The oldest man on Utah Beach
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
75 years ago today, only one general landed by sea with the first wave of troops to brave the beaches of Normandy. The man who led the 8th Infantry Regiment and the 70th Tank Battalion at Utah Beach was not a young and exuberant West Point graduate–at fifty-six years old, this General was actually the oldest man in the invasion. He was also the only man to participate in the Normandy invasion whose son was also on the beaches that day, among the first soldiers to climb from the sea at Omaha Beach.
Slowed by a heart condition and forced to use a cane because of lingering arthritis, the general nonetheless took charge after discovering that the sea had forced landing craft approximately a mile off course, walking down the beach with his cane in one hand and his pistol in the other to reconnoiter the area and determine a plan of attack. Determining to advance from his current position rather than attempting to move further down the beachhead, the general told his men, “We’ll start the war from right here!”
As artillery fell around the troops, sending chunks of sand and earth flying, the general stood on the beach and greeted every regiment that landed after his own with a personal welcome, inspiring the scared soldiers with his confidence and making them laugh with stories of his famous father. One soldier who was there that day later recounted that seeing the general walking around, seemingly indifferent to the chaos and enemy fire wizzing through the air around him, inspired him with the courage to do his own duty. “If the general is like that,” the soldier reasoned, “it can’t be that bad.”
By adapting to his position, modifying his division’s original plan, and personally overseeing troop movements, the general enabled his men to achieve their mission objectives by coming ashore and attacking north behind the beach toward its original objective. Years after the war, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff General Omar Bradley was asked to name the single most heroic action he had ever seen in combat, he answered without hesitation, “Ted Roosevelt in Utah Beach.”
Theodore Roosevelt Junior, son of President Theodore Roosevelt, was recommended for promotion to the two-star rank of Major General in command of the 90th Infantry Division just over a month after his heroic actions at Utah Beach. When Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower called the following day morning to approve the recommendation, he was informed that Roosevelt had passed away overnight. His pallbearers were Generals J. Lawton Collins, Courtney Nick Hodges, Clarence R. Huebner, Raymond O. Barton, Omar N. Bradley, and George S. Patton.
On 28 September 1944, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was awarded the Medal of Honor. The citation reads:
"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."