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The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

35th Division

Capt. Harry Truman & Battery D, 129th Field Artillery
In Action in the Argonne

By D.M. Giangreco

Common wisdom among historians holds that everything that could reasonably be said about Harry S. Truman during World War I has been said since little useful information exists on Truman's actions during combat outside of one regimental history, some postwar notes, Truman's letters to his wife, and the oft repeated stories of several Battery D members who remained lifelong friends.

However, as a battery commander, Truman was on the receiving end of all battalion and regimental orders. In addition, his unique position meant that he was the man responsible for carrying out those orders. A detailed examination of the Truman Library's holdings of battery and battalion paperwork, including operations orders and reports, reveals that the material contained in his letters to his wife were highly sanitized. This will certainly not come as a surprise to the people in this room, and the extremely large number of his fellow 35th Division veterans who cast votes for him in a series of county and, ultimately, federal elections understood well their shared experiences.

When combined with a detailed examination of approximately 200 pages of Truman's handwritten notes, the extensive oral histories of his soldiers, and the records of other commanders in his battalion--- all set against the 35th division's operations--- an extremely rich picture emerges of the future president's time in combat.

Truman's battery was frequently employed well forward. He was detailed to provide fire support for George S. Patton's tank brigade during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, engaged German field guns and was credited with either wiping out or forcing the permanent abandonment of two complete batteries. When firing on these and other targets, he disobeyed orders and fired "out of sector" against threats to his division's open flank. Truman's 35th Division, a National Guard formation made up of units from Missouri and Kansas, suffered grievously in that battle, and the battery of the man who would later order the dropping of the atomic bombs was sited approximately 150 yards forward of where Patton was wounded in an area referred to by one artilleryman as "a cemetery of unburied dead."

Truman as a Prewar National Guardsman

In all, the 27,000-man division lost nearly 7,300 men during six--- really four days--- of fighting. A total of 1,126 killed or died of wounds; 4,877 severely wounded; with the balance lightly wounded or suffering from combat fatigue and returned to duty. The casualties suffered on these few days represent the highest loss rate for any U.S. division during the war--- virtually all occurring within two to three miles of Truman's artillery battery as it moved forward through the battlefield and went about its deadly work. Just how this loss rate came about was a subject of intense interest and debate within both local newspapers and Army-wide journals after the war. Said one of Truman's colleagues: "Somewhere there is a man who is responsible for all that. The buck can be passed just so far but there is always a last man."

Well, sometimes yes; sometimes no. This particular buck began its search for a home on the late afternoon of D+1 with Pershing's move-or-else order to 35th Division commander Peter Traub.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. On D-Day, 26 September 1918, the three regiments of the division's artillery brigade, the 60th Field Artillery under Lucian Berry, fired over 40,000 75 and 155mm shells during the opening bombardment. Truman's mission during this was to saturate the defenses in and immediately adjacent to Boureilles, at point 1, and then shift his four 75s to the east where he would fire a rolling barrage ahead of the infantry from point 2 north to the Cheppy area.

After the rolling barrage reached the Cheppy-Varennes line, the 60th Brigade's two 75mm regiments, the 128th and 129th, lit out close on the heals of the follow-up infantry regiments and ahead of the expected traffic jams with Truman's battery leading the column at the tip of the 129th

Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, Capt. Harry Truman Circled

Movement was steady but came to an abrupt halt at the first line of defense where retreating Germans had blasted huge craters at point A in the Route National and a side used by Truman's battery. While the rest of the 129th turned around to make a short backtrack before taking off across no mans land, Truman's battery stayed put as he and the 2d Battalion commander, Major Marvin Gates waded the Aire River and continued along the highway in a futile effort to find Patton--- or really any--- armor officer they could liaise with, and eventually reached to point B overlooking Varennes before turning back.

Truman and his battery then followed the rest of his regiment across no man's land and was often forced to pull his guns one at a time by double teaming--- that's 12 horses--- in order to get them through the muddy, shell-torn German minefields. It was 10:00 and raining that night before the bone tired men and horses reached the regiment's bivouac at point C roughly half way between the German's front and main lines of defense.

An impossible to carry out fire mission was received and abandoned early the next morning for fear of hitting our own troops near Carpentry, point 3, and the 2d Battalion subsequently moved north through the carnage of the main defensive line to establish itself at point D northeast of Varennes. Truman was again sent forward to observe and direct fire in support of the assault on Carpentry. And, again, was unable to link up with the anyone from the infantry regiment's HQ but did have a ringside--- if rather hot--- seat at point 4 above an unsupported tank assault into the German reverse-slope positions being shelled and the town.

Unnoticed, however, some quote "shifting and straightening" of the U.S. infantry's lines had begun. The result? Truman's shell-crater OP ended up at point E, some 200 yards in advance of the regiment it was to support. So intent had he and his small group been at observing fire and setting up wire communications, that they hadn't recognized the full-blown pullback in the smoke and confusion, and disaster was prevented by one of the last infantrymen out who warned them of the move.

Apparently, either direct observation or a check of a terrain map revealed to Truman that setting up the artillery OP high on the ridge would produce blind spots along the most likely axis of advance used by German reinforcements--- the Route National. Truman instead selected a position somewhat down the slope and just west of the road, point F, where he could obtain both excellent observation of the entire length of the road, and (of importance to this narrative) the Argonne Forest which ran all the way up to the bluffs on the other side of the Aire River and which faced the wide-open 35th Division flank. As it turned out, the Germans principally used other routes for their final approach to the battlefield, but there was plenty to keep Truman busy to the west in the 28th Division sector.

American planners at First Army had long understood that with the exception of a small number of batteries with specific missions, like Truman's intended support of Patton, their divisional artillery would be out of action after about 7:45 am on D-Day as it displaced forward, but they also believed that most units would be ready on D+1. What they did not anticipate was just how clogged most of the roads would become; even further delaying units that didn't get of to the fast start of the 60th Brigade's 75mm regiments. And there was absolutely no way that they could have imagined the bizarre series events centering around some of the 28th Division's senior artillery officers which, together with the traffic jams, immobilized the bulk of its artillery for nearly three full days.

It was the morning of D+2 before one of that division's twelve 75mm batteries managed to get back into action. The rest of its regiment had become stuck in traffic below Boureilles on D-Day, long after Truman's soldiers had departed the area around 3 pm to cut across no mans land, and the regiment was unable to move even to Varennes until D+3. The other 75mm regiment reached Varennes the night before after being delayed not only by traffic, but severe command problems. First, one of its battalion commanders quote "went to the hospital sick" a half hour after receiving orders to push off; his replacement was relieved the following day for not getting the unit moving and the regimental commander took over in an effort to provide enough authority to move it through and around the road congestion.

Command was eventually turned over to one of the battery captains until yet another more senior officer could be brought up.

Both divisions' road-bound medium artillery battalions eventually worked their ways up the Route National and deployed at Varennes. Characteristically, while all elements of the 35th Division's 155mm battalion were in place and firing by 5pm on D+2, the 28th's mediums could not supply a concentrated effort until D+4. It must also be noted that corps artillery at this point in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive operated under the restriction that it could fire on targets no closer than four miles from the infantry's front line positions.

155s of the 35th Division at Varennes
The 129th 75s Were Deployed Nearby

Bottom line: there was almost zero American artillery fire falling into the wide expanse of forest on the 35th Division's ever-lengthening, open left flank until D+3. The German reaction? They easily poured some 16 artillery batteries into this huge hole in the U.S. artillery coverage on D+1 and 2. Some of these units were directed against the 28th but the dastardly Hun's, displaying no respect for American divisional boundaries, directed a murderous fire into the 35th whose infantry regiments frequently complained of being shelled by their own units because a significant amount of this German fire was literally coming from behind them.

Back to Truman at his OP: breaks in his telephone wire from German artillery fire and the tramping of infantrymen's feet caused a good deal of trouble, but his line detail managed to keep communications with his battery relatively open. By now it was late in the day and Truman was basically concerned with the Route National approach in his own division sector but noticed that an American reconnaissance aircraft had dropped a flare just to the west of his position. Turning his field glasses to the spot, he saw a German battery setting up little more than rifle distance away at point 5. On his own initiative, Truman directed his battery, at D, to fire on the German guns as soon as there horses had been pulled away. Scratch one Hun battery.

Truman and his men returned to Battery D when it became too dark to see and, with the rest of the 2d Battalion repositioned his unit to another hedge-lined road about 300 yards to the southwest at point G. It was a good call. The 2d's commander, Gates, believed that their earlier position had been fixed by German aircraft and, sure enough, their former position was thoroughly shelled immediately after the move, and was very heavily bombarded on several occasions over the next few days--- particularly during the German counterattack on D+3. Less welcome than not being killed by German artillery, however, were the threats of courts martial Truman received from his regimental commander, Colonel Karl Klemm, that night for firing out of sector.

Although there are several angry accounts of other Klemm actions against Truman in letters to his wife and a field notebook, there is no record--- even in Truman's voluminous postwar writings--- of the future president's response; only a dry note of irony in his two brief references. But what we do know is that Truman left for his OP position before first light the next morning, D+2, and that when at 9:00 am he spotted a German OP being set up in an abandoned mill at point 6--- smack in the middle of the 28th's sector--- he promptly called down battery fire and destroyed it. Two hours later he observed a battery moving out of position nearby at point 7 and forced its permanent abandonment after a short, intense bombardment. So much for threats of courts martial. Shortly after Truman's forays to the west, a battery from his regiment's other 75mm battalion also engaged German guns in the 28th's sector and was cheered on by a corps liaison officer who was present even as they even as they did it.

Although Truman and his men had removed two batteries from the German's order of battle, the 35th was still suffering grievously. Greatly concerned about the division's situation, Pershing went forward on D+2 to observe for himself what was going on; a move which, incidentally, prompted MPs in the 28's sector to shut down nearly all road traffic for nearly three hours and prolonged the division's lack of artillery support.

General Traub detailed the terrible flanking fire from Apremont and the Argonne Forest and explained that he was unable to respond because of the First Army's standing order which forbid divisions firing on points outside of their own area. An aghast Pershing responded "But surely you do not obey that order?" From that point on, the 35th's artillery was allowed to engage in observed fire in the 28's sector but the damage had already been done by allowing the German guns to deploy unhindered and in force.

The 35th's D+3 assault on Exermont was thrown back with great losses and German counterattacks nearly succeeded in breaking the American lines. The U.S. 1st Division which replaced the 35th, would suffer a further 6,000-plus casualties in this same area during the coming weeks.

Both during the crisis of D+3 and in the years thereafter both Traub and the artillery brigade commander, Berry, would refer directly and indirectly to the actions of battery commander Truman and the 1st Battalion battery which also fired across the river, and use them as a sort-of shield to help ward off criticism--- and Traub would embellish Truman's work. For example, after severe criticism that the division's infantry had received no fire support on D-Day after the opening bombardment, he countered in the Kansas City Post that on D-Day, "The battery under Captain Harry Truman was in action before noon, and continued in action throughout the day, wiping out machine gun nests and antitank guns on the slopes." Truman's battery, however, while certainly arrayed for action, never fired a shot during this period.

Missouri Monument at
Cheppy, Argonne Forest
Truman never criticized his former division commander in public or his writings, but did make it a point to have semiofficial and unofficial accounts somewhat toned down from the defend-the-honor-of-the-division rhetoric, and ensured that they were in line with eyewitness observations including those from the from the 28th Division.

As for Truman's time in the Muese-Argonne, experiencing air and artillery attacks on his positions, directing fire, setting up his antiaircraft machine guns for use against infantry during the German counterattack--- all this will certainly tempt some to engage in a questionable psychoanalysis of how it must have affected his later thinking on the atom bomb.

Risky business, this psychobabble stuff, and I'm sure not going to do it. But I think I'm on safe ground with two simple observations: First, Truman's activities during the war, were far more interesting and complex than previously realized, and second, the man who later ordered the invasion of Japan in the face of massive casualty estimates knew exactly what he was asking of our soldiers, sailors and Marines, and he understood it at a level that most Americans today would find unfathomable. Truman understood as only one who had lived and fought for six days in a "cemetery of unburied dead" could.

Credits and Thanks

D. M. Giangreco, served as an editor at Military Review, US Army Command and General Staff College, for 20 years. Originally presented at the 69th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History, sponsored by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and Department of Veterans Affairs in 2002, this paper was later published in the Autumn 2003 edition of the British Army's Journal of the Royal Artillery (130:56-59). The photos are from the Army Signal Corps, the National Guard, and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

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