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Greene History Notes: Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and the American Legion

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Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (1887-1944)
September 4, 2018 11:44 am Updated: September 4, 2018 12:02 pm

 

I have been a member of American Legion Post 166 in Coxsackie for many years. At the same time, I have always been interested in New York state’s Roosevelt family. Recently I was surprised to discover that Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of former President Theodore Roosevelt, was one of the founders of the American Legion. The Legion was founded in 1919. The centennial celebration will take place next year.

Writing in “The American Legion” September 2018 magazine, Mark Seavey says the following: “Twenty non-career officers personally selected by Lt. Col. Roosevelt Jr. were ordered by American Expeditionary Commanding Gen. John Pershing to report to a YMCA office in Paris on Feb. 15, 1919.” The purpose was to discuss declining moral of the troops as they awaited passage home at the end of the war. Out of that initial meeting came the idea for a new kind of veterans’ organization; the American Legion.

Seavey says that nine of the 20 who met that night had something in common; they were alumni of the nearby Plattsburgh Training Camps in upstate New York. The camps were organized without official government approval to train men to fight in World War I should America enter the war. Former President Theodore Roosevelt Sr. and former Secretary of War Maj. Gen Leonard Wood among others were big supporters of the camps. In 1915 roughly 1,700 men attended Plattsburgh and other regional camps and in 1916 another 17,000 completed volunteer training. Another 50,000 were expected to attend in 1917, but those plans were cut short when America entered the war on April 6, 1917.

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was Plattsburgh trained as was fellow organizer and first American Legion Commander Franklin D’Olier. According to Seavey, D’Olier worked in New York City to help get the Legion started “committing both his time and money...He declined a salary and covered his own expenses in a year of crisscrossing the nation to drive membership.” By Oct. 1, 1919 the number to new American Legion Posts stood a 5,670.

Roosevelt Jr. had an amazing military career. In World War I he was gassed nearly to blindness and received the Silver Star for his actions. Later he was shot in the leg and was recuperating in Paris when he first got the inspiration for the American Legion. When America entered World War II he again joined the fight. At age 56 and as a Brigadier General, Roosevelt came ashore on Utah Beach in the first wave of the Normandy Invasion carrying only a pistol and his cane. For his actions that day he received the Medal of Honor. Sadly, a little over a month later, on July 12, 1944, he died of a heart attack. He is buried in Normandy along with his brother Quentin who died in WWI.

Today the American Legion is the nation’s largest organization of U.S. wartime veterans. Membership stands at 2.3 million and there are more than 13,000 posts, many here in Greene County. The Legion has always worked to obtain benefits for veterans including the GI Bill, the Post -9/11 GI Bill and dozens of health-care benefits. The Legion also supports many activities for all Americans including patriotic parades, scholarships, community programs, American Legion Baseball, Boys and Girls State and charitable and fundraising programs.

The Legion holds a special place in our communities and throughout the county. It is hard to imagine a country without an organization like the American Legion. Local chapters are a continual reminder of the sacrifices made by those that served in the armed forces.

News and Notes: Don’t forget the “Graveside Chats” program at the Mansion Street Cemetery in Coxsackie from 2-4 p.m. on Sept. 15. Fourteen characters representing people buried there will be on hand to regale visitors with stories about their lives. One hour tours will depart every 20 minutes from the Coxsackie Senior Center. Tickets are $20 and children are free. Call the Heermance Library at 518-731-8084 to make reservations and for more information.

Reach David Dorpfeld at gchistorian@gmail.com.