Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the oldest son of President Teddy Roosevelt, was the only general to land with the American Troops on D-Day, the 6th of June, 1944. After serving in North Africa and Sicily, Roosevelt was relieved of his command of the Big Red One by General Patton. Patton thought Roosevelt a brave man but he did not approve of Roosevelt’s loose discipline with his troops.
Officer of the French Legion of Honor
After the loss of his command position with the Big Red One, Roosevelt worked with a French Division that included Italian volunteers. The French division fought alongside the Americans during the invasion of Italy. The French commanders were so impressed with General Roosevelt that the French made him an Officer of the French Legion of Honor. Thus, Roosevelt became the only American to receive this distinction in both World Wars as he also received the commendation for his heroics in France in World War I.
Roosevelt begs General Bradley for a Part in the Invasion of Europe
Roosevelt wrote General Omar Bradley a letter begging for a part in the Allied invasion of Europe. In his letter Roosevelt said, “If you ask me I will swim in with a 105 strapped to my back.” Bradley knew of Roosevelt’s bravery firsthand from serving with him in North Africa. Bradley responded to Roosevelt by saying he was assigning Roosevelt to a green division so he could steady them under fire. Bradley also wrote Roosevelt and told him, “You will probably get killed on this job.”
Roosevelt reported to General Barton of the 4th infantry division, on March 25th, 1944. Roosevelt lived with a group of six other division officers in the town of Tiverton. One of the officers remembered thinking how small Roosevelt’s feet were. Indeed the army did not have combat boots small enough to fit Roosevelt and the general’s wife bought him boots from Abercrombie and Fitch.
Roosevelt Trains with His Troops
Although he was fifty-six years old, suffered from arthritis, and most probably endured a few minor heart attacks, Roosevelt went on marches with his men. Despite his rank, Roosevelt wore a full field pack and marched alongside his men in the mud and rain. Perhaps no other senior officer in the war realized how heavy a burden the enlisted man shouldered.
Roosevelt’s aide described the general thusly, “The old man was the most disreputable looking general I ever saw. He was dressed in ancient combat clothes and often covered in dust or mud.” Roosevelt refused to wear a helmet into combat, instead wearing a dingy stocking cap. If not for the single star on his cap, the General could have been mistaken for any common soldier.
Invasion of Normandy
A couple of weeks before the invasion Roosevelt found out his division would be landing at Utah beach. Roosevelt went to his commanding officer, General Barton, and requested to go ashore with the first wave. Barton did not want to be responsible for the death of a President’s son and refused Roosevelt’s request. Roosevelt tried again a few days later with the same result.
Then Roosevelt wrote Barton a letter with six points delineating why it was a good idea for him to go ashore with the first wave. The letter spelled out how important it was for the first wave to succeed and how the entire battle could hinge on what happened in the initial landing. Barton reluctantly agreed and assigned Roosevelt to the first wave for Utah beach.
We’ll Start the War from Right Here
Roosevelt rode aboard one of twenty Higgins boats in the first wave. Roosevelt’s boat was the first to land and the General was the first off the boat. At fifty-six years old, Roosevelt was the oldest soldier to land during the invasion. Roosevelt’s son Quentin landed at Omaha beach the same day making them the only father-son team in American Army uniforms to set foot on the soil of France on D-Day.
Roosevelt splashed ashore using his cane and sporting his old reliable stocking cap. He soon realized that the landmarks were in the wrong location and that the first wave had landed a mile south of their intended destination.
Roosevelt’s combat experience led him to make the decision to eliminate the shore defenses and march inland from where they landed. He knew it was critical that the men get off the beach as soon as possible to link up with the airborne units that landed the night before. Briefing a group of officers Roosevelt said, “We’ll start the war from right here,” a phrase that was later made famous in the movie D-Day the Longest Day.
Roosevelt on the Beach
For the next four hours, Roosevelt remained on the beach and directed the landing troops while German shells rained down around him. One soldier said, “General Theodore Roosevelt was standing there waving his cane and giving out instructions as only he could do. If we were afraid of the enemy, we were more afraid of him and could not have stopped on the beach had we wanted to.” Another soldier remarked that he saw a mortar shell land near Roosevelt and that the general looked annoyed and brushed off the sand that landed on him.
For his heroics on Utah Beach General Barton nominated Roosevelt for the Medal of Honor. Portions of the recommendation read, “With complete disregard for his own life and utter contempt for heavy hostile artillery, machine gun and small arms fire, he immediately went on a reconnaissance of the beach to determine the position of the troops in relation to previous points of exodus from the beach inland. Under his seasoned, precise, calm, unfaltering leadership assault troops reduced beach strong points and moved inland with minimum casualties.” General Omar Bradley was impressed enough with Roosevelt’s performance that he recommended him for Division General of the 90th division.
Death of General Roosevelt
About the same time as the Supreme Commander General Eisenhower approved Roosevelt’s promotion, Roosevelt suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep. Roosevelt died in France and Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, and his son Quentin attended the funeral and buried their loved one in French soil. Generals Patton, Bradley, and Barton were honorary pallbearers.
Patton wrote to his wife, “Teddy Roosevelt died in his sleep last night. He was one of the bravest men I ever knew.” On September 21, 1944, Eleanor Roosevelt accepted the Medal of Honor for her husband. After the war the government moved Roosevelt’s body to the American Cemetery at Normandy and he was buried next to his brother Quentin; Quentin Roosevelt died in an air battle during WWI in France.
Ambrose, Stephen E., D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1944
Blumenson, Martin, The Patton Papers 1940-1945, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1974
Roosevelt, Eleanor B. (Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.), Day Before Yesterday, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1959
Walker, Robert W., The Namesake, The Biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Brick Tower Press, New York, 2008