Quentin Roosevelt - probably at 3rd AIC Issoudun
American fighter pilot Quentin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt's youngest son, was shot down and killed more than 90 years ago on Bastille Day, July 14th, 1918, becoming the most famous American casualty of World War I. He was in France for just short of a year. He spent most of that time training and then just a few months at the front. And then over the space of five days he had his first victory and the end of his life. During this time, he and the rest of the 1st Pursuit Group were based in the villages of Touquin, Saints and Mauperthuis, France. And so on July 14, 2008, these same three French villages commemorated the 90th anniversary of the United States Air Service in France during World War I.
"Quentin Roosevelt: A Sketch with Letters" was edited and published by his brother Kermit Roosevelt in 1921 a few years after Quentin died. It is a reproduction of his letters written home as well as letters in tribute to him after his passing made headlines around the world.
Roosevelt was a good looking kid. Looking at photos of him, it is hard to think anything other than he must have been a delightful person to be around. He had a penchant for joy and was documented as being able to chug a bottle of champagne in one gulp and then repeat the task if someone else was paying for the bubbly. His face was etched with some of the same character lines that graced his father's. And they shared the same twinkle in their eyes. Quentin looked young though a bit older than his actual age of 20 years. He wrote about being in the City of Lights as it was going through the war:
"[Paris] is not the Paris that we used to love, the Paris of five years past. The streets are there, but the crowds are different. There are no more young men in the crowds unless in uniform. Everywhere you see women in black, and there is no more cheerful shouting and laughing. Many, many of the women have a haunted look in their eyes, as if they had seen something too terrible for forgetfulness." p.42
Reading through the book, one cannot but be struck by the insight of a well-educated, smart, thoughtful 20 year old young man. And indeed, many praised his intellect, saying that he had the capacity for thought that was like his father's. Author Thomas Fleming posits that Teddy Roosevelt was grooming Quentin as his political successor, even taking Quentin's fiancee Flora on a trip to Canada to give her exposure to the political process. That political mind must have pulled him inexorably to France and to join in a fight he felt the United States was sitting out of for the wrong reasons.
"We are a pretty sordid lot aren't we, to want to sit looking on while England and France fight our battles and pan gold into our pockets? I wondered, as I sat by my fire, whether there are any dreams in our land any more." p.32
He left behind a heart-broken family including his fiancee Flora Whitney who was the heir of not only the wealthy Whitney family, but the Vanderbilts too. The pair had just gotten engaged before Quentin dropped out of Harvard, memorized an eye chart to pass an Army Air Service physical exam and headed over to France.
He wrote letters (and an occasional cablegram) back to his parents from training camp, from Paris, from trains, from hospitals and at many opportunities, numbering and dating them and then signing them "Quent". There was always an origination address. Well, not an address, but a town or locale, probably enough for his parents to locate him on the map. Those who knew him praised him as being a very popular fellow with no pretentions about being an ex-President's son. His instructors at the French Ecole de Tir Aerien (Aerial School of Marksmanship) in Cazaux, far south in the Pyrenees in the direction of Spain, praised his very good piloting skills, his regular landings, and his very good shooting. He trained for a year and shunned any special treatment. He totalled at least one airplane while training at Issoudun, but got away with little damage. His next crash would be different.
Eventually Roosevelt joined the 95th Aero Squadron. The 95th and the 94th Aero Squadron were the first two fighter squadrons in US service.
In between combat sorties, he showed that he was his father's son, charming everyone:
"[Quentin] was just a kid, full of life and good spirits. If he had been less peppy, he might not have got killed. 'We were all billeted out in cottages in this little village of Mauperthuis, the population of which consisted of old ladies, the average age of whom, judging from appearances, was ninety-three - maybe a little more. Well, Quentin was a great favorite, not only among the members of the squadron, but with the old ladies. He spoke French very well indeed, and with this and his cheery ways he got into their good books, or they got into his, whichever way it was. They all called him the noble, or the honorable, or the distinguished, or even the great 'Meestair Roussefel', and he received their greetings very gracefully.'"
Truth is the French were thrilled to have all the Americans there. But Quentin was special - a powerful and egalitarian reminder that the Americans were willing to get anyone killed in the cause of liberty and justice.
"Roosevelt was about the only American name the French country people ever had heard until President Wilson became a world figure, and to have a real Roosevelt amongst them was something for these old ladies to talk about. 'Young Roosevelt would go about from house to house and gossip with all the old ladies. The rest of us sometimes thought they were a bit of a nuisance. If I were trying to write a letter, for instance, and one of them rushed in with a long story to tell in her rapid, colloquial, quite incomprehensible French, I would feel like asking her to leave me alone for a while. But not Roosevelt. He would lay down his pen, put his paper aside, and chat about the weather or whatever the old lady wanted to chat about. It would be: 'Ah, Madame Labrosse, and have you heard yet from the husband of your daughter Blanche ?' ' But no, Meestair Roussefel', I have received no letter it is two weeks, and I fear that..' 'On the contrary,' Roosevelt would say, 'one should not give up the hope. He will arrive soon.' 'Ah, Meestair Roussefel, I of it hope well.'"
Ace of aces Eddie Rickenbacker wrote about Quentin's character and personality:
"Quentin Roosevelt's death was a sad blow to the whole group. 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. His very next flight over enemy lines would involve him in a fresh predicament from which pure luck on more than a few occasions extricated him."
And then Rickenbacker more about Quentin's death in combat:
"Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt met his death during an unusually severe dog-fight in the air. He left the [Saints] aerodrome with his formation of five planes and proceeded across the lines east of Chateau-Thierry. The sky was thick with enemy formations as usual. Both our own and the enemy's aeroplanes were largely engaged at that time in strafing trenches and the main highways upon which columns of troops were continually advancing to occupy the lines. One did not have to seek far to find a fight.
Within ten minutes after crossing the trenches the little formation from 95 Squadron took on a Fokker formation of seven machines. They were both at a low altitude and evidently both were intent upon discovering a favorable ground target covered with marching men. The five Americans accepted the Hun challenge for a combat and dropped all other business for the time being.
During the rapid circling about, in which both groups were endeavoring to break up the formation of the antagonist, Quentin discovered the approach of another flight of red-nosed Fokkers, coming from above and behind. He withdrew by himself and flew ahead to meet the newcomers, climbing as he flew. The others were utterly unconscious of his departure, since Quentin flew in the last rear position on one of the wings. It was a cloudy day and the aeroplanes were up near to and occasionally lost in the obscurity of the clouds. Suddenly Lieutenant Buford, the leader of Quentin's formation, saw a Nieuport falling through the clouds from above him. It was out of control as it swept by him. Without realizing whose machine it was, Buford knew that an enemy force was above him. He already had more than his hands full in the present company. Signaling his pilots to follow him, he broke off the contest and re-crossed the lines. Then he discovered the absence of Quentin Roosevelt!
That same night a wireless message came from the Germans saying that Quentin had been shot down by Sergeant Thorn of the Richthofen Circus. Thorn at that time had a record of twenty-four planes to his credit. The additional information was received that Quentin had been buried with military honors. No honors, however, could have compensated our group for the loss of that boy. The news was flashed throughout the world that Quentin Roosevelt was dead!
Occasional press reports came to us that some imaginative reporter had stated that perhaps he was not in reality killed, but was merely a prisoner; thereby selling several more papers while unnecessarily distressing a bereaved family with utterly false hopes. A story came to my attention later which deserves a drastic reply. New York newspapers gave wide publicity to a statement made by a certain non-combatant named Hungerford who claimed to have been employed on the Chateau-Thierry sector of the front at this time. He not only attempted to describe the fight in which Quentin Roosevelt lost his life, but even intimated that had Quentin's comrades not fled, thereby leaving Quentin alone against desperate odds, the whole German formation might have been destroyed. He stated that he saw the fight and that Quentin before his sad death actually shot down two of the enemy planes.
This whole story is absolute piffle. Nobody saw Quentin's last fight except the Huns who shot him down. The fight itself occurred ten miles back of the German lines over Fere-en-Tarden. Quentin did not shoot down two enemy planes nor did his comrades desert him in time of trouble." Fighting the Flying Circus, pp.195-197
Two of the ironies that strike me about Quentin Roosevelt's death were that
1) he died on Bastille Day - July 14, 1918. Bastille Day is highly significant for France's Independence Day. The parallel might be a bit like if the Count de Marquis de Lafayette had died on July 4th. (He didn't, dying instead on May 20, 1834. May 20th is the independence day of Cuba, however. Not sure what that means.)
2) The Second Battle of the Marne kicked off the next day which more or less signaled that the War to End All Wars was finally coming to an end. Quentin missed out on seeing the war won.
Learn more about Quentin Roosevelt:
Quentin Roosevelt Biography
Quentin Roosevelt Event in Chateau-Thierry 2010
Quentin Roosevelt Event in Saints, Touquin, Mauperthius 2008
Quentin Roosevelt Tributes
5 Roosevelt Kids off to War
"American Eagles" - 375 page illustrated history of US Combat Aviation in World War I
Related Links: Quentin Roosevelt | Frank Luke | Eddie Rickenbacker | Raoul Lufbery | Eugene Bullard | David Ingalls - 1st Navy Ace | "American Eagles" - 345 page illustrated history of US Combat Aviation in World War I