By J. Tomney, FDR Presidential Library volunteer
The sons and daughters of thousands of American families heeded the call to serve their country during World War II. The four sons of America’s First Family were counted among those that served with distinction and honor for the duration of the war. The Roosevelt boys – Jimmy, Elliott, Franklin, Jr., and John — all joined the U.S. armed forces and served overseas, each one having very different service experiences. Jimmy, FDR, Jr. and John followed the family tradition of naval service. Elliott soared with the Army Air Forces. Just like other wartime GI’s, they were away from family and in harm’s way. Just like other wartime GI’s, their parents worried about their safety. These are their stories.
James Roosevelt: Gung-Ho Marine Raider
Being the oldest of FDR’s sons, Jimmy Roosevelt entered military service first, receiving a commission as a Marine Lieutenant Colonel in 1936 at age 29. But as war was brewing in Europe a few years later, his high rank seemed to come without merit, and complaints of nepotism began to be voiced by other Marines. Jimmy chose to take action to counter the rumors. In September 1939 he resigned his commission and reenlisted as a Captain in the Marine Corps Reserves.
Before the United States entered the war, Jimmy Roosevelt experienced two phases of Marine life: he trained hard on the West Coast to master amphibious maneuvers and then served as a military advisor assigned to diplomatic missions in the Far East, the Middle East, and Africa.
In January 1942, Jimmy found himself stationed at Camp Elliott near San Diego. He spent his time preparing a written proposal for the creation of a Marine Corps commando organization, to be used for swift and surprise actions against the enemy. Soon after, he shipped out to Pacific theater of operation putting into practice many of his proposals.
Major James Roosevelt experienced his baptism of fire in August 1942 when he helped lead the operation against the enemy at Makin Island. Second in command to the famous commando leader Lt. Col. Evans Carlson of the Marine Raiders, Jimmy came under sniper fire and rescued three of his men from drowning, earning him the distinguished Navy Cross and the Silver Star. In a letter to FDR, Carlson wrote that Jimmy “was as cool as the proverbial cucumber and kept the loose ends tied together without a hitch.”
Jimmy’s actions also served another purpose.—they proved to be a morale booster back in the States. Jimmy Roosevelt’s heroic exploits at Makin Island made headlines in the Washington, D.C. and New York newspapers. His naysayers now honored him in the national press as a “fighting” guy.
After Makin Island, Jimmy returned to Pearl Harbor for a short stay and shipped out on the USS WHARTON arriving at New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in September 1942. He saw further action at Midway and the Aleutian Islands before being assigned to Camp Pendleton, California as Second Marine Raider Battalion Executive Officer. He received appointment as Commanding Officer of the newly formed Fourth Marine Raider Battalion on October 23, 1942.
Jimmy was plagued with stomach ailments which kept him out of combat late in the war. In 1945, after training Marines at Camp Pendleton, Jimmy Roosevelt received orders to Philippines. While there, working as an intelligence officer tasked with helping to prepare for the invasion of Okinawa, he learned of his father’s death.
On August 13, 1945, Colonel James Roosevelt was discharged from active military service with the United States Marine Corps, completing 26 months of wartime combat duty.
After the war, Jimmy joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and retired at the rank of Brigadier General in 1959.
“I imagine every mother felt as I did when I said good-bye to the children during the war. I had a feeling that I might be saying good-bye for the last time.”
Eleanor Roosevelt, This I Remember, Page 292
Elliott Roosevelt: Doing All He Can to Get Into the Fighting
Second eldest son Elliott Roosevelt could have avoided serving in World War II, having been classified as 4-F because of poor eyesight. But his love of flying prompted him to petition his case to volunteer for service to General Hap Arnold, chief of the Army Air Force. Before the war, Elliott flew as a private pilot, worked in the aviation industry for a small outfit in California, and edited the aviation section for the Hearst newspapers.
After his first service physical deemed him unfit for combat, Elliott petitioned and signed a waiver for his disability, which allowed him to receive a commission in September 1940. His first assignment, however, had him tied to a desk in the procurement division, which drew criticism from the public that he was dodging combat. Elliott wanted to see action and Captain Roosevelt, after completing a training course in intelligence, received assignment to the 21st Reconnaissance Squadron in Newfoundland doing North Atlantic patrol work.
Elliott volunteered for a survey job to locate air force sites in the North Arctic which could be used as staging points for the delivery of aircraft from US to Great Britain. Elliott and his brother FDR, Jr., joined their father, President Roosevelt, for the August 1941 Atlantic Charter meeting in Newfoundland waters. Elliott recollected that, “I knew that Pop liked to have a member of the family along, somebody with whom he could chat, to whom he could let down his hair, in whom he could confide.” Later in the war, Elliott accompanied his father, as a military attaché, to the Big Three conferences in Casablanca, Cairo, and Tehran.
Elliott’s love of, and skill at, flying exceeded his visual disability and he soon found himself piloting unarmed reconnaissance missions. Mother Eleanor Roosevelt showed concern over Elliott’s flying skills but he wrote her, “Don’t worry about me. I lead a charmed life…I had a crack up the other day and escaped with a sore tail although my ship was demolished.” He flew a P-38 Lightning (F-5) on photographic reconnaissance missions over North Africa and received promotion to the rank of Colonel in January 1944 when he joined the 12th Air Force.
The Army Air Force assigned Elliott to command of the 325th Photographic Reconnaissance Wing and charged him with reorganizing all the American Reconnaissance Air Force units of both the Eighth (bombardment, strategic) and Ninth (light bombardment, tactical) Air Forces. He supervised their operations so as to obtain all information necessary to the invasion of Europe and his efforts played an important role in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944 and later for the Battle of the Bulge in 1945.
During World War II, Elliott Roosevelt flew over 300 combat missions, was wounded twice and received the Distinguished Flying Cross He is credited with pioneering new techniques in night photography and weather data gathering, but his career included controversy including accusations of corruption related to the acquisition of an experimental Hughes aircraft. By the war’s end, he had achieved the rank of Brigadier General. As James Roosevelt wrote of Elliott’s exploits in Affectionately, FDR, “Objective war correspondents have praised my brother as among the bravest of the brave.”
“Neither the President nor Mrs. Roosevelt had any more information of the whereabouts or the activities of their son than do the fathers and mothers of other officers or soldiers in the United States armed forces.”
Stephen T. Early, Presidential Secretary, August 22, 1942
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.: Big Pancho of the Mighty May
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. pleased his father greatly by participating in the Naval Reserve Officer Training (ROTC) program at Harvard for four years. He received a law degree from the University of Virginia but left his law practice in March 1941 for active duty as an Ensign with the Navy. His father arranged one of his earliest assignments: FDR summoned his sons Elliott and FDR, Jr. to attend the August 1941 Atlantic Charter meeting with Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland.
Ensign Roosevelt’s first at-sea assignment sent him to the destroyer USS MAYRANT, later known as the Mighty May for its combat successes. The MAYRANT escorted convoys across the North Atlantic to Europe. A bout of appendicitis and an appendectomy interrupted Franklin Jr.’s military service in February 1942.
After his recovery, FDR Jr, returned to sea duty, and received promotion to Lieutenant (jg), and assignment as the MAYRANT Executive Officer. He participated in the North Africa campaign and was decorated for bravery with a Commendation from the Secretary of the Navy after the November 1942 Battle of Casablanca. The USS MAYRANT then participated in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. At Palermo, the ship just missed being hit by a bomb dropped by the German Luftwaffe, however, five crew men were killed and six others wounded. FDR Jr., known affectionately as Big Pancho by the MAYRANT’s crew, put his life at risk by exposing himself to enemy fire, carrying a critically wounded sailor to safety. He also took quick action to limit the damage to his ship. For his bravery, FDR Jr., the Navy awarded him a Silver Star and he received a Purple Heart for sustaining a shrapnel wound in his shoulder.
In March 1944, FDR Jr. received promotion to Lieutenant Commander and assumed command of the destroyer escort USS ULVERT M. MOORE, moving to the Pacific theater of operation. Under Franklin Jr.’s command The USS MOORE participated in the Philippines, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima campaigns. He received the Legion of Merit Combat ‘V’ for the MOORE’s successful sinking of a Japanese submarine during the Philippines campaign. The MOORE also was credited with shooting down two Japanese planes in combat. Standing six feet four inches tall, Lieutenant Commander Roosevelt earned the nickname, the “Big Moose” from his the crew on the MOORE.
After victory over Europe, on May 8, 1945, FDR Jr. left the combat zone to attend the U.S. Naval War College’s Preparatory Staff course as a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve in July 1945, graduating in December 1945. Fellow NWC graduates included some his commanders, Admirals Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, and Howard Stark. Upon his discharge from the US Navy in January 1946, Franklin Jr. resumed his law career and eventually entered politics. He served as a US Congressman and, like his father, ran for the Governorship of New York.
John A. Roosevelt: “I Don’t Care What the Ship Looks Like Or Is”
The President’s youngest child, John Aspinwall Roosevelt was 25 years old when he joined the US Navy in early 1941. After graduating from Harvard, John began a career in retail, a set of skills that led to his assignment to the Navy Supply Corps after his enlistment. At the US Naval Air Station in San Diego, young Roosevelt applied for sea duty in early 1942. Hearing of his son’s application, FDR ordered that the request be denied. John wrote to his father, “I don’t care what the ship looks like or is, as long as she at least floats for a while,” John’s perseverance eventually led to sea duty in the Pacific combat zone.
In June 1942, John was promoted to Lieutenant (jg). He served on the aircraft carrier USS WASP for 15 months. For his actions on the WASP, under heavy fire from the Japanese, John earned a Bronze star and received a promotion to Lieutenant Commander.
Although he never commanded a military unit as did his brothers, John’s service was no less diminished. In early 1945, he transferred to the staff of Admiral Joseph “Jocko” Clark as the Task Group Supply Officer.
Both John and his brother FDR Jr., upon learning of their father’s death in April 1945, declined to return home for the funeral, remaining at their posts in the Pacific war zone.
Right after the war, John settled in California and resumed his career in retail. He continued his military service as a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. While he never pursued a career in politics, he supported many political candidates, including Dwight Eisenhower, and worked as an investment banker.
Eleanor Roosevelt, This I Remember (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949).
Elliott Roosevelt, As He Saw It (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1946).
James Roosevelt and Sidney Shalett, Affectionately, FDR: A Son’s Story of a Lonely Man (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1959).
James Roosevelt with Bill Libby, My Parents, A Differing View (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1976).
The service records for all four Roosevelt sons have been digitized and are available through the National Archives and Records Administration: https://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/public/persons-of-prominence.html#R