William J.Gilwee, Great War Society
Students of history trace many important events of the Twentieth Century to the Great War. The rise of communism in Russia, the loss of colonies by the European powers, and the rise and success of Adolf Hitler are but a few. In addition to the great political, territorial, and financial losses, the effect on individuals is beyond comprehension.
Consider the effect of the war on Harry S Truman. In early 1917 he was 33 years old, unmarried, working on the family farm in western Missouri, and not too successful in a couple of commercial ventures. In the Great War he served with distinction as an Army captain and artillery battery commander in combat. He first ran for political office in 1922. Because most of the 35th Division, in which he served, was drawn from Kansas and Missouri National Guard units, there were many voters who knew and respected Truman. In addition, he had the support of the powerful Tom Pendergast Democratic faction in Kansas City. Tom's nephew, Jim Pendergast, served in Truman's regiment (the 129th Field Artillery). Jim Pendergast persuaded his uncle to back Truman, who was elected and served as judge (an administrative rather than judicial post) of the county court until 1934. Truman was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934 and re-elected in 1940. He was elected vice president in 1944 and became president in 1945. Truman himself said he would not have entered politics if not for the Great War. What follows is a brief history of Truman in the Great War.
Truman was graduated from high school in 1901. He had hopes of going to West Point, but he could not pass the eye test. Because of family financial problems, going to college was not possible. His first job was as a timekeeper on a construction crew for the Santa Fe railroad. He next worked in the mailing room of the Kansas City Star. In 1904 he went to work for the national Bank of Commerce in downtown Kansas City, and in 1906 he was employed by the Union National Bank.
During the time Truman was working in Kansas City, he lived at a boarding house. Also living at the boarding house was Arthur Eisenhower, the older brother of Dwight, who was still in high school in Abilene, Kansas. When Truman became 21 years old, he joined the Missouri National Guard. The Guard unit was Battery B of the 2nd Missouri Field Artillery. Battery B had weekly drill sessions at the old armory at 17th and Highland in Kansas City. Each member of the battery was assessed 25 cents a week for the use of the armory.
The prewar uniform of the Missouri National Guard was blue with red stripes down the trouser legs, red piping on the cuff, and a red fourragere over the shoulder. Truman's grandmother raised a fuss when he wore the uniform to the family farm. She said it looked like a Yankee uniform and that it was the first time since 1863 that a blue uniform had been worn in her house. The history of the Civil War on the Kansas-Missouri border reads a lot like the horrible conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s. Kansas was a freestate, and although Missouri stayed in the Union, the sentiments of the rural population were generally with the Confederacy, and Missouri was under martial law during most of the Civil War.
In 1861 a group of Jayhawkers lead by Jim Lane crossed the border into Missouri and sacked the town of Osceola. On the way to Osceola, they stopped at the Truman grandparents farm, killed 400 hogs and burned down some buildings. In retaliation for this raid and other actions taken against rebel families, a group of Missourians under William Ouantrill invaded Kansas and attacked the city of Lawrence at dawn on 25 August 1863. At least 150 men of Lawrence were killed and most of the town was destroyed. As a result of Quantrill's raid, the Union military commander for western Missouri, General Thomas Ewing, issued the infamous Order Number 11 on 25 August 1863, requiring all the residents of Jackson, Cass, Bates, and half of Vernon counties to leave their land if they lived more than a mile from a Union military post. Truman's grandmother was forced off the farm and moved her six children to Kansas City as refugees until the end of the war. In deference to his grandmother's feelings as a result of these events, Truman never wore his National Guard uniform to her home again.
Truman stayed in the Guard until 1911 and advanced to the rank of corporal. In late 1906 it had been necessary for him to return to the farm full time. When the United States entered the war in 1917 he was the sole male in the family (his father died in 1914), and he would not have been called up in the draft. Historians ponder the question of why people like Truman enlisted when they could have stayed home. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Truman had had boyhood dreams of going to West Point. Now he was 33, perhaps wanted some independence, and there was also the idea of adventure. He rejoined Battery B in 1917 and was very active in recruiting new members. In 1916 Battery B had gone to the Mexican border in the expedition against Pancho Villa, but by April 1917 most of the enlistments had expired.
Battery B in Kansas City and Battery C in Independence became the nucleus of the 129th Field Artillery. Some of the officers of the regiment had served in the Spanish-American War and on the Texas border. (Ted Marks, Truman's good friend and in 1919 the best man at his wedding, had served in the British Grenadier Guards).
Before the National Guard was federalized in August 1917, the officers were elected by the troops. This practice was common from the time of the Civil War until World War I. To his surprise, Truman was elected to the rank of 1st lieutenant in Battery F.
From May to September 1917, the 129th was quartered in the Kansas City and Independence Armories, as well as a tent camp across the street from the Kansas City Convention Hall. On 26 September 1917 it entrained for Camp Doniphan, Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Camp Doniphan was located on the site of the old Comanche Indian reservation and was named for Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan, a hero of the Mexican War from Liberty, Missouri. Near the camp was a prominent landmark called Monument Hill (1500 feet), which was the burial place of Geronimo.
At Camp Doniphan the 129th was designated a light artillery regiment and trained with horsedrawn 3-inch guns, later in France it was issued 75-mm guns. The 129th was joined with the 128th Light Artillery (from the 1st Missouri Artillery in St. Louis), the 130th Heavy (155-mm) Artillery (1st Kansas Field Artillery), the 110th Trench Mortar (6) Battery, and the 110th Ammunition Train to form the 60th Field Artillery Brigade. This brigade was part of the 35th Division, which consisted of about 6000 officers and men mostly from Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas.
In addition to his duties with Battery F, Truman was appointed the regimental canteen (PX) officer. He picked Sergeant Eddie Jacobson, whom he had known in Kansas City, to work with him. Truman kept the books and Jacobson bought the goods. The canteen was financed by assessing each units mess fund $2 per man. Truman's canteen operation was an outstanding success due to the fact that most of the others in the 35th Division were shut down because of financial problems. At the end of six months Truman's canteen repaid the original assessment, plus $10,000 in dividends, and it still had $5000 in inventory.
On 20 March 1918, Truman left Fort Sill with a group of 600 officers and men to go to France with an Overseas School Detail. Before going overseas he had an opportunity to do some sightseeing in New York City, and while there purchased two more pairs of glasses. He now had a total of six pairs of glasses to take to France and in 1919 returned home with all of them!
On 31 March Truman's group sailed from New York on the George Washington, a confiscated German luxury liner, a large, fast ship which minimized the danger from the slow-moving German U-boats. (This was the same ship that Wilson was to sail on in December 1918 on his way to the peace conference.) After arriving in France on 14 April 1918, Truman had a couple of weeks to enjoy France before the training started in earnest. He then spent five weeks in rigorous training at the artillery school at Montigny-sur-Aube and had additional training at Coetquidan, which was one of Napoleon's old artillery camps.
On 18, 20 and 27 May the rest of the 129th sailed for France. By 11 June it was billeted in the Angers area of Brittany. The regiment had left its American artillery in Oklahoma and were issued their French 75-mm guns.
The Puteaux 75-mm was a highly mobile, quick-firing (20-30 rounds per minute) field gun with a rifled bore, high initial velocity, and a relatively straight trajectory. The gun and carriage weighed 2657 pounds. Each gun and caisson was drawn by six horses, a driver guiding each pair of horses. This was a very tiring job, especially on all-night marches. The 75 had a long recoil cylinder, which enabled the gun to absorb recoil smoothly without having to reposition the piece after each round. The range of the 75 was 7400 yards, while its German counterpart (the 77-mm) had a range of 9200 yards. Another drawback was the 75's low trajectory, which hampered its ability to fire on troops behind breastworks. In spite of these problems, the 75s were widely used on the Western Front and were known for their phenomenal accuracy.
At Camp Coetquidan, France, July 1918
In June 1918 Truman found out that he had been promoted to captain in April and was now the adjutant of the 2nd Battalion of the 129th. His duties were to organize the regimental school and to teach the other officers what he had learned in the French artillery schools. On 27 June he wrote to his future wife, Bess: "Its rather funny for an old rube to be handing knowledge to the Harvard and Yale boys..."
On 11 July Truman replaced Captain John Thatcher as commander of Battery D. The men of Battery D were unhappy with the change, as Thatcher had been very popular. Truman's letters to Bess indicated that he was extremely happy with this assignment, that being a battery commander was his main ambition. Battery D had a bad reputation, was known as Dizzy D, and had gone through four battery commanders in eleven months. The 194-man battery was mostly (96 percent) Irish and German Catholics, many of whom were college students from Rockhurst College in Kansas City, fond of breaking army regulations. On the day that Truman took over Battery D, the men of the battery gave him the Bronx cheer when they were dismissed from formation. Some staged a fake stampede of the horses and got into a fight that sent four men to the infirmary. Truman called all the non-corns together, told them that they were responsible for their own sections and that "I didnt come here to get along with you. Youve got to get along with me...." Things improved after that.
On 23 August 1918, the 129th moved into the front lines in the Vosges Mountains near Kruth, Alsace. This part of the front had been relatively quiet for nearly four years.
On 27 and 28 August the Germans began harassing artillery fire and observation balloons were seen. At 8 p.m. on the rainy evening of 29 August Battery D moved into temporary firing position and participated in a barrage against enemy batteries located at Petit Bailon-Kahler Wasen area. During a period of 36 minutes each of the batteries of the 129th fired 500 rounds of gas shells. The guns were to have been moved back immediately after firing, but D Battery's horses were half an hour late getting there. Starting at 9:30 p.m. the Germans returned gas and high explosive fire on Batteries D and E for most of the rest of the evening. When the barrage started, Truman was on horseback. His horse was hit and fell into a shell hole. Truman had to be pulled from beneath the horse. About this time, the first sergeant shouted "Run boys, they've got a bracket on us!" The first sergeant took off and several men followed him. Truman rallied the battery with some salty language he had learned while working on the Sante Fe railroad. The troops were so shocked to hear such language from Truman that they swung into action immediately.
During the artillery attack on Battery D, two of the horses were killed outright and two others were wounded and had to be destroyed. A number of the other horses ran off and only two of the guns could be moved to safety. The other two guns were buried in mud up to their axles and could not be moved by hand. They had to be left behind and retrieved the next night.
Rather than court-martial the first sergeant who had abandoned the position, Truman demoted him to private and picked a new first sergeant from among the men who stayed with the guns during the barrage. The next night the whole battery volunteered to go on the dangerous assignment of retrieving the two guns, but Truman took only the two sections necessary. In spite of the heavy German artillery, Truman's battery had no men killed or wounded.
On 1 September the 129th was relieved from its front line position. It was billeted at Ville-en-Vermois and Coyviller, southeast of Nancy, until 10 September, when it started a forced march to the northwest to join in the St. Mihiel offensive. (During the long marches in September and October, the regimental chaplain, Father L. Curtis Tiernan, a Catholic priest, would often walk and talk with Truman. Truman recalled in his memoirs how he enjoyed those long talks on religion and philosophy. The two men became lifelong friends. In World War II Father Tiernan was chief of chaplains in Europe. When Truman went to the Potsdam Conference in July of 1945, he sent for Tiernan to join him there.)
The St. Mihiel offensive started the morning of 12 September with an artillery barrage at I a.m. At 5 a.m. the infantry went over the top. By the next day all the objectives had been taken and 15,000 Germans and 440 heavy weapons were captured. The next three days were spent mopping up and establishing a new front line. During this period the 129th was held in the 1st Army reserve at Foret de Haye.
During 15-22 September the 129th marched from Foret de Haye to Hill 290 northeast of Neuvilly, a distance of almost 100 miles. This was the buildup for the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The presence of the American army of 600,000 men, 3000 artillery pieces and 90,000 horses on the road at the same time was a nightmare. (Before America entered the war, the entire U.S. Army had consisted of 127,000 men, and was ranked 17th in the world-- right after Portugal).
The Meuse-Argonne offensive began at 4:20 a.m. on 26 September, with 2700 artillery pieces firing at the same time. It is said that in three hours more ammunition was used than in the entire Civil War. Truman's orders were to fire 1000 rounds the first hour and then, after 5:30 a.m., a rolling barrage was to be advanced 100 meters every four minutes. The infantry began the offensive at 5:30 a.m. and the 129th was ordered to follow. It spent the rest of the day hauling its guns across the mile and a half of no man's land under continuous enemy fire. On 27 September the 2nd Battalion moved through the town of Cheppy into a position 700 yards north-west of the town in a peach orchard. The Germans were in a position south of Charpentry almost within shouting distance of the American infantry. The 129th continued harassing fire the rest of the day. At one point, Truman went through and in front of the infantry (137th Infantry Regiment) to see the effect of his battery's firing.
About 6 p.m. on the evening of 27 September, Truman saw an American airplane drop a flare off to the west. Truman looked through his field glasses and saw a German battery setting up only a rifle-shot away. The Germans were in position to fire on the 28th Division to Truman's left and on the rear of the 35th Division, which was directly in front of Truman. Truman waited until the Germans moved their horses away, then opened fire and knocked out their battery. This action was against standing orders because Truman was firing outside his sector. Even though many lives had been saved in the 28th and 35th Divisions, Truman was threatened with court-martial. Nothing came of this threat.
German airplanes began flying over the 2nd Battalion, dropping grenades. The battalion commander, Major Gates, received permission to move his batteries. D Battery moved 300 yards back, and that night its old position in the peach orchard was pulverized by German artillery.
Expecting a German counterattack, the 129th fired 2445 rounds on 27 September. The next day they directed their fire on the German trenches in front of Exermont. On 1 October the 35th Division, which had suffered 8000 (50 percent) casualties, was replaced by the 1st Division. The 129th had been under almost continuous artillery fire since the start of the offensive. On 2 October the 129th moved out of the front lines to Seigneulles. During the month of 4 October the 129th was on the march every night for 22 days.
On 15 October the 129th took positions in the Sommedieue sector, east of Verdun above the Mcuse Valley. From this position in support of the 35th, Fort Douaumont was visible. There were continuous artillery barrages by both sides. On 9 November the 129th supported the advance of the 35th toward Metz.
By November, D battery was in a more stable area, which provided protected bunkers for sleeping. Truman remarked in one of his letters to Bess that he had learned to sleep with his gas mask on. He also sent her two flowers he had found at the observation post on the Verdun front. Several times in his letters to Bess Truman mentioned his interest in running for Congress or the county court when he got home.
Battery D and Truman received a commendation from the commanding general of the 35th Division for having the best maintained guns in the whole brigade. As was typical of him, Truman gave all the credit to the gun sections.
On 11 November D Battery fired 164 rounds before
11 a.m. Truman estimated that his battery had fired 10,000
rounds during the war. After the Armistice, the 129th
stayed in the Verdun area until 22 January 1919.
Truman got some R&R; at the end of November. He visited Paris, saw all the sights, attended the opera, and ate at Maxim's. He also had a week on the French Riviera. When he had left the Meuse-Argonne front his weight was down to 135 pounds. By the time he returned from R&R;, Truman weighed 174 pounds.
At the time of the Armistice all officers promotions were frozen. The officers were given the choice of applying for the regular army at the same rank, or immediate release. Most of the officers in the 129th, including Truman, chose the latter. When Truman was released he joined the reserves and was promoted to major. By the 1930s he was a full colonel.
On 17 February 1919 the entire 35th Division, including the 60th Artillery Brigade, was reviewed by General Pershing and the Prince of Wales. General Pershing shook Truman's hand and complimented him on his battery.
Early in March 1919, D Battery had to turn in its French 75s. Truman wrote to Bess that it was like parting with an old friend. Except for one barrel, they were the same guns the battery had been issued in July 1918.
Later in March the 129th moved to Courcemont and the officers were quartered in the Chateau Ia Chenay, which once had been the home of Ferdinand de Lcsseps.
On 9 April the 129th sailed from Brest aboard the SS Zeppelin. This was the maiden voyage for the Zeppelin, a confiscated German liner that had been laid up in Hamburg since 1914. The ship sailed from France without any ballast, which caused a lot of rocking motion and much sea-sickness among the passengers. They arrived in New York on Easter Sunday, April 20. Ten days later they boarded trains and left for Kansas City.
Victory Parade in Kansas City
At 7 a.m. on 3 May the 129th arrived at the Union Station in Kansas City for a grand welcome. At 9 a.m. the regiment formed and marched with full packs to the Convention Hall. At the hail the men broke ranks, met relatives and friends, and had a dinner. At 2 p.m. they marched back to the station and left for Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kansas. They were mustered out there and upon discharge each man was allowed to keep his uniform, helmet, and gas mask. They also received their final pay, a $60 bonus, and mileage home. The final discharges were issued 6 May, and the 129th Field Artillery regiment ceased to exist.
Harry Truman married Bess Wallace on 28 June 1919. Ted Marks, the former commander of C Battery, was Harry's best man. Truman went into the haberdashery business in November 1919 with his old friend from the canteen at Camp Doniphan, Sergeant Eddie Jacobson. The business was very successful the first year. A drop in grain prices brought on a recession in 1922, and Truman & Jacobson failed the same year.
Later in 1922 a political opportunity arose when the editor of the Independence Examiner recommended Truman for judge of the county court. Truman had been very active in the formation of the American Legion in Independence and was involved with the dedication of the Liberty Memorial to World War I in Kansas City. He was a popular vetreran of the Great War, and his family had farmed in western Missouri for three generations and was well known and respected. Truman was also approached by an old friend from the 129th, Jim Pendergast. Jim's uncle was Tom Pendergast, a powerful leader of the Democrats in western Missouri, who agreed to back Truman.
At Truman's first political rally the keynote address was given by Colonel E.M. Stayton of the 110th Engineers (35th Division). Truman also gave a speech, but the feature event of the evening was a boxing exhibit put on by ex-Scrgeant Tom Murphy of D Battery. In 1920 Murphy had won the AAU boxing championship.
Truman won the election and served a two-year term as county judge. He failed to win re-election in 1924 because he refused the support of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan wanted Truman to promise not to hire any Jews or Catholics for county jobs and Truman refused to go along. Truman was elected presiding judge in 1926 and never lost another election, including that to president of the United States.
After a rough start as battery commander in the Great War, Truman finished in 1919 as a beloved and respected leader. With Truman in charge, D Battery was in intensive combat from August to November 1918, and not one man was killed or wounded. (Three men were wounded while on a special detail with the ammunition train.) Former Private Vere Leigh in later years spoke about the lack of casualties and said, "...part of it was luck and part of it was good leadership." A battery sergeant wrote home that the men felt Truman was the kind of officer that could take the battery to hell and back without losing anyone. In France, Truman made it a practice to write to the parents of all the men in his battery. On his 35th birthday he said he wasn't a hero, didn't get wounded, and didn't get a citation. He said he was just doing his job.
Truman came home from the war with new confidence in himself. He had been accepted by his fellow officers and proved to himself that he could lead a group of rough and tough men in action and win their affection and loyalty. He had made many friends. When D Battery arrived in New York, its men presented Truman with a four foot high silver loving cup. Later Truman said, "My whole political career is based upon my war service and associates from the war.
This article originally appeared in Relevance: The Journal of the Great War Society, Vol. 2-4; Spring-Fall 1993.
Brownlee, Richard S. Gray Ghost of the Confederacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1958.
Cochran, Bert. Harry S Truman and the Crisis Presidency. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1973.
Ferrell, Robert H. Dear Bess; The Letters of Hariy to Bess Truman, 1910-1959. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.
Lee, Jay M. The Artilleryman. Kansas City: Press of the Spencer Printing Co. 1920.
McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992
Miller, Merle, Plain Speaking, an oral biography of Harry S. Truman. New Yorlc Berkeley Publishing, 1973.
Robbins, Charles. Last of His Kind An Informal Portrait of Harry S. Truman. New York: Morrow, 1979.
Thomson, David S. A Pictorial biography of Harry S. Truman. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973.
Truman, Margaret. Bess W Truman. New York:
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