The tallest warrior on the Longest Day
Growing up, I knew that my dad, as a teenager, fought in Europe in a war they called “World War II.” Because dad never spoke about it until recently, I was even more curious about what happened. But, my fascination with World War II really began when I saw the movie The Longest Day as a young boy.
To this day, I am still intrigued by the history of the war. Young American men — still boys really — who had never been far from home, were sent to a far away land to free a people they had never met. Courageous warriors charged onto a beach through a hail of gunfire in order to stop the spreading threat of evil in Europe. This action-packed movie starring Hollywood greats like John Wayne, Sean Connery and Richard Burton depicts the graphic details of the longest day, June 6, 1944, otherwise called D-Day. The movie is filled with all the dramatic elements of a fictional war movie — guns, blood, death, tears and heroes — but the story it reveals is all too real.
Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. is portrayed in The Longest Day by actor Henry Fonda. Gen. Roosevelt was the son of President (and Colonel) Theodore Roosevelt, who led a charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. Just like his father, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was no stranger to battle. He first fought in World War I, along with his brothers. His brother Quentin, a fighter pilot, was killed in action. Gen. Roosevelt was crippled from the physical wounds of World War I, but he was not finished fighting.
Years later, at the age of 56, Gen. Roosevelt demanded to be a part of the invasion of Europe with the 8th Infantry. His request was denied twice because of his age. Finally, he put his request in writing, and it was granted. His reasoning for returning to battle was that having a general land in the first wave of attacks at Normandy would boost morale for the troops. He was right. He said: “They’ll figure that if a general is going in, it can’t be that rough.” His leadership did encourage the young men of America to fight and to fight hard. Roosevelt not only limped from the wounds of the first war, he also had a bad heart condition. No matter his age or his lack of peak physical condition, he was determined to lead the new generation of warriors — who became the Greatest Generation — as they took on the Nazis. His son, Quentin Roosevelt II (named after Teddy Jr.’s late brother, the fighter pilot) was also on the beaches of Normandy that day. They were the only father and son duo known to fight on D-Day.
Roosevelt and his boys were part of “Operation Overlord”. The invasion would give Allied Forces a chance to break the Nazi’s hold on Western Europe, and it was expected to come at an extremely high cost. And, it did. On the day the operation launched, even the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, was uncertain that the invasion would succeed. He penned a note, to be released in the event of failure, stating that all blame was entirely his.
Bombers did their best to pave the way.
The B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-24 Liberators, and B-26 Marauders filled the sky. Their task was to drop their 500 pound bombs right at the water’s edge, to stun or kill the Germans in their pillboxes, forts, and trenches
Like his father before him, General Roosevelt led American forces as they stormed enemy fortifications. This assault on Utah Beach was part the greatest invasion in history. He was the only general who landed in the first wave of troops. Most people would have called it a suicide mission. Armed with only a walking stick and a pistol, he led several groups of twenty-somethings up the beach and inland.
General Omar Bradley described Roosevelt’s actions as the “single greatest act of courage” he witnessed in the entire war. His presence made a difference on the beach. Like his father before him, he led men into battle, rather than followed.
This Greatest Generation might have been young in age before the invasion, but they grew up quickly that day. Thousands of American boys stepped onto French soil, beginning the liberation of Western Europe. These young patriots came from every state and territory throughout the fruited plain. Many had never been but a few miles from home, but they went ashore and overseas to unknown, foreign lands. Our boys laid claim to the beachheads inch by bloody inch.
The Rangers climbed the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc under heavy, brutal German fire. They had to. Their courage, leadership and commitment to freedom ultimately cracked the Nazi grip on Western Europe.
D-Day was the beginning of the liberation of Western Europe. Allied forces freed an entire continent of peoples from oppression and wanted nothing in return. Americans did not go to Normandy to conquer. They went and they sacrificed to ensure that Hitler would no longer be a threat. Hitler didn’t believe this was ever possible. He was certain that the soft children of America could never become soldiers. He was certain that the Nazi youth would always outfight the Boy Scouts. He was wrong. The Boy Scouts took them on D-Day.
Our boys won freedom for the world that day, but at tremendous cost. The sand was stained red with the blood of young American warriors and that of our allies. In all, 9,387 GIs lie in rest in the U.S. cemetery at Normandy. Buried on the cliffs, their white crosses and their Stars of David shine and glisten in the morning sunshine over the now peaceful Omaha and Utah Beaches.
One of the buried is the tallest warrior of the longest day, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Fittingly, he is buried next to his brother Quentin. Quentin is the only World War I veteran buried at the Normandy cemetery. General Roosevelt, who died of a heart attack shortly after the Normandy invasion, later received the Medal of Honor for his heroics.
Winston Churchill said, “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Today we express our gratitude to the Greatest Generation of Americans who defied danger and fearlessly fought for freedom. They were the young breed, the rare breed, the American breed who took to the treacherous beaches of Normandy under the leadership of a remarkable man who stood tall to lead his troops into battle on the longest day: Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
And that’s just the way it is.