Two Siegels, two generations of service
By Brian L. Gray
It was in 1940 when Teddy Roosevelt’s eldest son, Ted Roosevelt Jr., made a stop in Mandan. Upon his arrival, before speaking to any crowds or greeting Mandan residents, the first words that Roosevelt spoke was, “I want to see Jacob Siegel.”
Roosevelt met with Siegel, a farmer in Morton County who he hadn’t seen in over two decades, and the two posed for a photograph that was taken by Roosevelt’s full-time reporter and photographer, which as legend has it, was always at Roosevelt’s side wherever he went.
The two stood in front of the Roosevelt statue that was displayed in front of the Mandan Depot on Main Street, which remains there today.
Roosevelt and Siegel first met while serving in the same infantry group together, in the Company K 26th Infantry. The both of them fought in World War I, serving in a number of battles in France. Siegel was a sergeant in the infantry and followed the orders of Roosevelt, who commanded the 26th infantry as a lieutenant colonel.
While the exact details remain murky, Roosevelt would often declare in later years that it was Siegel who saved his life on July 20, 1918, while they were in battle together south of Soissons, France.
According to historical documents, Roosevelt was gassed and wounded during the five-day battle and was later discharged. Siegel then took command of the troops and, as is listed in his military biography, “Displayed coolness and bravery in directing the fire of his automatic rifle squad of which he assumed command and which he led forward to the final objective.”
On July 21 Siegel himself was slightly wounded in the battle and was discharged as well. Long after their time together in France, both Roosevelt and Siegel would remain good friends.
Siegel and his wife had 14 children, all of whom were raised in Mandan. Of those 14 children, only one of them was present during the 1940 photo with Roosevelt. That was one of his sons, Ken, who remembers watching the two pose for the photo while standing in front of the Lewis & Clark Hotel across the street.
“I remember that it was taken in November, because I was one month away from turning 11,” he said.
Ken relayed this story last summer to Joe Wiegand, who works in Medora as a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator. After hearing the story, Wiegand offered up the idea to recreate the photo the next time the both were in Mandan. This April Wiegand was in the middle of a 10-city tour across North Dakota and made appearances at a few elementary schools in Mandan. Afterwards he and Ken met up and recreated the photo, 73 years after the original was taken in front of the Roosevelt statue.
The Roosevelt statue that the men stood in front of, which is on display in front of the former Mandan Depot, was donated to the city in 1924, during a public ceremony on July 4. It was given to Mandan by the late Dr. Henry Waldo Coe, who was a pioneer physician in Mandan and Morton County, and a lifelong friend of Teddy Roosevelt Sr. The sculptor that Coe hired for the statue was one of the more famous artists of the time, Alexander Phimister Proctor, of New York City.
Soon after serving in World War I, Roosevelt Jr. was instrumental in forming the American Legion in 1919. After success as a businessman, he then made his way into the political world. He would later serve as an Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of Puerto Rico and then the Governor-General of the Philippines, before returning to the United State Army as a brigadier general.
While he credits Siegel for saving his life, Roosevelt himself went out of his way for his fellow infantrymen. While he had earned a good fortune as a businessman, Roosevelt used money out of his own pocket to purchase combat boots for his entire battalion.
Roosevelt died four years after the photo with Siegel was taken, suffering from a heart attack in July 1944 during World War II. He died while serving on the front lines of the war, months after being one of the first soldiers to storm the beaches of Normandy. Due to the injuries he sustained in World War I, Roosevelt fought while struggling with arthritis and heart problems. He also walked with a cane while serving in World War II.
Despite his ailments, he believed in the same theory his father did, which had been instilled in Roosevelt Jr. since childhood – in answering when being called to duty. As he once said, “Long before the European war had broken over the world father would discuss with us military training and the necessity for every man being able to take his part.”
Ken’s father, Jacob, was born in Karlsruhe, Russia in 1892. He emigrated to North Dakota and settled in Morton County, where he worked as a farmer. Jacob fought in five battles during his service in World War I. When he returned to Mandan, he and his wife had seven sons and seven daughters.
Following his service in the war, Siegel received a presidential citation, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.
In the same way Roosevelt followed in his father’s footsteps by serving in the military, Jacob Siegel’s seven sons also echoed his path as well – all of his sons, including Ken, served in the military.