Truman’s ‘Rough Bunch’: Future President Learned Leadership Lessons In WWI

Published: 26 January 2024

By Lt. Col. Wayne Curtis, U.S. Army Retired
via the Association of the United States Army website

Truman header

He was a decisive, plain-spoken leader who became the 33rd president of the United States. But more than two decades before he became president, Harry Truman served as an artillery officer in World War I. His time in uniform tested his courage and core values, and transformed him from a struggling Missouri farmer into a decisive leader. Leadership skills forged in that conflict helped propel him into a career of public service, culminating in the highest office in the land.

As a young man, the studious Truman wanted to attend college but could not afford to do so. An alternative was the free education offered by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and he applied for an appointment. Successfully passing the written test, he failed the physical exam because of poor eyesight.

He later found an outlet for his military interest by enlisting in Light Battery B of the Missouri National Guard as a 21-year-old in 1905. To pass the physical exam, he memorized the eye chart. Truman served two three-year enlistments before resigning as a corporal in 1911 because of pressures associated with running the family farm, a job he had held since the retirement of his father in 1906.

Harry Truman in France during World War I. (Credit: National Park Service)

Guard Reenlistment

Truman continued to farm until the U.S. entered World War I on April 6, 1917. At age 33, he was too old for the draft and could have avoided service. Instead, he reenlisted in the Missouri National Guard on June 22, 1917.

During this period, it was common for groups of local men to enlist and serve together. The unit in which Truman enlisted was made up of locals from Kansas City, Missouri, and surrounding areas. During this era, units elected their officers. Truman had not expected to be an officer. As he recalled, “I had hoped I might be a section sergeant. … I had not hoped for a commission.” Nevertheless, he was elected a first lieutenant in Battery F of the 2nd Missouri Field Artillery.

On Aug. 5, 1917, the Missouri unit was federalized and became the 129th Field Artillery of the 35th Division. In September, the unit moved to Camp Doniphan at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for advanced training. Truman apparently performed well; his battery commander gave him such a glowing efficiency report “that the [commanding officer] sent it back with the comment, ‘No man can be that good,’ ” according to Truman’s memoirs.

‘Heroes or Corpses’

In February 1918, Truman, along with 10 other officers and 100 enlisted men, constituted an advance party detailed for training in France. They traveled by train to Camp Mer-ritt, New Jersey. Late the next month, Truman boarded a troop transport for Brest, France. “There we were watching New York’s skyline diminish, and wondering if we’d be heroes or corpses,” he recalled.

In France, Truman attended the elite 2nd Corps Field Artillery School, replete with extensive intellectual and physical demands. He graduated in June 1918 after he was promoted to captain, initially serving as adjutant of the 129th. Much to his surprise, he was later given command of Battery D, a rude and crude bunch known unofficially as “Dizzy D.”

At this point, Truman’s leadership skills first came into play. Various disparaging adjectives have been used to describe the group of men he commanded. On his first day, admittedly nervous, he faced 200 hungover and rowdy young men. Disdainful of authority, the group was undisciplined and proud of its reputation. Mostly Irish Catholics who had known each other since high school, many of the men had been confined to quarters for drunk and disorderly behavior. They were not initially impressed with Truman, betting that he would not last 90 days in the job. By way of welcome, the men staged a drunken brawl that first night.

As one former member of the unit recalled, “We were a pretty rough bunch of boys; anyway, we thought we were. We had already got rid of four commanding officers when Harry came along. He looked like a sitting duck to us.”

Read the entire article on the AUSA web site.
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