World War I impacted Harry S. Truman in ways that endured long after he returned to the United States from the battlefields in France in 1919.
During the war, Truman served as the captain of an artillery battery, which consisted of about 200 men. The friendships he made with many of these men helped formed the basis for his future political support and enriched his personal and civic life. He belonged to a number of organizations, such as the American Legion and the Liberty Memorial Association, which provided social ties and outlets in which he could express his patriotism and sense of duty.
In their recent book, “Kansas City-Our Collective Memories, Volume I,” authors Bruce Mathews and Steve Noll point out that the Liberty Memorial Association was formed to raise money and to guide planning for a memorial, in Kansas City, to veterans who served in the Great War.
On Nov. 1, 1921, Truman attended the groundbreaking ceremony and site dedication for Liberty Memorial, located just south of Union Station in downtown Kansas City. An associate of Truman’s, Arthur “Steamboat” Wahlstedt, later recalled Truman’s and his own service as “trench-workers” on various American Legion committees handling arrangements for the groundbreaking. Truman also was selected as the local veteran who presented flags to the Allied military commanders: General John J. Pershing of the United States, Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France, General Armando Diaz of Italy, Lieutenant General Baron Jacques of Belgium, and Admiral Earl Beatty of Great Britain. Years later, as president, Harry Truman recalled the “privilege” of this honor.
Truman did not attend the dedication of the almost completed Liberty Memorial on Nov. 11, 1926; he was in Hutchinson, Kansas, attending National Old Trails Association meetings. Nonetheless, his connection to the site continued years into the future. On Armistice Day in 1938, Sen. Truman spoke at the Liberty Memorial. There, he expressed the gratitude that he felt at the time of the signing of the armistice 20 years earlier, in 1918. It meant no more living in dugouts or dodging German mortars and machine gun bullets. He said that those who had participated in World War I “are the strongest advocates of world peace.”
In February 1949, President Truman was “delighted” to learn he had been elected to membership on the board of trustees of the Liberty Memorial Association. In May 1949, “Steamboat” Wahlstedt invited the president to deliver the main speech at the dedication of a mural, which would be placed on the west wall of Memory Hall at Liberty Memorial the following year. The mural depicted the dedication of the site in 1921. Its painter, Daniel McMorris, even included Truman as one of the background figures, along with Wahlstedt and other Kansas City-area people. Truman was unable to attend the mural’s dedication.
Truman’s image also appeared in a different mural at the Liberty Memorial: the Pantheon De La Guerre, a massive painting that McMorris acquired and cut into smaller pieces. In the American section of the painting, he added the faces of four people, including Truman, by painting over existing figures. Further information about this painting can be found at https://www.theworldwar.org/explore/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/rearranging-history.
In 1961, former President Truman participated in the rededication of Liberty Memorial. Joyce C. Hall, founder of Hallmark Cards, persuaded both Truman and Dwight Eisenhower to attend. Eisenhower, who succeeded Truman and had left office that January, took the occasion to visit the Harry S. Truman Library before attending the rededication ceremony on Nov. 10. The following day, Truman presided over the Veterans Day program, gave a speech and led a parade in an open tour car. The Truman Library recently obtained photos of Truman riding in the parade, which his chauffeur recalled began at about 9th Street and McGee.
In 2014, President Obama signed legislation officially recognizing the Liberty Memorial site as the National WWI Museum and Memorial.
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.