New Truman Library exhibit focuses on his WWI experience with seldom-seen pieces

An ID card issued by American Expeditionary Forces to Capt. Harry S. Truman in 1918.


By MATT CAMPBELL | The Kansas City Star (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 9, 2018

Harry Truman saw only a few weeks of action in World War I but the experience helped prepare him for the path to the presidency.

That brief but influential period is the subject of a special new exhibit now at the Truman Library in Independence called "Heroes or Corpses: Captain Truman in World War I."

The occasion is the centennial of his service as captain of Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery of the 35th Division. The title of the exhibit comes from Truman's own words as he headed to Europe in 1918:

"On March 30, the day before Easter Sunday, we sailed aboard the George Washington for France. There we were watching New York's skyline diminish and wondering if we'd be heroes or corpses."

Truman had joined the Missouri National Guard in 1905 but was preoccupied with running the family farm in Grandview. He reenlisted when President Woodrow Wilson declared war in 1917.

"That was basically his way off the farm," said Clay Bauske, curator of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. "He felt he owed it to the country to serve but it also provided another route for a potential future career other than farming."

Truman sought the promotion to captain but was leery when he was assigned to Battery D, full of college-educated men with a reputation for rowdiness. Truman earned their respect in their first major engagement, known euphemistically as the Battle of Who Run.

Battery D had launched a barrage against the Germans with their French-made 75 mm field artillery pieces in the Vosges Mountains. When the Germans launched a fierce counter barrage, many of Truman's men ran.

"They scattered like partridges," Truman wrote. "I got up and called them everything I knew...pretty soon they came sneaking back."

Bauske said it made the 194-man battery more confident in his leadership.

"I think if you can boil it down to one thing World War I did with Harry Truman is it made him believe that he could actually lead men."

Most of the pieces in the exhibit have never or seldom been displayed before. They include more than 40 personal items from the war that Truman saved, such as his tack box, his campaign hat, his saddle and spurs and his officer's uniform.

The exhibit focuses on one man's experience, but it also includes some documents of national importance, such as the actual Zimmerman telegram on loan for three months from the National Archives. This coded telegram, in which the Germans tried to entice Mexico into the war, helped convince Wilson to fight.

There are also several of Truman's letters home to his fiancee Bess Wallace in Independence.

"Dear Bess, I told you that we are coming home right away," he wrote after the Armistice ended the war. "I know it officially now because General Pershing shook hands with me — and told me so."

Truman made connections during the war that would serve him later. One was Jim Pendergast, nephew of Tom. When the Kansas City political boss was looking for a candidate for eastern judge of the Jackson County Court in 1922, Jim Pendergast suggested Truman based on his wartime leadership.

The rest is history.

"Truman's first election probably wouldn't have been successful had there not been all his former military buddies helping to stump for him and attest to his character," Bauske said. "They were very important in Truman's early political career."

The exhibit is included in regular admission to the library and runs through Dec. 31.

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