Landing at D-Day required insane bravery. Soldiers knew long before the day that naval artillery would be screaming past them as they waded through 45-degree water toward machine gun nests while under pre-registered artillery fire. So what would it take for a 56-year-old man to demand to land in the first wave? With his cane?
A Roosevelt. It would take a Roosevelt. Specifically, it took Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt III, whose son also landed that day. And he earned a Medal of Honor for his actions and promotion to major general and division command.
The audacity of Theodore Roosevelt III
Theo the III was often known as Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. since he was the eldest son of the famous president. He joined the Army as America entered World War I and quickly rose to lieutenant colonel and led a regiment in battle. He continued a reserve military career and returned to politics after the war, making him an influential member of his influential family.
When America prepared for World War II, he quickly volunteered to return to military service in April 1941 despite being 53 at the time. He served in Africa and earned his third and fourth silver stars at the Battle of Kasserine Pass.
Gen. George S. Patton would later write to Roosevelt's wife, "He was one of the bravest men I ever knew."
So, by D-Day, Theo III was a bonafide legend with a lot of political heft to boot. And he was a deputy commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division. And so the 56-year-old went to his boss and asked to land with the first wave of troops. It would make him the oldest man and only general to land in the first wave.
His commanding general, Maj. Gen. Barton promptly said no. Roosevelt asked again while intimating that he would reach out to his cousin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt if he had to. Barton was still reluctant, but when Theo sent a request in writing, he acquiesced.
Pretty audacious of Roosevelt, if you ask me. Barton later said, "When I bade him goodbye in England, I never expected to see him again alive."
Roosevelt at Utah Beach
The old man of D-Day did, indeed, land with the first wave, and he needed a cane to make it up the beach. But when he got there, he was quite glad he made the trip. Confusion with the landings made it clear that the pre-invasion plan didn't actually work.
So, under fire and in the moment, Roosevelt changed the plan on the fly and began personally linking up with platoons as they disembarked and led them into the positions he wanted them. He made the trip from the shore up the beach over and over, returning to the water as a new wave of American troops neared and then moving forward with them.
Other generals later credited Roosevelt with making Utah Beach more successful. Barton, the division commander, was shocked to find Roosevelt alive but grateful for his actions. Barton soon had to do something similar, directing traffic off the beach amidst serious traffic jams.
And Omar Bradley, after the war, said that Roosevelt's work at Utah Beach was the bravest thing he had ever seen.
Roosevelt was recommended for a Distinguished Service Cross, promotion to major general, and division command. But he died of a sudden heart attack on July 12, 1944, right before he received the news.
His Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to a Medal of Honor.