Farm Boy to Dough Boy – Harry Truman in WW 1


Here was Harry Truman, age 34, yet to find himself. He’d held a variety of odd jobs and has, for the last ten years, worked his land as a farmer while pursuing mining and oil exploration ventures without notable success. Still there’s a fire burning within, an unquenchable desire to succeed. “There’s no one wants to win,” he notes, “half as badly as I do.” And whatever disappointments he’d experienced, were more than compensated for; he’d found the love of his life and was certain he would soon marry Bess Wallace, 33.
But, before that glorious day, he’d decided to embark on what he expected to be the great adventure of his life. He would fight for his country, the U. S. having entered World War I to help France and Great Britain defeat Germany. That decision would, in retrospect, represent a major turning point, would demonstrate to himself and to others that Harry Truman was indeed cut out for greater things beyond tilling the soil, that a much larger stage awaited him. While eager to enter the war, Truman understood Bess would not take kindly to this decision. He asked to be forgiven for “my enthusiastic action in getting myself sent to war,’ in the hope, he added, that “a little war experience…. will make a man of me.”
We’re fortunate in that we can follow Truman as he goes off to war because he will report much of what happened in the numerous letters he wrote to Bess. (Remarkably, he received a constant flow of correspondence from her as well, even as the war raged in France.) But, before landing in Europe, he had first to be trained as a soldier, specifically as an artillery man, then travel east and ship out across the Atlantic. At the outset he enjoyed such success recruiting men into his unit that they elected him first Lieutenant of Battery D of the 129th field artillery. Training was rigorous, he and his men subjected to much resented inspection routines. The colonel, he remarked, has “eyes in the back of his head and nothing, absolutely nothing gets by unseen.” More importantly, they began “to teach us the English and French methods of artillery fire” (which included weekly exams), an English colonel straight from the Western Front providing instruction, as well as assuring Truman that “I wouldn’t be left out of the greatest history-making epoch the world has ever seen.” Defense against gas attacks were also part of the training regimen. “Had to take a mask like a diver’s,” he reported, “and get into it and then into a gas house and sit there ten minutes.”
At the same time, his entrepreneurial instincts, long in evidence though rarely productive, came to the fore. Army regulations allowed him and his fellow soldier, Eddie Jacobson (a “crackerjack,” Truman noted), to open and independently operate a canteen for his unit. The two purchased their own supplies, set their prices, and, unlike the many other such enterprises on the base, ran it at a considerable profit. At the same time, on a typical day, Truman was also exercising and drilling his men, instructing them and seeing to all their personal needs, particularly clothing. And also getting them out on the firing range for target practice. (“It takes exactly seven and a half seconds for the shots to go three thousand yards. But it seems likes hours.”)
Finally, in March of 1918, after many months, Truman and his unit moved out, left training camp in Oklahoma and headed east to Camp Merritt in New Jersey, a location that allowed this farmer from Missouri to take in the great metropolis of New York City. In no time he became the eager tourist hailing a cab, heading to the top of the Woolworth Building, then Central Park, hunting down the subway and taking in a show at the Winter Garden Theater. Overall, he was unimpressed, both with the performance and with New York City in general. It was, he wrote, “The rottenest Vaudeville show I ever saw or hope to see. It couldn’t even play at the Globe and get by in Kansas City. New York is a much overrated burg. It merely keeps its rep by its press agents, continually harping on the wonders of it. There isn’t a town west of the Mississippi of any size that can’t show you a better time.” Conversations with New Yorkers convinced him that they were incredibly gullible. “Anyone from west of the Mississippi can make these people believe anything. I believe I could sell gold bricks on Broadway and make ‘em cry for more.” He even complained about having a “very uncomfortable pair of feet because they’re not being well acquainted with hard pavements.” He had no regrets, therefore, leaving New York behind, so eager was he to get into the fight, be present at the death of the “scourge of God,” having already come “to hate the sight of a German (they have no hearts, no souls).”
Truman’s trip to France on the George Washington (a converted German liner that would later take President Woodrow Wilson to Europe for the Paris Peace Conference) proceeded uneventfully. Soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force soon learned that all their letters home would be censured and that they were strictly forbidden to reveal their whereabouts or comment upon the conduct of the war. Truman conceded he knew no French (“All I can say is, Je ne comprend pas”), but also revealed that for a time he was being housed in a very comfortable chateau, found the French countryside wonderfully attractive, had already visited art galleries, attended an opera and an American movie starring Douglas Fairbanks. “The country is very pretty,” he wrote, and…. if I had to give up being a Missourian, I’d be a citizen of France.” “I’m for the French,” he added, “more and more. They are the bravest of the brave.” The French girls, though “pretty and chic,” cannot, he wrote, “hold a candle to American girls.”
Soon it was down to the serious business of war, Truman receiving intense instruction in Artillery School, learning topography and the proper methods of artillery fire and troop support. “I had an examination,” he noted, “that would make the president of Yale University bald headed scratching his head trying to think of answers.” He was then obliged to practice every day and pass on the firing techniques to members of his unit. He had by this time been promoted to Captain of Battery D. “You should hear me hand these fellows bunk and make them like it,” he informed Bess. “It’s rather funny for an old rube to be handing knowledge (of a sort) to the Harvard and Yale boys. The hardest work I ever did in my life. I’d rather saw wood or pitch hay.” There was every incentive to get it right because the best prepared artillery battery would be given the privilege of firing the first shots by the brigade at the Germans. Truman’s enthusiasm was unmistakable, his having attained “my one ambition to be a battery commander. If I can only make good at it, I can hold my head up the rest of my days.” Could he stand up under fire? He wasn’t sure. “I have my doubts about my bravery. When heavy explosive shells and gas attacks begin…. I have the bravest kind of head and body, but my legs won’t start. It is sure a great game if you don’t weaken.”
Before heading into battle, his principal challenge, he recognized, was to gain control of the men (including quite a few Irishmen, he commented), many “lax in discipline.” “Can you imagine me,” he wrote, “being a hard boiled Captain of a tough Irish battery?” Still, after he “started things in rough cookie fashion,” he succeeded in shaping up his once unruly unit, his men impressed by his leadership and now prepared to engage the enemy. And in addition, he noted, to loot the enemy, war trophies, e.g. German helmets and iron crosses, being much in demand (Truman admitted the Americans were “souvenir crazy,” and in fact he did purchase German artillery shells fashioned into vases and sent them off to Bess.)
By late summer of 1918, Truman’s unit went into action starting off with a barrage of some 500 gas shells. In his letters Truman did not omit mentioning the dangers he and his men faced from the frequent German shelling aimed at their ranks (though he conceded that the infantrymen had it far worse). But he also reassured her he’d emerge intact. “So don’t worry about me because there is no German shell with my name on it.” He did recount several harrowing scenes in which horses in his unit were killed, certain of his men bolted to the rear, guns first abandoned had then to be retrieved in pitch darkness. “Had shells fall on all sides. I am sure as I am sitting here that the Lord was with me.” Still, he reported, “I have gone as much as sixty hours without sleep and for twenty-two days straight I marched every night,” and “I‘ve almost gotten so I can sleep with a gas mask on.” He had, he boasted, forged the men under his command (numbering 194) into a cohesive, highly motivated unit. “My noncoms now are whizzes. I sorted ‘em over, busted a lot and made a lot. They’ve gotten so they don’t know whether to trust my smile or not, because I smile when I bust ‘em, and the same when I make ‘em.” And he and his men have, he confessed, been supremely fortunate. “I have been very lucky,” he wrote, “in that I have had no one gassed, have not been shelled in any of my positions (and I’ve occupied several in the last month). I haven’t shot up our infantry yet – at least haven’t done it so they could catch me at it.”
The overall toll of the war was devastating, a once beautiful countryside utterly destroyed. “Sahara or Arizona would look like Eden beside it,” according to Truman. “There are Frenchmen buried in my front yard and Huns in the back yard, and both litter up the landscape as far as you can see.” Still, it was clear by the fall of 1918 that Germany stood on the edge of defeat. “I’m for peace,” Captain Truman wrote on October 30th, “but that gang should be given a bayonet peace and made to pay for what they’ve done to France.” A week later he wrote, “A complete and thorough threshing is all they’ve got coming, and take my word they are getting it and getting it right.” (On November 11th, the day hostilities ended, Truman’s battery, for good measure, fired off 164 rounds in the direction of the Germans).
Captain Harry Truman and his unit in the months they’d fought in France, had been involved in four major engagements. He could not have been more delighted about what he’d achieved.
“You know I have succeeded in doing what was my greatest ambition to do at the beginning of the war. That is to take a Battery through as Battery Commander and not lose a man. We fired some ten thousand or twelve thousand rounds at Heinie and were shelled ourselves time and again, but never did the Heinie score a hit on me.”
He had also, he noted with pride, gained the affection and respect of his men. While censoring letters written by some of them he read one that referred to him as “the Captain that could take them to hell and bring them all back.”
Truman’s war experiences had been all he’d hoped for and more. He had shown courage, competence, endurance and an ability to lead while gaining considerable self-confidence under the toughest of circumstances. What lay in the future he wasn’t sure (though he did hint in several letters he’d consider trying his hand in politics). That he would do, and at his inaugural parade, after being elected President in 1948, there were men of Battery D walking proudly in single file on each side of the president’s limousine. They’d come to honor and celebrate the man who had once, long ago, stood with them in the heat of battle.

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