One of the last letters Quentin Roosevelt wrote before his death on July 14, 1918, was to his father, reporting that he had finally shot down an enemy plane on patrol. This event happened on July 11, three days before his own death at the hands of a German air pilot while on a routine patrol.
Quentin’s journey to the front had not been fast or easy. He was the last of the Roosevelt boys to see direct action during World War I, much to his frustration. Quentin’s brothers had in fact been ribbing him for being a slacker, something his father put a stop to quickly when he discovered what Ted, Kermit and Archie had been saying to their younger brother.
Once he arrived in France, Quentin was stationed at a United States Air Service training base at Issoudun. There he managed equipment and taught new arrivals how to fly. He was considered an excellent teacher and his commanding officers were loath to lose him. However, after a long time clamoring for the front, Quentin was finally sent up in early 1918 along with his closest friend Hamilton Coolidge (who would himself die in action in October of that year). Quentin had a fairly uneventful time until July 11 when he shot down his one and only enemy plane.
Reading through the letters and newspaper articles that followed Quentin’s death, it is most heartbreaking to recognize the hope that people held for his safe return. There was much uncertainty surrounding the shooting down of the plane. Many thought Quentin had landed safely on German soil and was simply a prisoner of war. In fact, fellow pilots who saw him go down assumed he had landed safely. No one knew he’d been shot in the head by the shower of bullets that downed his plane. Mystery surrounded his disappearance at first until the German newspapers reported the death and the burial of Quentin by the German pilots who found the plane. The Roosevelts continued to hold out hope until the official word came on July 27 from General John Pershing himself. Most of the newspapers had reported the death earlier, but Pershing’s letter below represented the official notification.
Letter from John J. Pershing to Theodore Roosevelt, July 27, 1918. From Sagamore Hill National Historic Site.
Many historians note that Theodore Roosevelt never recovered from Quentin’s death, and he would pass on himself – some say from a broken heart – less than a year later, in January 1919.
Transcript of Letter:
France, July 27, 1918.
Colonel Theodore Roosevelt,
Oyster Bay, Long Island,
My dear Colonel:
Since my cablegram of July 17th, I have delayed writing you in the hope that we might still learn that, through some good fortune, your son Quentin had managed to land safely inside the German lines. Now the telegram from the International Red Cross at Berne, stating that the German Red Cross confirms the newspaper reports of his death, has taken even this hope away. Quentin died as he had lived and served, nobly and unselfishly; in the full strength and vigor of his youth, fighting the enemy in clean combat. You may well be proud of your gift to the nation in his supreme sacrifice.
I realize that time can heal the wound, yet I know that at such a time the stumbling words of understanding from one’s friends help, and I want to express to you and to Quentin’s mother my deepest sympathy and friendship. Perhaps I can come as near to realizing what such a loss means as anyone.
Enclosed is a copy of his official record in the Air Service. The brevity and curtness of the official words paint clearly the picture of his service, which was an honor to all of us.
John J. Pershing