Great-niece to take Army general's WWII walking stick back to Utah Beach
By DEAN NARCISO | The Columbus Dispatch | Published: June 24, 2019
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — While recuperating from back surgery, Beth Rieman had time to think about family, ask questions about her grandmother's Uncle Jim, and eventually uncover an amazing find about the decorated veteran of two world wars.
That discovery is leading her Monday to World War II's D-Day battlefields of France.
Rieman's research began in 2017 while looking at Army Brig. Gen. James S. Rodwell's war medals, including the Distinguished Service Cross. That led to a scrapbook of news accounts describing how he earned them. And finally, with her parents' help, it led the discovery of a trove of photographs that her family had not seen for decades.
But it was a relic, forgotten and resting high atop a shelf, that brought all the materials to life.
That was a heavily used, mottled walking stick that her research showed was used in combat by Teddy Roosevelt Jr., who had taken enemy fire in World War I. His father, the 26th president, coined the phrase "Speak softly and carry a big stick" to describe U.S. foreign policy.
Recovering from kidney cancer and several unrelated surgeries, Rieman, 45, put her time to use.
"This kept me busy, something I could lie on the couch and research and pull together.
"I think his legacy became more important to me when I faced my own mortality," Rieman said.
As the pieces emerged, Rieman, a Delaware resident and language arts teacher in Delaware City Schools, became more excited and focused on the man she had heard stories about but had never met. Rodwell died in 1962 at age 64.
She learned that Roosevelt Jr. and Rodwell were good friends who were among thousands of troops to storm Utah Beach in northwestern France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as part of the Army's 4th Infantry Division. Roosevelt, who was in his 50s, had to get special permission to serve. The walking stick was constantly at his side until he gave it to Rodwell.
Roosevelt died five weeks after D-Day, and legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle later described Rodwell in a column as "wearing a new-type field jacket that fits him like a sack, and he carries with him a long stick that Teddy Roosevelt gave him."
Reading this, Rieman's parents, Walter and Susan Conte, told their daughter that they recalled seeing a cane stored on a shelf. It was brought out, and it matched perfectly the one in the pictures.
Rieman was elated, writing in her notes last year: "We had THE cane! THE cane that Teddy Roosevelt Jr. started using in WWI when his knee was hit [in France] in July 1918. THE CANE that stormed the beaches of Normandy with him, touching the sand of Utah Beach, waving directions at troops!!!"
She and her brother discussed keeping it in the family. "We kept thinking, 'Which of our kids will it go to ... will they even care?'"
Rieman knew that the relic had to be shared. But where?
She learned about the Utah Beach Museum in western France and contacted officials there.
"Right away, they were just gushing," Rieman recalled, "honored to be considered. They were falling all over themselves."
Museum employees offered to fly her there to present the gift. She leaves Monday from Columbus.
"We will drive you to the American cemetery on Wednesday morning, and we will organize an official ceremony in the afternoon with the newspapers," officials from the museum emailed her on Friday.
Worried about losing or damaging the walking cane, she'll carry it on her flight, she said.
Rieman recently shared her discovery with residents at the senior living community Willow Brook at Delaware Run.
"She poured so much passion and energy into this," said Erin MacLellan, who coordinated the event. "It was so touching to see their response."
Talking about Rodwell has given Rieman a renewed passion for history, family and patriotism.
"I feel that to him, having (the cane) in a museum, is a way of honoring his military family. It feels like it's meant to be there, where it touched the sand."
The gesture is also meant to honor the dwindling number of World War II veterans still alive, she said.
"When people die, their stories are lost ... and that makes me real sad."
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