The Bravest Man I Ever Knew

D-Day: June 6, 1944

The bullets whizzed past his head, contorting the air around them as they came and went. Great geysers of sand erupted about him as shells and shrapnel crashed down on the beach. A man with a cane stood erect while others ducked and covered. He yelled at them to get up and get moving.

The explosions were so loud they couldn’t hear his orders, but they saw him waving his walking stick toward the enemy. They thrust themselves up and moved forward as directed. They couldn’t let an old man show more bravery than them.

It was June 6th, 1944 and having just minutes earlier scurried down the ropes of the warship, the cane-aided, old general hit Utah Beach with the men of the 4th Division. He was the oldest American soldier in the first wave, and, incredibly, the only general.

In fact, his son Quentin was also in the first wave in another Division, making them the only father and son to hit the hell-like beaches on that fateful day—another fact that would have made the general’s father proud.

Imagine that your father is one of the most famous men in history, a legend in his own time. And you, by an accident of birth were given the same name. Imagine your father was known as a statesman, a warrior, and a leader of men, a world famous traveler, hunter, writer, and historian.

This was the burden carried by a certain man more than seventy-five ago; he could never equal his father’s reputation—no one ever could, nor achieve the same greatness. He did, however, learn from his father’s example and follow the lessons of character, fortitude and bravery that he had been taught. He served in the First World War, much to his father’s pleasure, and in the years that followed, pursued a successful business career and even held political office.  

On December 7th, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked the United States at its naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, bringing the Americans into World War II. The man with the famous father had joined the army several years before the war and was eventually raised to the rank of Brigadier General after heroically fighting in Africa and Sicily.

D-Day landing craft, boats and seagoing vessels

General George Patton, penning a letter to his wife in 1944, wrote that,  “He was one of the bravest men I ever knew.” The man with the famous father was placed in command of the 4th Infantry Division in preparation for the Normandy invasion on D-Day. The fifty-seven year old general walked with a cane due to arthritis from a 1st World War wound and he had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart problem, known only to his doctor and himself.

Urging the men on with his cane and example, the redoubtable and fearless Brigadier ignored the bullets and shells shredding the beach. Realizing he and his men had been dropped off nearly a mile from their objective, undaunted, he famously quipped, “We’ll start the war from right here!”

By the end of the day, the German positions had been taken and the man with the famous name would once again honor the family tradition and make his own name a by-word among the heroes of WWII.

He was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration possible, for his actions on D-Day. He never knew of the award, for he died of heart failure, asleep, in his jeep, several weeks after the landing. In one of the wonderful ironies of history, his father was also posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for service in 1898 -The brave generals’ name?

Operation Overlord

Theodore Roosevelt, Junior, son of the President of the United States

His father, Theodore Roosevelt, placed a premium on family life. He had adored his own father (also Theodore) who had told the family stories around the dinner table and in family gatherings and travels. Young Theodore learned about his Georgia uncles who were Confederate war heroes and about his father’s respect and admiration for Abraham Lincoln.

When he had his own children, including during his time as President, he did the same—reading and telling stories around the family dinner table. His oldest son, the third generation of Theodores, heard the stories and tales of his own national heritage and the courage of his father.

Vivid accounts of sacrifice and der’ring-do (acts of great daring) that his father, the President, had deftly performed were retold many times at family repasts. When Ted’s crowded hour came on D-Day in 1944, he was ready—courage, sacrifice, and patriotism were firmly set upon his mind and in his blood from the family teaching.

Those who came before us keenly understood the importance of relating history to the next generation. They believed that it was not only necessary but also indispensable to the survival of the republic. The next generation of heroes will not be made in front of the television or computer screen, but will rather hail from the trials and tribulations that made their forebears the hearty stock from which they descend.   

Artist Rendering of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
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