Remembering an American Hero
Mr. Fleming, the author of more than 40 books, both fiction and non-fiction, was head of the American Center of PEN. His latest book is The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown. He is a member of HNN's non-profit corporate board.In my 2003 book, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I, I wrote at some length about the sad fate of Quentin Roosevelt, the twenty year old youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt. When America declared war in 1917, he joined the U.S. Air Service and became a pilot. Quentin was deeply in love with Flora Payne Whitney, heiress to an immense fortune. She was equally in love with him. It was a romance that the whole nation followed with mesmerized awe.
On July 14, 1918, in a dogfight over the Western Front, Quentin was shot down and killed. The tragedy made headlines for a few days. But the ongoing war soon engulfed everyone’s attention, leaving a griefstricken Flora and the heartbroken Roosevelt family to cope with the tragedy. Roosevelt biographers agree that the ex-president never recovered from Quentin’s death. He would sit on the porch of his Long Island home, Sagamore Hill, gazing out to sea, saying to himself: “Poor Quennie!” A year later he died in his sleep.
Narayan Sengupta, an American who was born in Georgia and still lives there, read the story in my book and reacted with strong personal emotion. Narayan’s father was from Bangladesh; his mother was French. For a few days before his death, Quentin had been billeted in the home of Narayan’s great great grandmother, Melina Thibault. He had often heard his mother discuss the story when they visited her family in France. But he had not heard or read anything about it in years. A glance at his calendar made him realize that 2008 was the 90th anniversary of Quentin’s death. With strong ties to both France and America, Sengupta asked himself: “Why don’t we do something to remind us of this unique bond between the two countries?”
The result was an anniversary celebration in France on July 14, which attracted over 100 people and received attention in several French newspapers. "Many villagers, five village mayors - one of whom is a 'deputy' - equivalent to one of our congressmen –a French air base commander and a number of French war veterans turned out for the event, " Mr. Sengupta told me. “Everyone gathered in the village of Saints, meeting at the Hotel de Ville [City Hall]. There were American and French flags along the facade of the building. Saints is about 70 kilometers southeast of Paris.
“We then proceeded to the village war monument where the dignitaries placed a large wreath and a bugler played taps. From there, it was on to the cemetery of Saints where the Mayor of Saints gave a speech about Quentin and his fellow aviators. It was here that the French unveiled a plaque dedicated to Quentin along a wall where 32 French and North African WWI soldiers are buried.
“We also visited the village of Touquin, where Quentin and his friends lived for a few weeks in the beautiful Chateau La Malvoisine. The chateau’s current owners greeted us cordially and allowed us to explore the luxurious interior. At Touquin the Americans entered the Chateau Thierry sector, where the German offensive of 1918 reached a thunderous climax.
“Our final stop was at the nearby village of Mauperthuis where Quentin was billeted with my great great grandmother for the last few days of his all too short life. There we toasted Quentin and the other aviators and their ground crews. My friend Mike O'Neal and I - representing the United States - spoke to the French people and we presented the mayors with letters from Georgia Congressman David Scott, who helped us arrange the celebration, and Bret Luedke - the test pilot of the world's most advanced aircraft, Lockheed’s F-22 Raptor . Bret praised the U.S. Air Service’s achievements in the Great War. The warmth and friendliness we felt from the people of France in honor of our aviators was almost overwhelming.
“We also visited the fields near Saints that were once the aerodrome from which Quentin and his friends flew. Nothing remains since all of the structures were temporary tent hangars. I felt like we were unearthing a treasure, discovering or rediscovering history and doing detective work to put all of the pieces of the story together. Quentin Roosevelt’s sacrifice is a testament to the eternal bond between the United States and France - a bond which has been weakened in recent years. We hope that in our small way we’ve reminded people of both countries of the friendship that has linked our two nations since France entered the American Revolution on our side on February 6, 1778, more than 230 years ago.”
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