinguished Service Cross. He was renowned for his courage under fire as well as his unusual concern for the men under his command: at one point, he personally purchased new boots for his entire battalion. After the war, Roosevelt was instrumental in the founding the American Legion in 1919.

That same year he was elected to the New York Assembly, then was appointed by President Warren G. Harding as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a post previously held by both his father and Franklin Roosevelt. In 1924, the New York Republican Party nominated Ted Jr. for governor, a race he lost to incumbent Al Smith. He went on to a series of important positions in the public, corporate and non-profit sectors:  Governor of Puerto Rico (1929-1932), Governor General of the Philippines (1932-1933), then Vice President at Doubleday,  Chairman of the Board of the American Express Company, Vice President of Boy Scouts of America, and President of the National Health Council.

 Despite his advanced age, Roosevelt volunteered for active duty in World War II in April of 1941. He was placed in command of the same group he led in World War I, the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, and by the end of the year, was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.  Though he suffered from heart disease and arthritis, which required him to use a cane, he saw action in Northern Africa, Sicily, and Italy.

In February, 1944, Roosevelt was assigned to the staff of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division in England to help plan and lead the Normandy invasion. Though his age, 56, would make him the oldest soldier on the battlefield, Roosevelt demanded that he take active part in the invasion. After his verbal requests to the division’s commanding officer, Major General “Tubby” Barton, were denied, Roosevelt made his request formal by putting it in writing:

“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.”

Reluctantly, Barton granted  Roosevelt the field command, telling colleagues that he did not expect his friend to return alive. True to his father’s spirit, Ted, Jr. was the only general on D-Day to land by sea with the first wave of troops. He was also the only one whose son was also fighting: Captain Quentin Roosevelt II was in the first wave to hit Omaha beach.

Leading the U.S. 4th Infantry Division’s 8th Infantry Regiment and 70th Tank Battalion in their landing at Utah Beach, Roosevelt learned that his landing craft had dropped the troops more than a mile south of its assigned landing point. Still using his cane, Roosevelt personally made reconnaissance of the area to locate the causeways to be used for the invasion’s advance inland. He returned to the point of landing to contact the commanders of the two battalions,  and coordinated the attack on the enemy positions.. Roosevelt’s quote, portrayed in the film “The Longest Day,” was, “We’ll start the war from right here!”

Roosevelt’s improvised plan worked perfectly. With artillery shells flying around him, Roosevelt personally greeted each regiment as it reached Utah beach, projecting confidence, directing the troops to their new assignments. He worked under fire clearing the tangle of trucks and tanks as they moved inland off the beach. Later, Roosevelt’s men commented with admiration on his affect on the troops, giving them courage and projecting calm as he walked up and down the beach with his cane, seemingly impervious to the bullets and shells.

General Barton, commanding of the 4th Infantry Division, met Roosevelt near the beach. He wrote later:

“While I was mentally framing [orders], Ted Roosevelt came up. He had landed with the first wave, had put my troops across the beach, and had a perfect picture (just as Roosevelt had earlier promised if allowed to go ashore with the first wave) of the entire situation. I loved Ted. When I finally agreed to his landing with the first wave, I felt sure he would be killed. When I had bade him goodbye, I never expected to see him alive. You can imagine then the emotion with which I greeted him when he came out to meet me. He was bursting with information….”

When General Omar Bradley, years later, was asked to name  the most heroic action he had ever seen in combat, he answered, “Ted Roosevelt on Utah Beach.”

On July 12, 1944,  Roosevelt died of a heart attack near Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy. On the day of his death, he had been promoted to major general and placed in command of the 90th Infantry Division. He was buried at the American cemetery in Normandy, beside his brother his younger brother, Quentin Roosevelt, who been shot down as a pilot in France during World War I.

Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on September, 28, 1944. The inscription reads.

“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.”

No, Ted Jr. didn’t lead a charge up San Juan Hill, he didn’t become President of the United States, he isn’t on Mount Rushmore and he is only the second most accomplished American named Theodore Roosevelt. Yet given an impossible model to follow, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., in fewer than 60 years, led a remarkably productive and courageous life, displayed leadership and composure under fire, served his country in two World Wars, and died in its service.

His father would have been satisfied, and Teddy was a tough critic.

9 thoughts on “Memorial Day Ethics Hero Emeritus: Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., 1887–1944

  1. I learned about the remarkable accomplishments of Ted Roosevelt just this past winter. I was thinking about him today while AHC showed a bevy of WWII docs about the European theatre. Thank you for giving his story a place here today.

  2. Jr. definitely “carried a big stick”. His death was tragic and lamented. Where are the Teddy Roosevelt’s now, when they are sorely needed?

  3. Yes, his leadership and bravery under fire was known by many in the Army. Early in my Army career, I can remember being given a book about him. I was thoroughly impressed!

  4. Only 23 years separated the two World Wars, so there must be many who served in both as the WWI saw the enlistment of 17 year olds with a parent’s okay, as well as strapping 16 year olds reaching at least the 5’6″ minimum height (many, especially from rural areas, had no birth certificates in those days). My dad, serving on Army Air Corps bases from a couple of days after Pearl Harbor through to the end — 40 year old obstetricians didn’t get to go to battle too often — said that many of the officers were “two-timers” his age or older.

    Before reading this post, though, the only “name” I knew was Rommel’s, an enemy respected for his tactics even before it was known that he had campaigned for Hitler to be arrested and brought to trial as a criminal. Now I have another name, TR Jr., one whose strategies, even at a further advanced age than Rommel’s, twice helped push the German war machine further down the road to their country’s second and final defeat.

    • When the Korean War started in 1950, the US Army faced a formidable task of building an army able to fight the North Koreans to a standstill and pushing them back into North Korea.

      One of the key elements in this buildup was recalling a large number of NCOs and officers who had served in World War II. It wasn’t ‘fair’ to those ‘retreads’ as they were sometimes called, but without those veterans it is certainly possible the UN forces would have been defeated and expelled from South Korea.

      These are some of the Korean War fallen we honored yesterday.

  5. An excellent tribute, Jack. As with Douglas MacArthur, Theodore, Jr. had a big act to follow per his father’s service, but did not shrink from the challenge. I wish I could say the same for my entire generation!

  6. A minor nit-pick on an otherwise very nice article. enlisted in the army should probably read ‘was commissioned’ or ‘accepted a commission’ since he started out as an officer.

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