Into Action

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Truman landed at Brest, France, on April 13, 1918 and proceeded to the II Corps Artillery School at Montigny sur Aube, southeast of Paris, for advanced training.  This elite school, located in a beautiful old chateau, was one of the most difficult academic experiences in Truman’s life.  But, following six weeks of intensive study of mathematics and gunnery techniques, Truman graduated and returned to the province of Brittany where he rejoined his regiment. 

Upon returning to his regiment following his advanced artillery training, Truman learned that he had been promoted to the rank of Captain.  Although the promotion had actually taken place in May, news had only now reached him.  On July 11th, a nervous Captain Truman took command of Battery D.  It consisted of just under 200 largely Irish and German Catholics from the Kansas City area with a reputation for stubborn undisciplined behavior, having passed through several commanding officers in a short time period.   Truman fended off early attempts by some men in the battery to intimidate him.  Then he made his non-commissioned officers responsible for discipline while promising to back them up.  The men of Battery D came to respect Truman’s firm-but-fair style, and they would soon find that he held firm in combat situations as well. 

In late August 1918, the men of Battery D fired one of their first artillery barrages of The Great War in the Vosges Mountains.  The flashes lit up the sky, and the sound was deafening as their guns were joined by other American batteries pummeling the German positions.  Once the firing ceased, there was a momentary silence. 

Then the German guns returned a deafening barrage, the shells whistling through the trees.  With two of Battery D’s guns stuck in mud, and incoming shells screaming overhead, there was panic.  Horses broke their harnesses and ran along with the men. “The first sergeant got so scared that he ran back eight miles to the echelon, and I’ve never seen him to this day,” joked one Battery D soldier later,

Captain Truman held his ground, along with a handful of others, while screaming profanities at the fleeing men to return.  Slowly, the men reassembled to limber up their guns and move back to their original position several miles away.

The battle showed that the tough Kansas City Irish and German Catholics of Battery D could be rattled under fire, and that their small bespectacled captain could hold his ground under challenging conditions.

Early in September, the 35th Division received orders to move from the Vosges Mountains to a position west of Nancy as part of the reserve for the St. Mihiel Offensive.  The German defenders in the St. Mihiel salient were quickly overrun following a massive bombardment and an aggressive assault by American troops.  The 35th Division and other reserve units were not needed.  However, the greatest test still lay ahead.

On September 15, the 129th Field Artillery began one of the longest and most brutal road marches of the war.  Moving at night and on foot, the men of Battery D guided their horses and equipment over one hundred miles of crowded, muddy back roads to the new American sector between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest.  This road march and the five days of intense combat that followed during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive were the ultimate test for Battery D.

In the closing weeks of the war, the 129th Field Artillery Regiment moved into action for the final time on the old battlefields of Verdun.  Skeletons of French and German soldiers killed in the battles of 1916 still littered the ground.  Battery D’s 75mm guns fired their last shots fifteen minutes before the Armistice took effect at 11:00 A.M. on November 11, 1918.  Captain Truman’s men had fired over 10,000 shells into German lines during the war.

Exhibition Dates

Heroes or Corpses: Captain Truman in World War I is on display from March 10 through December 31, 2018.