Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., or “Ted,” as his friends called him, lived up to the legacy of his father and namesake, President Theodore Roosevelt. The younger Roosevelt was a proven combat leader in both world wars, an aspiring politician, a successful businessman, an accomplished hunter and explorer, as well as governor of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., like his father, received the Medal of Honor, one of only two father–son duos to be awarded America’s highest honor (the other being Arthur MacArthur and Douglas MacArthur). Roosevelt rose through the ranks during the Great War, ending it as a lieutenant colonel commanding the 26th Infantry Regiment in the 1st Division. He participated in numerous engagements in 1918, which included Cantigny, Soissons, and the Meuse–Argonne campaign. He was cited for bravery, wounded in action, the first reserve officer to command a regiment in combat, and was the spearhead of the American attempt to liberate the French city of Sedan in the waning hours of the war.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was born on 13 September 1887 at Oyster Bay, New York. Although a great admirer of his dad’s legendary action with the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, the burden of living up to such expectations as the eldest son caused considerable anxiety for the young man. Journalist Jacob Riis wrote a profile of the family in the White House in 1902 and said that Ted was “like his father… in his absolute fearlessness and occasional disregard for conventionalities.” “Absolute fearlessness and occasional disregard for conventionalities” captured the essence of Ted’s leadership style in both World War I and II.
He graduated from Harvard and then entered upon a series of successful business ventures that brought him wealth before America entered World War I. Ted married Eleanor Butler Alexander in 1910 and they had four children. Eleanor would play an important role in Ted’s combat experience in France. After the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, most Americans believed that the nation would eventually enter the war. This was a view not shared by the passive Wilson Administration, which did nothing to prepare for war. Out of frustration by the lack of proactive measures by President Wilson, “preparedness groups” popped up, as well as a military training camp at Plattsburgh, New York, which in effect created a cadre of future leaders for the war. The National Defense Act of 1916 supported this endeavor and established the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Roosevelt volunteered to be a part of this training, as so many young men likewise did before America entered the war. Ted captured the frustration of his generation, writing, “The administration never takes a step in advance until literally flailed into it; and the entire cuckoo population of the ‘don’t criticize the President’ type play into the hands of the pro-Germans, pacifists, and Hearst people, so that a premium is put on our delay and inefficiency.”
When the United States finally entered the war in April 1917, Ted wasted no time to be among the first Americans in uniform deployed to France. For the first time in his life, he asked his dad (T. R.) for help to make this happen – something that T. R. was delighted to do. T. R. knew Pershing personally from the Spanish–American War and crafted a letter asking that his sons Ted and Archie be selected to join him immediately in France. The letter to General Pershing from T. R. in part said:
I write you now to request that my two sons, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr… and Archibald B. Roosevelt… both of Harvard, be allowed to enlist as privates with you to go over with the first troops. The former is a Major and the latter a Captain in the Officer’s Reserve Corps. They are at Plattsburg for their third summer.
The letter, with a bit of help from Ted’s wife Eleanor, resulted in the Roosevelt brothers boarding the S.S. Chicago on 20 June 1917 for France.
Eleanor was determined to be close to her husband during the war and hurriedly volunteered to serve in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), before rules went into effect preventing wives of soldiers from working in volunteer organizations serving frontline troops. Many Christian and Jewish organizations sprang into action to help ameliorate the soldiers’ sacrifices in this time of war. Among the most active were the Knights of Columbus, the Jewish Welfare Board, YMCA, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army. These organizations deployed volunteers across the United States at military bases as well as in Europe to provide the soldiers with food, comfort, music, entertainment, and Bibles. Eleanor skyrocketed into the YMCA’s leadership, designed their field uniforms, and became one of the leading advocates in France of taking care of the soldiers.
The Salvation Army became one of the favorites of the Doughboys in France. The volunteers were often Bible-toting evangelical Christian young ladies, who baked thousands of donuts daily to hand out to the men coming into or going out of the battle lines. The women were given the moniker of “Donut Lassies” by the men. Ted Roosevelt was so impressed that he wrote, “Before the war I felt that the Salvation Army was composed of a well-meaning lot of cranks. Now what help I can give them is theirs.”
Once in France Ted and Archie reported to General Pershing in Paris and asked to serve in combat with frontline troops. Pershing wrote, “Two of the Roosevelt boys, Theodore, Jr., and Archie, reported yesterday. Unable himself to participate, their father’s fine spirit is represented by his sons.” Archie was assigned to the 6th Regiment, but Ted was sent to a training unit. He confided in a letter to his wife the anguish: “Well, it’s dreadful to have those we love go to the front; but it is even worse when they are not allowed to go to the front.”
Ted’s wait to get an assignment to a frontline combat unit would not take long. Colonel George B. Duncan, who would later be promoted to major general and command the 77th and 82nd Divisions, needed an officer to command 1st Battalion in the 26th Infantry Regiment, in the 1st Division. Ted eagerly agreed to leave the training unit for this opportunity to serve in what would be America’s most celebrated division in World War I. As the first American division in France, the unit trained hard to prepare for combat. Ted bemoaned that much of the training was inadequate. In his view, the maneuver training that focused on the bayonet and rifle was not realistic, and this put him at odds with General Pershing’s assumption that the Americans once in battle would break the stalemate and quickly enter open warfare. In one case, during an exercise observed by General Pershing himself, the result was potentially catastrophic. Ted wrote of this:
Once we had a maneuver of this kind before General Pershing. The company officers were lined up and afterward were asked their opinion as to how the men had conducted themselves. The first one to answer was a game little fellow named Wortley… He said that he thought everything went off very well and he didn’t think he had anything to criticize. The next lieutenant said that he thought that a few men of his company had got a little mixed up. This was a cheerful point of view for him to have, for, as a matter of fact, two thirds of his company had gone astray. His company had been selected to deliver a flank attack over the top, but when this took place it consisted of one lieutenant and two privates.
Fortunately, General Pershing did not notice this glaring error. Also present during this episode was the 1st Division’s assistant chief of staff for training, Major George C. Marshall, who had a good relationship with Ted. This friendship would serve Ted well in the dark days of World War II in 1943, in the months following the Allied operations in North Africa.
Ted and the 1st Division spent the latter part of 1917 and early 1918 gaining experience in the trenches along the quieter sectors of the Western Front. By May 1918, it was the Americans’ turn to finally play an active role in the fighting. The 1st Division was rushed north by train to the Somme and given the mission of liberating the destroyed French village of Cantigny. A brigade of the division that included Ted’s unit was given the mission of what would be America’s biggest yet engagement of the war. Supported by French tanks, aircraft, and artillery, the Americans launched an impressive attack that drove the Germans both out of Cantigny and the surrounding areas. For the next three days, the German Army launched a series of failed counterattacks to drive the Americans back. Ted played a key role leading his battalion in the defense of Cantigny. Although suffering from gas poisoning, Ted stayed in the line and continued to valiantly lead his men in the thick of the action. According to his official citation for the Silver Star:
During the operations connected with the capture and defense of Cantigny, France, 27 to 31 May 1918. Major Roosevelt during an enemy raid, displayed high qualities of courage and leadership in going forward to supervise in person the action of one of the companies of his battalion which had been attacked; on the day of our attack upon Cantigny, although gassed in the lungs and gassed in the eyes to blindness, Major Roosevelt refused to be evacuated and retained command of his battalion, under heavy bombardment, throughout the engagement.
In addition to the Silver Star, Ted also was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for this action.
As the guns fell silent at Cantigny, Ted heard rumors that Paris was about to be overrun by the Germans. Fearing for the safety of his wife Eleanor, Ted awoke Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall for permission to find his wife. Marshall rebuked him, saying, “For heaven’s sake Roosevelt, go and get some rest! You’ve been gassed and look like the dickens. Your wife will be alright.” To this, Ted answered, “That’s may as be, but I’ve got to be sure. You see, she’s the only wife I’ve got.” The appeal worked and Ted was given permission to rush to Paris only to find Eleanor doing quite well.
After a short period of rest, the 1st Division made its way northeast of Paris to participate in the offensive to liberate Soissons. As the men prepared for the attack, Ted heard the news of his brother Quentin being killed in action after being shot down by a German fighter plane. His brother Archie was likewise seriously wounded. The war was taking a heavy toll on the Roosevelt family.
Sensing that the German offensives had culminated, Allied Supreme Commander Foch directed that the Allies retake the ground lost earlier in the year around Soissons. Lasting from 18 to 22 July, the attack included the American 1st and 2nd Divisions, two British divisions, and 24 French divisions. The attack, although costly, was superbly executed, forcing the Germans to lose nearly all the ground that they had captured two months earlier. As expected, Ted led his men from the front on the first and second days of the battle. As they advanced on 19 July, a German machine gun opened fire, resulting in Ted and the men around him dashing forward in a sprint to eliminate this threat. As Ted charged, a bullet crashed into his knee, causing him to crash into the ground. The enemy machine gun was taken, but Ted suffered a wound that would follow him throughout his life.
Ted refused adequate treatment and hopped in a motorcycle sidecar to visit his wife Eleanor, who was still in Paris helping to lead the YMCA effort. Eleanor was surprised to see him and helpless to convince him to have the wound taken care of properly. Providentially, a mutual friend, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Derby, dropped in for a visit. Derby was the chief surgeon with the 2nd Division and evaluated the wound; seeing that it was severe, he advised that if it was not treated right away, Ted could lose his leg. This was enough for Ted, who agreed to be taken to a nearby hospital. Ted was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership and bravery during the Battle of Soissons.
After nearly two months of convalescing, Ted reported to a training unit in France in mid-September 1918 and was soon thereafter promoted to lieutenant colonel. Although not healed of his wounds, Ted was looking for a chance to return to the 1st Division. This came in late October, when Brigadier General Frank Parker called to inquire about his health. Parker was looking to give command of the 26th Regiment to Ted if he was well enough to take it. Roosevelt jumped at the chance and left his training unit without orders to join the 1st Division preparing for the final push of the Meuse–Argonne offensive. Ted arrived in time for the division’s advance during the final week of the war.
The AEF had finally broken through the German lines on 1 November 1918 and was now in pursuit of the enemy to the Meuse River. The 1st Division joined the push on 6 November and within hours was redirected from advancing north toward the Meuse River, and instead ordered to swing west across the U.S. I Corps sector to seize the occupied French city of Sedan. A confusing set of circumstances triggered this dangerous maneuver. General Pershing expressed his desire that Sedan should be taken by the Americans and that his favorite division, the 1st, should have the honor of liberating it. As a result, U.S. First Army issued a muddled memorandum late on 5 November that resulted in the chaos of the 1st Division cutting across the front of the sector of U.S. I Corps, and pushing other American troops into the sector of the French Fourth Army. Ted Roosevelt and his regiment led the 1st Division. The results were catastrophic. The advance of an entire American corps was halted; there were incidents of fratricide, and outrage from the French. Roosevelt was literally about to order his men the few remaining miles forward into Sedan when he was ordered back.
With this, the Armistice went into effect, thus ending the war. As the 1st Division limped back, Ted was surprised to find his wife Eleanor looking for him. She was in the area with the YMCA leadership to set up additional forward sites at the front. Upon hearing that the war was ending, she set off to reunite with Ted. After this brief reunion with his wife, Ted and the rest of the 1st Division were ordered to serve as part of the Allied occupational forces in the Rhineland, Germany, where his stay was brief. In early 1919, he returned to France, helped to establish the American Legion, and thereafter went back to the United States.
After World War I, Ted launched a political career; he was elected to the New York State Assembly, and then, like his father many years before, appointed as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. His political future seemed endless until he ran for governor of New York in 1924. Widespread Democrat Party voter fraud and a smear campaign led by Ted’s cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) were blamed for his defeat. Ted was outraged by FDR’s betrayal and the breach between the two would never be healed. Yet, the son of Theodore, Sr. had a reputation similar to his father’s, was a genuine war hero, adventurer, hunter and explorer, and thereby remained ever present in the public’s imagination. As a result, he was appointed to serve as the governor of Puerto Rice from 1929 to 1932 and the governor general of the Philippines.
As the clouds of another world war gathered, Ted returned to the United States Army in 1940, at 53 years of age, was promoted to colonel and given command of his 26th Infantry Regiment in the 1st Infantry Division. He went in with the assault wave to hit the beaches in Oran, Algeria during Operation TORCH in North Africa. During the initial attack, Ted continually pushed to the front and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for fighting off a French patrol while riding shotgun in his jeep. The legacy of Pershing’s orders in 1918 for officers to always be out front was still with Ted two decades later. Major General Omar Bradley captured the essence of Roosevelt’s leadership style in North Africa, recollecting that he was “a brave… undersized man who trudged about the front with a walking stick… His cheery bullfrog voice had echoed reassuringly among the troops in every Tunisian wadi in which riflemen fought the Germans.”
Yet, the performance of the Americans in North Africa in early 1943 was far from splendid. The flaws of an inexperienced army, facing a determined adversary, were evident in battle, especially in the disastrous Battle of Kasserine Pass. Eisenhower assigned George S. Patton in March of 1943 to take command of II Corps in North Africa to get the Americans in shape. The spit and polish Patton was the polar opposite of the 1st Infantry Division commander, Major General Terry Allen and Ted Roosevelt (now a brigadier general and the division’s assistant division commander). This notwithstanding, The Big Red One, as the 1st Infantry Division was called, helped redeem the reputation of the Americans at the Battle of El Guettar, which, together with the advance of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army push from the east resulted in the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa.
The victory in North Africa was followed by the Allied landings at Sicily in July 1943, an operation in which the 1st Infantry Division and Ted Roosevelt played a key role. The performance of the division and its leaders notwithstanding, Patton, now the U.S. Seventh Army Commander, conferred with Eisenhower to have Allen and Roosevelt reassigned under the guise of “rotation of command.” Eisenhower agreed, with Patton making a statement that the reassignment of Ted would cause a bit of a furor, saying, “There will be a kick over Teddy, but he has to go, brave but otherwise, no soldier.”
After several months serving as a liaison officer with the French Army fighting in Italy, Ted was reassigned to the United Kingdom to serve as the 4th Infantry Division’s assistant division commander to prepare for what would be Allied landings at Normandy on 6 June 1944. This lateral assignment did not reflect any punishment by Eisenhower of Roosevelt for his unique leadership style. When the time for the landings arrived, Ted appealed to the division commander, Major General Raymond “Tubby” Barton, for permission to land on Utah Beach with the first wave. Barton was initially opposed to this, but relented to Roosevelt’s insistence that it was where he needed to be to ensure success. At 56 years of age, Ted indeed hit the beach of Normandy, France, in the first wave. Upon landing, he took stock of the situation and realized that the landing craft had drifted more than a mile southeast of the planned landing beaches. After a few moments of thought, Ted gave his famous order: “We’ll start the war from right here!”
With that, Brigadier General Roosevelt greeted each successive wave of landing craft, giving them specific orders on where to advance. His grasp of the situation was superb, and his clarity of orders indeed was what was needed to secure the beachhead and beyond. For the next month, Ted continued to perform brilliantly in France and was recommended by Lieutenant General Omar Bradley for promotion to major general and command of the 90th Infantry Division. However, before this was approved, Ted died of a heart attack on 12 July 1944. Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Utah Beach. His award citation states:
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.
The legacy and influence of General Pershing cast a long shadow over the life of Ted Roosevelt. The relentless drive to lead from the front, in harm’s way, was the type of leadership that Pershing demanded in 1918 and that Ted maintained throughout his service in both world wars. His selfless service personified many of the virtues of both his family and Pershing’s ideals for leaders. Foremost of these was his bravery in leading his men from the front. His awards for heroism and leadership not only included the Medal of Honor, but the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, four Silver Stars, and the Legion of Merit. Although differing in his view of what a leader should look like, Patton conceded that Roosevelt was “one of the bravest men I’ve ever known.” Ted, however, had a distinct style that did not necessarily embrace Pershing’s (and later Patton’s) rigid spit-and-polish outward image. His personable style and his tireless endeavors to be at the front with his men motivated and inspired those who served with him. Ted Roosevelt lived up to his namesake and left a legacy worthy of emulation.