White House Heroes

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

Many well-known and celebrated heroes have lived in the White House. Some have gotten to the White House on the popularity of their reputations as heroes. But not all the heroes who lived in the White House were adults at the time. A number of White House children have gone on to do great things in their own right. Two were recognized as genuine heroes when they received the Medal of Honor (also called the Congressional Medal of Honor), our nation’s highest award for gallantry and courage.

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., was born September 13, 1887 at Oyster Bay, New York. Teddy, Jr. was much like his father in both looks and mannerisms. His personality and his career were also much like his father’s. Ted, Jr. grew up in his father’s image, engaging in what his father called “the active life” and enjoying the outdoors and sports.

Teddy, Jr. graduated from Harvard. He married Eleanor Butler Alexander on June 20, 1910 in New York City, and they had four children together. He was commissioned a major in the army in 1917. (His father also volunteered, but was turned down for political reasons. President Woodrow Wilson had no love for TR, and did not want him leading a division in combat.) During World War I, Teddy, Jr. earned promotion to lieutenant colonel. He was wounded and gassed at the Battle of Soissons. He later commanded an infantry regiment at the Battle of the Argonne. He was awarded the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor as the United States’ highest medal for valor.

After the armistice, Ted, Jr. entered politics. He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1919, and was appointed assistant secretary of the navy in 1921 by President Warren Harding. Ted Jr. became an unwitting accomplice in the infamous Teapot Dome scandal. As assistant Secretary of the navy, he facilitated the transfer of the Teapot Dome oil reserve lands from the Navy Department to the Department of the Interior. He had no part in the illegal or unethical actions of those involved, and no blame ever attached to him.

Ted Jr. ran for governor of New York in 1924, but lost to the popular Al Smith. He was appointed governor of Puerto Rico by President Calvin Coolidge and served from 1929-1932. He was then appointed governor of the Philippines by President Hoover and served from 1932-1933. In World War II, he served as a brigadier general, and the assistant commander of the 4th Infantry Division.

Ted Jr. received the Medal of Honor for his actions on D-Day, leading his men on Utah Beach during the Normandy landings. He had twice asked to lead his men during the landings, but his request was rejected. He then put the request in writing, which made it harder to turn down, and it was approved.

Ted Jr. was the first Allied general officer to wade ashore and the only general officer in the first wave during the amphibious assault. Navigational errors caused by bad weather and strong currents, resulted in the first wave of the amphibious assault landing in the wrong inlet, a mile or two from the intended landing zone. It was, however, less heavily defended than the original objective, and Roosevelt ordered the rest of the troops and supplies to land where his men were mistakenly put ashore. He was quoted as saying, “We’ll start the war from here!” (Henry Fonda, who played Ted Jr. in the film “The Longest Day”, delivered that famous line.)

The 4th Division moved rapidly inland and overwhelmed enemy positions in their way. They linked up with the airborne forces inland sooner and with fewer casualties than any of the divisions on any of the other beaches. Roosevelt led a series of assaults at different parts of Utah Beach, carrying only a pistol and walking with a cane due to his arthritis. General Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. 1st Army and overall commander of the Normandy landings, called Roosevelt’s actions on Utah Beach the single bravest act he witnessed during the entire war. Roosevelt’s youngest son also landed in the first wave, but on Omaha Beach. This son was named Quentin II after Ted Jr’s younger brother who was a pilot shot down during World War I. This made Ted Jr. and Quentin II the only father and son to land on the Normandy beaches that day.

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.’s Medal of Honor Citation reads:

Rank and organization: brigadier general, U.S. Army. Place and date: Normandy invasion, 6 June 1944. Entered service at: Oyster Bay, N.Y. Birth: Oyster Bay, N.Y. G.O. No.: 77, 28 September 1944. Citation: for gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, in France. After 2 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 .

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. died of a sudden heart attack on the Normandy battlefield on July 12, 1944, just five weeks after the D-Day action for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He died just before word arrived that he had been promoted to Major General and assigned to the command of a division of his own. President Franklin Roosevelt, a cousin of his, presented the Medal of Honor to Ted Jr’s widow with the words, “His father would have been the proudest.”

Rutherford Birchard Hayes, 19th President of the United States (1877-1881), was a genuine war hero. Entering the army as a major during the Civil War, he rose to the command of his regiment, then his brigade and his division, and was a major general at the war’s end. He took part in over fifty battles and skirmishes, was wounded several times, once seriously. He had his horse shot out from under him at least four times. His record as a brave and able combat leader helped his political career after the war, which eventually led to the White House.

One of his sons was also a genuine war hero. James Webb Hayes, known as Webb Cook Hayes, received the Medal of Honor for his actions in combat. Webb’s entire life was an interesting adventure in several different fields.

Webb Cook Hayes was born on March 20, 1856 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He did not have what you would call normal childhood. For four years, starting when he was five years old, Webb spent five or six months every winter in the winter encampment of his father’s regiment, usually in West Virginia. Growing up in this exciting environment could not help but affect Webb.

Like his older brother, Webb graduated from Cornell University. When his father became President in 1877, Webb became his private secretary. In those days, a President had to provide and pay for his own staff. Webb was described as “dark-haired, tall and clever.” He was twenty-one when his father entered the White House, and was the closest of all the Hayes children to his parents.

The Hayes family was wealthy. In fact, they were the wealthiest of any of the 19th century occupants of the White House. They lived well, but never extravagantly. Still, President Hayes paid for four secretaries in his office. Of the four, Webb Hayes was the closest to the President, being with him nearly at all times. He was often armed, acting also as a guard to his father.

Many of Webb’s duties were social in nature. As a person close to the President, and unmarried, he was often called upon to escort important single ladies at White House functions. It was also his duty to tactfully end parties that had gone on too long and suggest to guests that it was time to leave. His charm made this difficult function look easy, and he was never known to have offended any guest.

The Hayes White House was dry. No alcohol of any kind was to be served, not even wines at state dinners. This early attempt at prohibition led to the nickname of “Lemonade Lucy” for the First Lady. Then Representative James A. Garfield sarcastically wrote in his journal of a state dinner where the “water flowed like wine.”

Wine was actually served at one White House function during the Hayes administration. In April 1877, when the Hayes family had been in the White House just barely a month, the United States hosted the Grand Duke Alexis, the son of the tsar of Russia. At the state dinner in the Grand Duke’s honor, wine was not only served but served in abundance. It was Webb Hayes who ordered the six fine wines (one for each course of the dinner) as well as the three liqueurs from New York. Austine Snead, who wrote a gossip column in the New York Daily Graphic and the Boston Herald under the pen name Miss Grundy, wrote that “A lively topic of discussion has been opened here as to whether or nor Mrs. Hayes really means to banish wine from state dinners…” They soon found out. That was the last time any kind of alcoholic drink was served during the entire Hayes tenure in the White House.

Webb also found himself in the middle of a political controversy. President Hayes had been careful to select blacks for certain offices, as a sign of his support. He had appointed Frederick Douglass to be marshal of the District of Columbia. The main function of the marshal was to act as master of ceremonies at city functions, as well as those at the Capitol and the White House. Douglass and others complained that while he served in this position, Hayes did not have him making the introductions in the receiving line at the President’s receptions. President Hayes was accused of intentionally withholding this honor from Douglass because he was a black man.

The charge against Hayes was not entirely fair. The marshal had not made the introductions in the receiving line at Presidential receptions for twenty years. In the 1850s, the marshal had been a man named Major French. He had so enjoyed making the introductions that when he was promoted to commissioner of public buildings, he simply kept the role of introducing people in the reception line. Public Buildings Commissioners after him continued the tradition. It seemed only right that the current Commissioner of Public Buildings, Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey, make the introductions in Presidential receiving lines.

Since the question had been raised, Hayes solved the problem by giving the duty to his son Webb. This made receiving guests more of a family affair, and gave the events more personal warmth. No one could object, and the controversy ended. For the remainder of the Hayes administration, Webb made the introductions in the receiving line. Frederick Douglass did get one role in the White House when he was invited to introduce a group of Negro singers when they performed at the White House in November 1878. This was merely one example of how President Hayes used Webb to smooth out hard feelings and solve intricate controversies.

Webb Hayes also wrote personal letters in his father’s place. He was known to write “charming letters” and they became much sought after as souvenirs.

Webb was called upon to handle one last delicate matter for President Hayes shortly after President Hayes moved back to Ohio after his term ended. The Hayeses had lent their favorite coach and team of horses to the Garfields. President Garfield and his wife found long rides in the country as the best escape from the pressures of the White House. They enjoyed the coach so much that they neglected to return it in a timely fashion. Webb Hayes was sent to tactfully ask for the return of the coach. Although somewhat embarrassed, Webb managed to make the arrangement while remaining on the friendliest of terms with the Garfields.

After leaving the White House, Webb turned to business. Along with some other partners, he started a small company that eventually grew into Union Carbide Company. But he did not stay active in business long.

Webb Hayes served as an unofficial advisor to President William McKinley. President Hayes had been McKinley’s mentor in Ohio and, as President, McKinley often sought advice from Webb. The day of the declaration of war against Spain, President McKinley had kept Webb Hayes with him almost constantly. When President McKinley went to the Cabinet Room to sign the declaration of war, he had Webb accompany him. The President used two pens to sign the declaration (one for his first name and one for his last name), and gave both pens to Webb Hayes.

When the Spanish-American War began, Webb volunteered and was commissioned a major in the army. His early days living in the army camps during the Civil War and hearing of his father’s accomplishments during that war might have had something to do with his decision. He served during the short conflict with distinction, and stayed in the army after the war was won. He served in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. It was in the Philippines that Webb Hayes took part in the action for which he received the Medal of Honor for “distinguished gallantry.”

Webb Hayes had been promoted to lieutenant colonel, and was assigned to a staff position with the 31st Infantry. He risked his life to make contact with a unit that was cut off and organize relief for them. His Medal of Honor citation for the action on December 4, 1899 read:

“Pushed through the enemy’s lines alone, during the night, from the beach to the beleaguered force at Vigan, and returned the following morning to report the condition of affairs to the Navy and secure assistance.”

Lest anyone think that political influence was involved, one should remember that his father had not been President for almost twenty years, and had died almost seven years earlier.

Webb continued in the army, later serving in China during the Boxer Rebellion. He was part of the force that relieved the besieged westerners in Peking, including future President and First Lady Herbert and Lou Hoover. Webb retired with the rank of colonel, and served in the Ohio House of Representatives. He later volunteered for duty with the British and French forces in Italy during World War I before the United States entered the war. Webb Hayes died on July 26, 1934 in Fremont, Ohio. He is buried on the grounds of the Hayes family estate, Spiegel Grove, which is now part of the Spiegel Grove State Park, in Fremont, Ohio.