General Teddy Roosevelt Jr. on D-Day
On June 6, 1944, the invasion of Normandy to bring Allied troops into France. This day, also known as D-Day, marked the beginning of the Allied counterattack in Europe.
This was an epic undertaking for Allied Forces involving hundreds of thousands of men and women. One British and two U.S. airborne divisions (the 82nd and 101st) dropped behind the beaches the night before the invasion.
The assault went well on British beaches, where one Canadian and two British divisions landed, and also at UTAH, westernmost of the U.S. beaches, where the 4th Division came ashore (Matloff 1968 ). The story was different at OMAHA Beach. Eventually the courage of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions were able to make their way slowly inland. At the end of the first day some 50,000 U.S. troops made their way ashore.
Casualties were lighter than expected: 6,500 American and 4,000 for British and Canadian. Some heroic stories came from that bravery. Nineteen boys from Bedford, Virginia- a town with the population of just 3,000 in 1944- died in the first few minutes of D-Day (Matloff 1968 ). They were part of Company A of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division. They were in the first wave of American soldiers to hit the beaches. Later in the campaign, three more boys from this small Virginia town died of gunshot wounds. Twenty-two sons of Bedford were lost in less than a week.
When asked what the bravest act he had ever seen was, General Omar Bradley responded with, “Ted Roosevelt on UTAH Beach.” Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the oldest son of President Teddy Roosevelt. Bradley said, “He braved death with indifference that destroyed it terror for thousands of thousands of younger men. I have never known a braver man nor a more devoted soldier,” (Bradley 1951).
Roosevelt before WW II
Roosevelt first served his country in World War I. He was recognized as the best battalion commander in his division. He was gassed and wounded at Soissons in the summer of 1918. For his actions he received the Distinguished Service Cross (our nation’s second award for valor). He finished the war as a thirty one year old Regimental Commander.
After the war Roosevelt returned to civilian life but stayed in the Army Reserves. He served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of Puerto Rico (1929–32), Governor-General of the Philippines (1932–33). He served as a founder of the soldiers’ organization that developed into the American Legion.
With World War II looming, late in 1941, Roosevelt was mobilized for Active Duty and promoted to brigadier general. He was given command of the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division when war was declared. The same unit he fought with in World War I.
Roosevelt was popular with Soldiers. Despite being in his fifties, suffering from arthritis, and heart issues, Roosevelt went on marches with his men. Despite his rank, Roosevelt wore a full field pack and marched alongside his men joking with them all the way. Perhaps no other senior officer in the war realized how heavy a burden the enlisted man shouldered.
After service in Africa and Sicily in February 1944 Roosevelt was assigned to England to help lead the Normandy invasion. He went to the staff of the 4th Infantry Division. It would be here he would make his greatest contribution to the war.
General Roosevelt was the only general to land on D-Day in the first wave. He rode aboard on one of twenty Higgins boats in the first wave. His boat was the first to land. At fifty-six years old, Roosevelt was the oldest soldier in the invasion. Roosevelt’s son Quentin landed at Omaha beach on the same day. 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 an old stocking cap instead of a helmet. He realized that the landmarks were in the wrong location. The first wave had landed a mile south of their intended destination. He made the decision to eliminate the shore defenses and march inland. He knew it was critical that his men get off the beach as soon as possible to link up with the airborne units that had 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.
He made a reconnaissance of the area to the rear of the beach to locate the causeways that were going to be used for the advance inland. He returned to the point of landing and contacted the commanders of two battalions, and coordinated the attack on the enemy positions opposing them.
His plan worked. With artillery landing close by, each follow-on regiment was welcomed on the beach by a calm and collected Roosevelt. Using humor and reciting poetry and telling anecdotes of his father he steadied the nerves of the men under fire. Roosevelt pointed each regiment to its changed objective. He worked as a traffic cop guiding trucks and tanks all struggling to get inland and off the beach.
Throughout World War II, Roosevelt suffered from health problems. He had arthritis, mostly from old World War I injuries, and needed a cane. He also had heart trouble.
On July 12, 1944, one month after the landing at Utah Beach, he died suddenly of a heart attack in his sleep in his tent near Normandy. On the day of his death he had been selected by General Omar Bradley for promotion to major general and orders had been cut placing him in command of the 90th Infantry Division.
Roosevelt was buried at the American cemetery in Normandy. He now lays next to his younger brother, Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt (his son’s namesake) a pilot, who had been killed in France during World War I. Quentin was exhumed in 1955 from Fère-en-Tardenois, France and moved to the Normandy cemetery to be re-interred next to his brother Ted.
Originally Roosevelt was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on D-Day. The award was upgraded at higher headquarters to the Medal of Honor which Roosevelt was posthumously awarded on 28 September 1944.
President Teddy Roosevelt and General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. are one of two sets of fathers and sons to have received the Medal of Honor. President Roosevelt was given the Medal of Honor in 2001 for his charge up San Juan Hill in 1898. The other set is Arthur and Douglas MacArthur.
Roosevelt’s actions on D-Day are portrayed in The Longest Day, a 1962 film in which he was played by actor Henry Fonda. The movie is based on the book of the same name, published in 1959 by Cornelius Ryan.
Bradley, Omar N. Omar N. Bradley. A Soldier’s Story . New York : Henry Holt and Company , 1951.
Kershaw, Alex. The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-day Sacrifice. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003.
Matloff, Maurice- General Editor. Americanm Military History 1607- 1967. Washington D.C. : Office of the Chief of Military History , 1968 .
Ryan, Cornelius. The Longest Day. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959.