June 13, 2014

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

How the son of a president proved himself

Being the son of an American president comes with as many pressures as it does privileges, especially when you’re his first boy and you bear his name.

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., felt that his dad, President Teddy Roosevelt, demanded more of him than of his three younger brothers. The boyhood levity expressed in his broad Howdy-Doody smile, tanned skin and light eyes was never fully unhinged from the weight of expectation.

One day when Ted Jr. was about 9, his dad gave him a rifle. When he asked if it was real, his father loaded it and shot a bullet into the ceiling.

It wasn’t long before the family faced the glare of the national spotlight. Teddy Roosevelt began his presidency the day after Ted Jr.’s 14th birthday.

Ted wasn’t the academic type, but he attended his dad’s alma mater, Harvard, and plodded along. After college, Ted worked in the steel and carpet business and then became a branch manager of an investment bank. He was making good money and, it seemed, a name for himself, yet he was badgered by questions of legacy and leadership, thoughts of the renegade who walked softly and carried a big stick.  

When World War I began, Ted felt compelled to leave his job and volunteer for service. He fought in several major battles, and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. The war refined the young father of three, filling him with newfound purpose.

Back home, Ted enjoyed considerable political success until World War II beckoned and the 53-year-old returned to active duty. He was soon promoted, and eventually became known as a general who often visited the front lines.

When D-Day neared, Ted was not assigned to the front lines, which he argued several times and then formally petitioned, writing: “I believe I can contribute materially … by going in with the assault companies. Furthermore, I personally know both officers and men of these advance units and believe that it will steady them to know that I am with them.”

At 56, Ted became the oldest man in the Normandy invasion. He was the only general on D-Day to land by sea with the first wave of troops. He was also the only man to serve with his son on D-Day.

Ted was one of the first soldiers off his landing craft at Utah Beach early on that first Thursday in June. He skillfully redirected the men when he realized they had landed more than a mile south of their target, maneuvering the beach with a cane and a pistol. He didn’t appear deterred by his arthritis and heart troubles when he declared, “We’ll start the war from right here!”  

As June pressed on, Ted guided his troops and kept them calm, reciting poetry and sharing stories about his father. He died of a heart attack five weeks after D-Day, shortly after being captured by Germans.

I think of his story this month, as we mark D-Day’s 70th anniversary. I imagine the Hail Marys chanted as 20-year-old men neared Normandy, feeling the spray of the English Channel. They responded to the terror in their hearts with prayer.

“I am not a religious man,” Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lee Wolverton told his battalion hours before the D-Day parachute dropped them behind enemy lines. “But I am going to ask you to pray with me for the success of the mission before us. And while we pray, let us get on our knees and not look down but up with faces raised to the sky so that we can see God and ask his blessing in what we are about to do.”

Seven decades later, we salute these men. At the heart of their bravery was belief. We honor their memory, and we look up.

(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and editor of SisterStory.org, the official website of National Catholic Sisters Week. She can be reached at www.ReadChristina.com.)

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