“Sheltering in the cover of a newly arrived tank, the general gathered with other commanders and determined famously that: ‘We’ll start the war from right here.’”
By Tim Brady
IT WAS NEAR 1:30 a.m. on the morning on the June 6, 1944 when the order came for the troops aboard the attack transport USS Barnett to climb aboard the various landing craft that either dangled from the ship’s side or floated in the choppy seas of the English Channel below.
Troops shuffled across the decks towards their assigned transports that would carry them to Utah Beach and began the perilous descent down the water-soaked and slippery rope ladders attached to the hull of the transport. By this point, it was a well-practiced routine, but one that was made immeasurably more difficult by tension, darkness, and the rolling sea, not to mention the overloaded packs slung over the shoulders of the jittery GIs performing the maneuver.
In a cabin below deck the highest-ranking general to take part in the first wave of the landings at Normandy was also feeling his nerves. He was Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt Jr., son of the 26th U.S. president – politician, tycoon, combat veteran and one-time commander of the U.S. 26th Infantry Division. At 56, he’d also be the oldest American to storm the beaches that day.
His long-time aide and jeep driver, Marcus Stevenson, came below to tell him that it was time to board the landing craft. The general was in a testy mood — he couldn’t find his life belt. When reminded that he’d been given three belts already, the general muttered something under his breath and headed up onto the deck.
A decorated First World War battalion commander, Roosevelt was about to embark on his third major amphibious landing of World War Two. A fighting general, he’d probably seen more frontline action since 1941 than any other of his rank in the U.S. Army. But this time, things would be different. D-Day was the biggest and most dramatic moment of the war and the aging soldier could be forgiven for being a little rattled at the thought of a French shoreline bristling with German guns, pillboxes, and razor-wired obstacles.
It wasn’t that he had serious qualms about the operation or his ability to lead the men in his division. In fact, Roosevelt had been lobbying for this assignment for weeks. He had only been allowed in this first wave with extreme misgivings from his commander, General Raymond “Tubby” Barton of the U.S. 4th Division. Roosevelt had argued that his experience and steady nerves would have a stabilizing influence on the young soldiers going into Utah Beach that morning. He had already waded ashore onto beaches in North Africa and Sicily; he had stood his ground in the face of Rommel’s tanks at El Guettar in Tunisia. Roosevelt even served in the First World War at Cantigny, Soissons, and in the Argonne.
Still, Barton had misgivings. It wasn’t just Roosevelt’s age that would be a problem. The general was so arthritic and gimpy from old wounds that he needed a cane to get around. He had only recently been discharged from a British hospital after spending three weeks recovering from a virulent strain of pneumonia.
But perhaps of even greater concern to Barton was the fact that Roosevelt was a member of one of America’s most powerful political dynasties. The eldest son of a beloved president, Ted Jr. was also the cousin of the nation’s current chief executive, Franklin D. Roosevelt, now in the midst of his third term. Beyond that, Theodore had an impressive resume of his own. He was a former Secretary of the Navy and also the ambassador general to both Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In 1924, he’d come within a hair of the governorship of the State of New York. A popular public intellectual and adventurer, Roosevelt also trekked the Himalayas and Southeast Asia, and had written a shelf-worth of books. He was even an editor at Doubleday Publishing house.
How would it look if “Tubby” Barton turned out to be the commander who sent the son of the man whose visage had recently been carved into rock at Mt. Rushmore to his death on the beaches of Normandy?
But then again, how do you tell a Roosevelt no?
On the deck of the Bartlett that morning in June, Roosevelt approached his landing craft at the ship’s rail. He wouldn’t have to negotiate the rope ladder, but to get in the boat still required a five-foot leap. When a soldier reached out to help, Roosevelt swatted the hand away with his walking stick. “Get the hell out of my way,” he said. “I can very well jump in there myself.”
Roosevelt hit the beaches at 6:30 a.m. with the first wave. Except the Americans were in the wrong place by about a mile. Sheltering in the cover of a newly arrived tank, the general gathered with other commanders and determined famously that: “We’ll start the war from right here.”
After personally scouting the beach for causeways inland, Roosevelt led the 8th Infantry up off the killing ground and into the enemy’s rear. Terrified GIs recalled that seeing their aging general strolling about under heavy fire, cane in hand, gave them the courage to charge forward.
After the war, Omar Bradley was asked what act of heroism he’d witnessed in the conflict he remembered most. “Ted Roosevelt on Utah Beach,” was his answer.
Roosevelt died just six weeks later at Méautis, France. It wasn’t an enemy bullet that felled him; it was a heart attack.
Tim Brady is the award-winning author of His Father’s Son: The Life of General Ted Roosevelt, Jr. Brady’s other works include Twelve Desperate Miles and A Death in San Pietro. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has written a number of PBS documentaries, and helped develop the series Liberty! The American Revolution, winner of the Peabody Award. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.