Tribute to a Gallant Officer Who Led from the Front

Article excerpt

Theodore Roosevelt Jr.: The Life of a War Hero. H. Paul Jeffers. Presidio Press. 282 pages; photographs; maps; notes; index; $27.95.

When the men of E Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 4th Infantry Division, stepped out of a Higgins boat into waist-deep water at Utah Beach, Normandy, early on Tuesday, June 6,1944, they were accompanied by a short, slender man with a dented nose.

He carried a cane in one hand and a Colt .45 automatic pistol in the other, and wore a knit olive-drab cap because he hated heavy Army helmets. At 57 years of age, he was the oldest man and the only general to land on a Normandy beach in the first wave. Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., oldest son of the 26th President and a veteran of World War I and action in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, became one of the heroes of the massive, longawaited Allied invasion of northern France.

Roosevelt, the assistant commander of Maj. Gen. Raymond O. Barton's 4th Infantry Division, had to fight for a role in the critical early hours of the "longest day." Barton was reluctant because of Roosevelt's physical condition. He had been diagnosed with arthritis in 1941, a condition resulting from his receiving a machine-gun bullet in the leg near Soissons in the summer of 1918. And he had been recently felled by a fever that reached 103 degrees, developing into pneumonia.

After a verbal request was denied, Roosevelt filed a formal written request. "I would love to do this," he pleaded. Barton voiced reservations about what the troops would think of being led by an officer who needed a walking stick, and Roosevelt replied, "They'll figure that if a general is with them, it can't be that rough. It will steady the men to know I'm with them, to see me plodding along with my cane." Barton wavered, his deputy persisted, and the divisional commander eventually relented. "When I said good-bye to Ted in England," Barton said later, "I never expected to see him alive again."

Roosevelt's exploits on Utah Beach that historic day are related in detail by former broadcast journalist H. Paul Jeffers in this first biography of the soldier, politician, explorer, activist, prolific writer, scholar, father and husband whom Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. called the bravest man he knew. It is exhaustive, gracefully written and engaging-a topnotch study of an American hero.

He was an inspiration to all on Utah Beach. After realizing that the division had landed in the wrong sector (a mile south of its assigned beaches), he said, "We'll start the war from right here." Striding around and ignoring enemy fire, just as his famous Rough Rider father had done at Kettle Hill in Cuba almost 46 years before, Gen. Roosevelt waved his cane while calmly directing traffic and exhorting the scared, wet troops to keep moving. He led groups off the beach, over the seawall and set them up inland. His gallant leadership earned him the Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously after he died of a heart attack a month later. The citation said that Theodore Roosevelt Jr. "contributed substantially to the successful establishment of the beachhead in France. …