The day before Easter in 1918, Harry Truman and others boarded the George Washington and headed for the battlefields of France.
“We were watching New York’s skyline diminish,” he said years later, “and wondering if we’d be heroes or corpses.”
The following spring, he returned. The American force tipped the war to the Allies. Capt. Truman had commanded an artillery unit in battle and had not lost a man.
“I’ve never seen anything that looked so good as the Liberty Lady in New York Harbor and the mayor’s boat, which came down the river to meet us,” he wrote to Bess Wallace, his fiance and woman he was finally rushing home to marry. “You know the men have seen so much and been in so many hard places that it takes something real to give them a thrill, but when the band on that boat played ‘Home Sweet Home’ there were not very many dry eyes.”
Truman came home changed. He had made friendships that helped launch his political career. He had grown more sure of his ability to lead.
“They saw that he was firm but fair,” Curator Clay Bauske said of the tough Kansas Citians of Battery D that Truman commanded and from whom he earned respect.
These are among the themes of an exhibit that opens today at the Truman Library in Independence, “Heroes or Corpses: Captain Truman in World War I.”
Truman had been in the National Guard for several years – a time outlined in detail in the exhibit – and then rejoined when the war came. Battery D saw action late in the war. In the Battle of Who Run in the Vosges Mountains, the unit and others fired on German positions. The Germans fired back, a couple of Battery D’s guns got stuck in the mud, and most of the men and horses fled.
“My battery became panic-stricken, and all except five or six scattered like partridges,” he said. “... I got up and called them everything I knew. … Pretty soon they came sneaking back.”
The unit also took part in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, part of the final Allied push that ended the war that fall.
The exhibit gives the broad outlines of the war and has dozens of artifacts that touch directly on history, including:
• The field desk that Truman converted from a large crate and used during the war.
• The field glasses Truman carried and the drafting tools he used to plot artillery positions – tools of the trade for an artillery officer. Also, his campaign hat and Army-issue sewing kit.
• And remember the Zimmermann Telegram in early 1917, in which Germany sought an alliance with Mexico and promised to give it Texas, New Mexico and Arizona? The British intercepted it, Germany confirmed it – and Americans were enraged, greatly propelling the country toward into the war. That actual telegram is on display, on loan from the National Archives for three months. “We can’t keep it for the whole run of the exhibit,” Bauske said. Also: the manifest of the Lusitania, sunk by Germany in 1915; and a page from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the war.
The exhibit runs through the end of the year. It comes with admission to the library – $8 for adults, $7 for seniors $3 for ages 6 to 15, and free for ages 5 and younger. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 Sunday. The library is at 500 West U.S. 24 in Independence, across from McCoy Park. It’s a few blocks west of Noland Road and a few blocks east of River Boulevard.