Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt, a pilot with the 95th “Kicking Mule” Aero Squadron of the 1st Pursuit Group, was a natural leader. The youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, Quentin was often described as the child most like his father. When he was killed in action on July 14, 1918, he was just 20 years old.
Nearly 90 years after his death, Quentin’s memory lives on. Members of the Theodore Roosevelt Association traveled to France in June 2007 to rededicate a recently refurbished memorial fountain, originally placed in Chamery in 1919 by former first lady Edith Roosevelt in her son’s honor. On hand for the rededication were several Roosevelt cousins, two dozen association members, Chamery’s mayor and an honor guard.
Like many other young fliers, Quentin worked hard to get into the fighting, and he resented rumors that he and his three older brothers were going to war for publicity’s sake. On occasion he was also taunted by his own brothers, who reached the front lines before he did, then called him a slacker.
But instead of being sent into combat as soon as he fully qualified as a pilot, the youngest Roosevelt son was initially made a flight instructor. His students reportedly admired his sense of humor as well as his aerobatic skills. He would zoom up above them, observe their technique, then be back on the ground—ready to critique their performance—before they could land.
When Quentin Roosevelt finally left the training base on his way to the front, all the students lined up to wish him farewell, cheering and promising to rescue him if he were captured. He wrote home, “So I left with a big lump in my throat, for it’s nice to know that your men have liked you.”
On July 5, during his initial foray into combat, Roosevelt got his first taste of excitement. His Nieuport 28’s engine malfunctioned, and he came close enough to a German fighter to see the red stripes around its fuselage. “I’m free to confess I was scared blue,” he wrote home. “I was behind the formation and he had all the altitude. So I pushed on the stick, prayed for motor, and watched out of the corner of my eye to see his elevators go down, and have his tracers shooting by me. However, for some reason, he didn’t attack, instead he took a few general shots at the lot and then swung back to his formation.”
When Roosevelt took a different plane up later on the 5th, his gun jammed. His squadron mates shot down a German plane and lost two of their own in the course of that day. “I was doubtful before, for I thought I might get cold feet or something, but you don’t,” he wrote after his first dose of combat. “You get so excited that you forget everything except getting the other fellow, and trying to dodge the tracers when they start streaking past you.”
Four days before he died, Roosevelt was thrilled to record that he might have downed a German Fokker D.VII on his own:
I was out on high patrol with the rest of my squadron when we got broken up due to a mistake in the formation. I dropped into a turn of a vrille (twisting, like the tendril of a vine)—these planes have so little surface that at five thousand you can’t do much with them. When I got straightened out I couldn’t spot my crowd anywhere, so…I decided to fool around a little before going home, as I was just over the lines. I turned and circled for five minutes or so, and then suddenly…I saw three planes in formation. At first I thought they were Boche, but as they paid little attention to me I finally decided to chase them, thinking they were part of my crowd, so I started after them at full speed. I thought at the time it was a little strange…that they should be going almost straight into Germany, but I had plenty of gas so I kept on.
They had been going absolutely straight and I was nearly in formation when the leader did a turn, and I saw to my horror that they had white tails with black crosses on them. Still I was so near by them that I thought I might pull up a little and take a crack at them. I had altitude on them, and what was more they hadn’t seen me, so I pulled up, put my sights on the end man, and let go. I saw my tracers going all around him, but for some reason he never even turned, until all of a sudden his tail came up and he went down in a vrille. I wanted to follow him but the other two had started around after me, so I had to cut and run.
That victory was credited to Roosevelt after his death.
When he made his final sortie, on Bastille Day, Roosevelt was flying a Nieuport 28, known as an aircraft that was suitable for aerobatics but hard to handle. He had often expressed his concern about the the French planes. “We have been using Nieuports, which have the disadvantage of not being particularly reliable and inclined to catch fire,” he said in one letter.
Some of Quentin Roosevelt’s colleagues described him as reckless, always looking for a fight. Whether he veered away from the rest of his squadron that last day by design or accident isn’t clear. Fog prevented the other 95th Squadron pilots from seeing exactly what happened to him. One minute he was with them, then suddenly he had disappeared. One report, that five Germans attacked him, later turned out to have been manufactured by Roosevelt’s mechanic, who was on the ground at the time and couldn’t possibly have known what happened.
It seems clear that Roosevelt flew over enemy lines and took on at least three enemy planes by himself. Eyewitness Lieutenant Edward Buford Jr. recorded the details of that engagement in a letter:
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 in a general free-for-all. I tried to keep an eye on all of 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 them, [his] machine turned over on its back and plunged down out of control. I realized it was too late to be of any assistance….
I waited around about ten minutes to see if I could pick up any of our fellows, but they had disappeared, so I came on home, dodging from one cloud to another 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.
Three pilots took credit for downing Roosevelt, but the man most often credited for his loss is a Sergeant Carl-Emil Gräper of Jasta 50. Roosevelt, who Gräper said fought courageously, was the German sergeant’s first and only victory of the war.
When the Germans discovered Quentin was the president’s son, they buried him with honors at the spot where he crashed. Some say he was identified by the love letter he carried in his pocket—from his fiancée Flora Payne Whitney, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s granddaughter. A German photographer who snapped a shot of the crashed plane and pilot’s body just 10 minutes after the crash was later chastised for his lack of respect.
An honor guard of about a thousand Germans paid their respects at Roosevelt’s crash site, where his Nieuport’s wheels and propeller were used to mark his grave, along with a wooden cross with the words: “Lieutenant Roosevelt, buried by the Germans.” His plane later became a mecca for Allied soldiers in the area, who ripped off bits of canvas as souvenirs.
Theodore Roosevelt and his wife Edith were at Sagamore Hill on Long Island when an Associated Press reporter sought them out on July 17 and asked for a statement on their son’s death. TR said only, “Quentin’s mother and I are very glad that he got to the front and had a chance to render some service to his country and show the stuff that was in him before his fate befell him.” The grief-stricken former president died in his sleep less than six months later.
Edith ordered a memorial fountain constructed at Chamery. She also placed a marble slab over her son’s grave engraved with her favorite quote from poet Percy Shelley’s “Adonais”:
He has outsoar’d the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again.
This article by Michele May was originally published in the January 2008 issue of Aviation History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!