An Old Soldier's Valor on D-Day
On this date in 1944, a 56-year-old American soldier went ashore at a place military planners had named Utah Beach. Later in the day, he would be joined by his superior officer, Maj. Gen. Raymond “Tubby” Barton. As commanding general of the 4th U.S. Army Infantry Division, Barton was in charge of the men tasked with securing that section of Normandy’s beaches on D-Day.
Although Gen. Barton was a West Pointer, and the 56-year-old warrior waiting for him on the beach was a Harvard man, Tubby Barton liked that fellow soldier very much. He’d proved himself in the Army in combat years before, and now, when he was old enough to be the father of the young men facing withering fire from German gun entrenchments, here he was -- leading from the front. His name was Theodore Roosevelt Jr.
Actually, one of Gen. Roosevelt’s sons, Quentin, was on the beaches of Normandy that day. Quentin Roosevelt II was named after his uncle -- Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s younger brother -- a brave fighter pilot killed in the skies above France during World War I. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son and namesake of the 26th U.S. president, had fought in the First World War, too, and been wounded.
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After serving as an infantry officer in World War I, former President Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest son went into the family business: politics. The younger Roosevelt served in New York’s state legislature and unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Al Smith in the 1924 gubernatorial election. Roosevelt Jr. went on to become assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of Puerto Rico and governor of the Philippines. By 1941, he was working in the private sector, but after Pearl Harbor he lived up to another family tradition: answering the bell when his country beckoned.
As an Army reservist, Roosevelt had risen in rank between the two world wars, and as brigadier general he led troops in North Africa and Italy before being assigned to Tubby Barton’s division in the run-up to the Normandy invasion.
Although crippled by arthritis while also fighting pneumonia and heart disease, Theodore Roosevelt wanted to be there for the troops under his command on D-Day. He repeatedly asked Barton to give him the assignment. Each time, he was refused. It was going to be dangerous on those beaches, Gen. Barton knew, and Roosevelt was barely ambulatory. But when he put the request in writing, Barton couldn’t turn him down.
This desire to lead from the front was more than the customary Roosevelt family bravado. Gen. Roosevelt possessed a knack for quickly comprehending terrain in the fog of battle and he was a calm and capable commander whose men trusted him. Ted Roosevelt believed that his presence would aid the invasion.
He was proven right. His natural gift for leadership came into play even before the landing on Utah Beach. On his crowded transport ship crossing the English Channel, Roosevelt moved among his men offering soothing words of encouragement and leading them in songs that were both moral and martial: “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Roosevelt’s skills were tested again, upon landing.
“The moment I arrived at the beach,” he recalled after the battle, “I knew something was wrong for there was a house by the seawall where none should have been.”
Walking the beach with the aid of a cane, armed only with a pistol, Ted Roosevelt concluded that the ocean currents had taken the troop transports more than a mile south of their intended landing spot. According to World War II lore, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. told his chief engineer: “I’m going ahead with the troops. You get word to the Navy to bring them in. We’re going to start the war from right here.”
Other officers remembered it differently, but the important point is that this is exactly what the Americans forces did. Asked in the flush of victory to cite the most heroic act of the war, Omar Bradley replied, “Theodore Roosevelt on Utah Beach.”
When Gen. Barton landed and found his 56-year-old general alive and barking out orders, he was sublimely pleased. “Ted Roosevelt came up,” Barton recalled later. “He had landed with the first wave, had put my troops across the beach and had a perfect picture of the entire situation.”
“I loved Ted,” added. “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.”
In truth, Tubby Barton’s misgivings had been justified. The son of a U.S. president would earn the Medal of Honor for his performance on Utah Beach, but it would be awarded posthumously. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. had several minor heart attacks on D-Day, and he died five weeks later while still in France. On that fateful day, July 12, 1944, he had a long visit with son Quentin. Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Dwight Eisenhower officially approved Omar Bradley’s decision to promote Ted Roosevelt to major general. That second star would never be pinned to his uniform. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. is buried, along with his brother Quentin, at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.