In the early morning of June 6, 1944, American soldiers stormed the beaches on D-Day. At Utah Beach, confusion ranged. The 4th Infantry Division had been pushed off course by the currents and no one was sure what they were supposed to do. Then, out of the morning fog, hobbled the most unlikely of persons, a short, gaunt, shabbily dressed, 56-year-old brigadier general with a famous name.
Teddy Roosevelt Jr. had horrible arthritis as a result of injuries suffered during the First World War. He was forced to walk with a cane. The sight of the popular general tottering back and forth from the landing craft to the bulkhead leading his troops forward with a cane in one hand and a pistol in the other, inspired his men beyond imagination.
Realizing that his men were out of position, he casually remarked, “We’ll start the war from right here.” Roosevelt then led his troops around the German positions toward their initial objective. In his pocket, he carried a copy of “Pilgrim’s Progress” so he would have something to read if the war got too slow.
Teddy was not supposed to be there. He had begged his superiors on three occasions to be allowed to go ashore his men. When his commander finally relented, he said goodbye and told Ted he did not expect to see him alive again. He was the only American general on the beaches that day.
Roosevelt survived the invasion, only to die five weeks later of a sudden heart attack. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on D-Day. George S. Patton called Roosevelt “one of the bravest men I ever knew.” When asked the bravest thing he had seen during the war, General Omar Bradley did not blink. “Teddy Roosevelt – Utah Beach,” he declared with certainty.
Just two years earlier, Teddy Roosevelt Jr. was living on a more idyllic beach, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. In the summer of 1942, he and his wife had taken a cottage here to be near their son. Teddy Roosevelt III was stationed at the Naval Air Station training to be a Naval Aviator. His wife was expecting Teddy Roosevelt IV. Ted and his sons had one last family reunion here on our beach before each set off to war. By the time number four was born in Jacksonville in November, Teddy Jr. was storming the beaches of North Africa. Most of the family would never see him alive again.
It is hard to have a famous father. Teddy Jr. hoped to be president one day. Like his father and famous cousin, Franklin, he served as assistant secretary of the Navy. And like the two more famous Roosevelts, he ran for governor of New York. They won. He lost. It hurt that his first cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, campaigned against him. Eleanor followed Teddy around in a car with a paper mache teacup on the roof to remind voters that Junior had been implicated in the teapot dome scandal. Later, she would admit that it was sort of a “rough trick.”
Like Douglas McArthur, Ted served as Governor General of the Philippines. He was in that position when his distant cousin, Franklin, was elected to the presidency. Ted had made statements critical of his Democrat cousin during the campaign. When asked how the two were related, Teddy Jr. said that he was Franklin’s “fifth cousin, about to be removed.” Franklin promptly fired his Republican cousin.
Scott A. Grant is a local historian and author. By day, he is president of Standfast Asset Management in Ponte Vedra. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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