By D. Allan Kerr
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On Valentine’s Day 1884, Theodore Roosevelt’s wife and his mother both died within hours of each other, in the same house, from separate ailments.
His wife died from kidney failure two days after giving birth to their daughter, while his mother died of typhoid fever. Roosevelt was just 25 years old at the time.
The scion of a wealthy, aristocratic New York City family, the devastated Roosevelt handed over his infant daughter to be raised by his sister and headed out west to live the life of a cowboy.
He built and operated a ranch in North Dakota and befriended the famous lawman Seth Bullock, later immortalized in “Deadwood,” one of the greatest TV shows ever produced.
After a couple of years Roosevelt returned to New York to pursue his political destiny.
Roosevelt is the only person in history to be awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Medal of Honor.
The Nobel prize was, of course, presented for his role in bringing diplomats from Russia and Japan to New Hampshire’s Seacoast to sign the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905, ending what was then the largest war the world had ever known.
The Medal of Honor was issued in recognition of Roosevelt’s heroism in leading his Rough Riders cavalry regiment during their famous charge up San Juan Hill in 1898. However, the medal wasn’t awarded until 2001, more than 80 years after he died.
In 1944, his son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., was also awarded the Medal of Honor for leading troops as a brigadier general in the Utah Beach landings at Normandy.
He was the only general in the first wave of troops to hit the beach on D-Day, and at 56 years of age was also the oldest soldier to take part. He died of a heart attack a month later.
Since Teddy Jr.’s decoration was also posthumous, and Teddy Sr.’s wasn’t awarded until decades after they were both dead, neither father nor son ever knew either one had received the nation’s highest military honor.
In American history there has only been one other father-and-son duo to win the Medal of Honor – Gen. Douglas MacArthur, also of World War II fame, and his father, Arthur MacArthur, who received the hallowed medal as an 18-year-old lieutenant during the Civil War.
One of Gen. MacArthur’s most reliable aides throughout the 1930s was a bright young officer named Dwight D. Eisenhower.
At the beginning of 1941, the year America wound up entering World War II, Eisenhower was a lieutenant colonel. By the end of 1944 he was a five-star general and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe after orchestrating the Normandy Invasion.
MacArthur once called Eisenhower, later a two-term president of the United States, “the best secretary I ever had.”
Edward A. Carter Jr. was also awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, although he lived for nearly two decades after his heroic actions.
Carter’s delayed recognition was due to the color of his skin because, incredibly, no Medals of Honor were presented to Black Americans during World War II.
It wasn’t until more than 50 years after the end of the war, following a review ordered by President Bill Clinton, that Black American World War II heroes were presented this long-overdue recognition. Only one of the seven honorees lived to receive his medal in person.
Unfortunately, Carter was long dead when the 1997 ceremony occurred, which is especially tragic since his career illustrates the systemic racism of our armed forces during that time.
Carter had extensive military and combat experience even before the U.S. enter the war.
He ran away from home to join the Chinese army as a teenager (his parents were missionaries there) to fight Japanese forces and then served in the famed Lincoln Brigade as a American volunteer during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
Despite this background, and even though Carter enlisted in the Army in September 1941 – before Pearl Harbor – he wasn’t allowed to join the fight until after December 1944, when a shortage of manpower forced Eisenhower to call up reinforcements from all races.
In March 1945, the tank Carter was riding in a German combat zone came under attack. When he led a three-man team to check out the enemy position, two of his comrades were killed and the third severely wounded.
Carter proceeded alone across an open field, took three bullets to the arm and continued forward. Another wound to his leg knocked him down, then an additional bullet went thru his hand. Carter continued to crawl toward the enemy.
Heavy fire finally forced him to seek cover behind a bank. He laid in the field for two hours until the Germans sent an eight-man patrol to finish him off.
Carter singlehandedly killed six of those soldiers, took the other two prisoner and used them as human shields to return to the American side. His report and those of his prisoners helped the Allied advance.
Although recognized as a war hero, Carter was not allowed to reenlist in 1949 because of his earlier role in the Lincoln Brigade, which was believed to have Communist ties. He died of lung cancer in 1963 at just 47 years of age.
It’s amazing Carter’s life hasn’t already been made into a Hollywood movie.
Charles Durning was one of those ubiquitous character actors you’ve seen in countless movies.
You likely know him as Jessica Lange’s rotund father (and Dustin Hoffman’s love interest) in “Tootsie”; as Gov. Pappy O’Daniel in “O Brother Where Art Thou”; as a crooked cop in “The Sting”; or as a fried frog-leg restaurant chain kingpin chasing Kermit the Frog in the original “Muppet Movie.”
Durning once recalled of the Normandy invasion, “I was the second man off my barge, and the first and third man got killed.”
He was wounded in action on three occasions and earned both the Silver Star and the Bronze Star.
Durning often played politicians during his acting career and on film once played a fictional U.S. president and at least twice portrayed state governors.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt were not only distant cousins who occupied the Oval Office, they also both served as New York governors, 30 years apart.
FDR’s wife Eleanor was also a distant cousin, and Theodore’s niece. Since Eleanor’s father was no longer alive when she married FDR, it was her Uncle Teddy who “gave her away” at their wedding.
Which brings us full circle back to Theodore Roosevelt.
And this is why, in my mind, there should be no such thing as a boring history teacher.
(Nov. 29, 2020)
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