Something for the weekend. High Flight. One hundred years ago on Bastille Day 1918, Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt, youngest child of President Theodore Roosevelt, died in combat at 20 years old. He shared with his father a brilliant mind, an exuberant spirit and the ability to make countless friends wherever he went. All of Roosevelt’s four sons served in combat in World War I, a true Lion’s Brood.
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s World War I Ace of Aces, knew Roosevelt and described him in his memoirs:
“As President Roosevelt’s son he had rather a difficult task to fit himself in with the democratic style of living which is necessary in the intimate life of an aviation camp. Every one who met him for the first time expected him to have the airs and superciliousness of a spoiled boy. This notion was quickly lost after the first glimpse one had of Quentin. Gay, hearty and absolutely square in everything he said or did, Quentin Roosevelt was one of the most popular fellows in the group. We loved him purely for his own natural self.
“He was reckless to such a degree that his commanding officers had to caution him repeatedly about the senselessness of his lack of caution. His bravery was so notorious that we all knew he would either achieve some great spectacular success or be killed in the attempt. Even the pilots in his own flight would beg him to conserve himself and wait for a fair opportunity for a victory. But Quentin would merely laugh away all serious advice.”
He had his crowded hour, he died at the crest of life, in the glory of the dawn.
Theodore Roosevelt on his son Quentin
On July 14, Roosevelt and three other American flyers were jumped by seven German planes:
September 5, 1918
FATHER DEAR,: –
You asked me if I knew Quentin Roosevelt. Yes, I knew him very well indeed, and had been associated with him ever since I came to France and he was one of the finest and most courageous boys I ever knew. I was in the fight when he was shot down and saw the whole thing.
Four of us were out on an early patrol and we had just crossed the lines looking for Boche observation machines, when we ran into seven Fokker Chasse planes. They had the altitude and the advantage of the Sun on us. It was very cloudy and there was a strong wind blowing us farther across the lines all the time. The leader of our formation turned and tried to get back out, but they attacked before we reached the lines, and in a few seconds had completely broken up our formation and the fight developed into a general free-for-all. I tried to keep an eye on all our fellows but we were hopelessly separated and out-numbered nearly two to one. About a half a mile away I saw one of our planes with three Boche on him, and he seemed to be having a pretty hard time with them, so I shook the two I was maneuvering with and tried to get over to him, but before I could reach him, his machine turned over on its back and plunged down out of control. I realized it was too late to be of any assistance and as none of our machines were in sight, I made for a bank of clouds to try to gain altitude on the Huns, and when I came back out, they had reformed, but there were only six of them, so I believe we must have gotten one.
I waited around about ten minutes to see if I could pickup any of our fellows, but they had disappeared, so I came on home, dodging from cloud to cloud for fear of running into another Boche formation. Of course, at the time of the fight I did not know who the pilot was I had seen go down, but as Quentin did not come back, it must have been him. His loss was one of the severest blows we have ever had in the Squadron, but he certainly died fighting, for any one of us could have gotten away as soon as the scrap started with the clouds as they were that morning. I have tried several times to write to Col. Roosevelt but it is practically impossible for me to write a letter of condolence, but if I am lucky enough to get back to the States, I expect to go to see him.
His German foes buried him with full military honors and paid tribute to his valor:
“The aviator of the American Squadron, Quentin Roosevelt, in trying to break through the airzone over the Marne, met the death of a hero. A formation of seven German airplanes, while crossing the Marne, saw in the neighborhood of Dormans a group of twelve American fighting airplanes and attacked them. A lively air battle began, in which one American (Quentin) in particular persisted in attacking. The principal feature of the battle consisted in an air duel between the American and a German fighting pilot named Sergeant Greper. After a short struggle, Greper succeeded in bringing the brave American just before his gun-sights. After a few shots the plane apparently got out of his control; the American began to fall and struck the ground near the village of Chamery, about ten kilometers north of the Marne. The American flier was killed by two shots through the head. Papers in his pocket showed him to be Quentin Roosevelt, of the United States army. His effects are being taken care of in order to be sent to his relatives. He was buried by German aviators with military honors.”
His parents were of course devastated. Theodore Roosevelt never completely recovered from the shock and it may have hastened his death. However, he kept his private grief private and issued this statement to the press: “Quentin’s mother and I are very glad that he got to the front and had the chance to render some service to his country and to show the stuff that was in him before his fate befell him.” Quentin’s mother summed up Quentin’s life when he went off to the War: “It was hard when Quentin went. But you can’t bring up boys to be eagles, and expect them to turn out sparrows.”