A Gold Star US President's Sacrifice on Bastille Day

U.S troops march down the Champs Elysees avenue, with the Arc de Triomphe in background, during the Bastille Day parade in Paris on July 14, 2017.  (AP/Photo/Markus Schreiber)
U.S troops march down the Champs Elysees avenue, with the Arc de Triomphe in background, during the Bastille Day parade in Paris on July 14, 2017. (AP/Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Brian Thompson is the Manager of Military and Veteran Programs at Lockheed Martin Corp.

Over the skies of France, on July 14, 1918, an American squadron flew among the clouds in a tight formation like a flock of migrating birds. When they were above the German occupied French village of Chamery, German planes attacked.

The planes circled each other like a swarm of angry bees with propellers buzzing and machine guns firing. The Americans broke away, retreated into the clouds, and returned to their airfield. But one brave American pilot continued to duel with the Germans and didn't make it back.

Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of former President Theodore Roosevelt, was missing in action.

News didn't travel fast in the era of cable telegraphy. The former president was at Sagamore Hill, his home in New York, frustrated that he wasn't over there in the fight.

Roosevelt may have been the first statesman to earn a Nobel Peace Prize for having negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War, but he preferred the taste of war over peace. In Ken Burn's documentary, "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," Washington Post columnist George Will said, "Theodore Roosevelt, we should say this bluntly, liked war."

He remains the only president to have received a Medal of Honor for his heroic actions leading the charge of Rough Riders up San Juan Hill. And with American entry into World War I, Roosevelt dreamed of leading troops into battle, kicking the Germans out of France, and winning further glory.

He even asked to command a division of volunteers, but President Woodrow Wilson denied the request. Roosevelt was depressed, but he took solace that all four of his sons volunteered for the fight and proved themselves in combat.

On July 16, 1918, Roosevelt's pride quickly turned to desolation when he received unconfirmed news reports that Quentin was missing, and the next day it was confirmed in a cable from General John J. Pershing, commander of American Expeditionary forces in France. The Roosevelt family held out hope that Quentin would be ok.

But Edmund Morris writes in his critically acclaimed three volume biography of the 26th president that Roosevelt told one well-wisher that "Quentin is dead." Roosevelt's intuition proved correct; on July 20, 1918, he received a telegram from President Wilson confirming that Quentin had been killed in action.

Quentin became the only son of a U.S. president to be killed in combat, and his death made front page headlines. The condolences poured into Sagamore Hill from dignitaries, family friends, citizens, and soldiers that had served with Quentin.

"Quentin died as had lived and served, nobly and unselfishly; in the full strength and vigor of his youth, fighting the enemy in clean combat," Pershing wrote to Roosevelt, "You may well be proud of your gift to the nation in supreme sacrifice."

Roosevelt was no stranger to grief as his mother and first wife died on the same day. But his bereavement over his son's death proved too much for even the energetic believer of the strenuous life--a philosophy of living according to Roosevelt, where no individual shall "not shrink from danger, hardship, or bitter toil."

Roosevelt displayed stoic strength in his public speeches and statements but experienced overwhelming grief in private. Morris writes that Roosevelt "was heard sobbing in the stable at Sagamore Hill, with his face buried in the mane of his son's pony" and quietly repeating Quentin's childhood nickname, "Poor Quentyqee!"

The president who romanticized war showed signs of regret. In one letter, he wrote: "To feel that one has inspired a boy to conduct that has resulted in his death has a pretty serious side for a father."

With the 1920 presidential election approaching, "a group of Republicans and former Progressives called to sound him out about running," writes Morris. But even the once ambitious Roosevelt expressed indifference and said, "Since Quentin's death, the world seems to have shut down on me."

Roosevelt's health shut down as well, and he was dead six months after losing his son. The official medical diagnosis would indicate Roosevelt died of a heart attack, according to Morris, but it could be said that he could "have died of a broken heart."

Quentin wasn't the only Roosevelt lost to war. His eldest son, Teddy Jr. died from a heart attack in World War II, six days after leading the first wave of soldiers onto the beaches of Normandy. Like his father, Teddy Jr. received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions.

Quentin and Teddy Jr. are buried side by side in France at the Normandy American Cemetery. "Unless men are willing to fight and die for great ideals, including love of country," wrote their father near the end of World War I, "ideals will vanish, and the world will become one huge sty of materialism."

As Bastille Day is celebrated today with parades, fireworks and champagne toasts, there are over 60,000 Americans interred in battlefield cemeteries across France. That sacrifice allows revelers to raise a glass to Fraternity, Liberty, and Equality.

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