The cane once owned by Brig. Gen. Teddy Roosevelt Jr. was returned to the beaches of Normandy, France, where it was donated to the Musée du Débarquementon in June to be displayed alongside other relics from the infamous battle.
Beth Rieman, a Delaware resident, was carefully looking through preserved letters, military orders, and hometown newspaper clippings following the military career of her great-granduncle, James S. Rodwell, when she came upon an unbelievable discovery — her great-granduncle’s close friendship with his commanding officer and the cane he inherited from him.
Upon Roosevelt’s death a month after the D-Day invasion, Rodwell was given the cane, which he continued to carry through the rest of World War II.
Rieman contacted the Musée du Débarquementon to donate the cane, and in return, the museum sent her a plane ticket and invited her to France to deliver the cane in person.
“It was unbelievable,” Rieman said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip.”
Rieman said she didn’t expect the wonderful hospitality she received when she landed in France.
“I knew they were going to pick me up and I assumed that we would go straight to the museum,” she said. “It wasn’t anything like that at all. They took care of me the whole time. The only time I spent at my bed and breakfast was to sleep.”
Rieman said the small group picked her up every morning and drove her to specific places, showing her the sights that she would not have seen as a “typical tourist.”
“From start to finish I saw behind the scenes of things,” she said. “They paid for my dinners and opened their homes to me. It was all very unreal. The town itself was like being back in 1940. You don’t see a single fast-food place. No signs or things like that, it is like stepping back in time.”
Rieman said the only thing different about the 1940 feel was the lack of bombs being dropped around them.
“If you looked out my bathroom window there were cows and horses,” she said. “The town, only 800 people, is very rural.”
In America, Rieman said the mention of Teddy Roosevelt’s name brings to mind the former president of the United States.
“There, nobody thinks about the president,” she said. “Teddy Roosevelt Jr. is such a hero in their town that everybody knows who he was. They completely attribute their freedom to him, because he was able to land off-course and still be successful in his mission.”
Rieman said in the small town, every French flag flying is paired with an American flag alongside it.
“They just have this deep respect for Roosevelt and the American forces that landed there,” she said. “I cried on and off as the mayor of the town took me around, and he is the curator of the museum. He would be crying right along with me as we went.”
Rieman said the museum was founded by the mayor’s father in the early 1960s. She said when he started it, people were resistant and didn’t want to talk about WWII.
“They just wanted to put the war behind them,” she said. “They had seen horrible things and were treated horribly for years. So, he fought back and started the museum anyway.”
Rieman said they had experienced a lot of trauma, but he still wanted to build the museum to honor the sacrifice of the Americans and British.
Rieman was taken to see Roosevelt’s grave, but it had been roped off after the D-Day anniversary to let the grass recover. She said the mayor talked with the officials of the cemetery, and she was escorted via golf cart to see the grave.
“The mayor brought flowers to lay on the grave, and the cane got to rest on it,” she said. “They put a French flag on the right-hand side, because it faces land, and an American flag facing the water.”
Rieman said it was beyond emotional.
“There was this moment where it was misting in the background, cold and dreary, and we were the only ones there,” she said. “It was this very private and overwhelming moment.”
Rieman said the group took her to the town where Roosevelt passed away due to a heart attack to see his headquarters. She said the town has the claim to fame that he died there, but there was no historic marker noting his death.
Still wanting to know where Roosevelt had died, Rieman said the group found an old lady who led them into an old church that still held the evidence of the war with a pockmarked ground where bullets hit and walls that still showed signs of bomb damage.
“Roosevelt died in the parsonage of the church,” she said. “All along the trip, we would just find people who knew more.”
Rieman said the museum held a ceremony for the cane in the section dedicated to Roosevelt. She handed over the cane and noticed a spot in the display where there was a photograph of her great-granduncle.
“We talked about Uncle Jim,” she said. “Not only are they going to put the cane there, but they are going to do something to honor Uncle Jim because of his friendship with Roosevelt.
“There couldn’t have been a better ending than that to the trip,” Rieman added.
Contact D. Anthony Botkin at 740-413-0902. Follow him on Twitter @dabotkin.