MIGHTY HISTORY

The artillery mission that made Truman a criminal and hero

Future President Harry S. Truman was a new artillery captain in World War I during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive where his battery would be called to provide artillery fire for advancing American troops. One of his unit's barrages would get him threatened with a court-martial, but the men who were saved by the barrage named him a hero.


Tanks push forward into action.

(National Archives)

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive in September and November in 1918 was the largest American offensive in history at the time with over a million men taking part. The job of Capt. Truman and most artillery units in the battle was to both clear enemy trenches with artillery and to take out German artillery units, thereby protecting American troops.

But the rules for artillery during these engagements were strict. Every division had a specific sector of fire, and these sectors were often further broken down by artillery regiment and battery. So Truman had specific targets he was supposed to hit and could engage basically anything else in the 35th Division's sector.

The start of the offensive was legendary. Truman was part of the 60th Field Artillery Brigade which fired 40,000 rounds during the opening barrage, Truman's battery, specifically, was firing in support of Lt. Col. George S. Patton's tank brigade as the armor churned forward.

"Truman's Battery" depicts Battery D in battle in World War I.

(Dominic D'Andrea)

But the overall offensive would not, immediately, go well for America. The German defenses were still robust, even after the opening salvo. And the limits on American artillery allowed German batteries to fire on American advances, sometimes with impunity.

Worst, America wasn't yet used to dealing with the traffic jams that came from rapid advances through mud, and Germany made it harder for them by bombarding roads as they withdrew, filling them with shell craters that would trip up horses and cars.

Even with these and other setbacks, Battery D was typically in position to support their infantry and armored brethren.

Artillery soldiers fire in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in World War I.

(U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center)

Truman and Battery D focused on fire support of Patton and the other advancing troops, but they also fired at any threats to the 35th Division's flank. So, when Truman saw an American plane drop a flare near his position on the 35th flank during the second day of the offensive, he grabbed his binoculars and tried to find what the pilot was pointing to.

Underneath the falling flare he spotted an entire German artillery battery setting up to send rounds into the American troops, either attacking Truman and his men or hitting the maneuvering forces ahead of him. The Germans were technically in the 28th Division's sector, not Truman's. If Truman turned his guns from their current mission to hit this threat, the action would break a direct order.

But the Germans were nearly within rifle range, and Truman wasn't going to sit on his hands while a threat to Americans matured. He ordered his guns to take on the new mission, holding fire only until the German horses were pulled away. This ensured that the Germans wouldn't be able to quickly withdraw. They would be forced to die at their guns or abandon them.

Traffic snarls slowed the American advance as artillery and supplies struggled to get into place to support the forward line of troops.

(National Archives)

It worked. Battery D's fire crippled the Germans before they could get firing, and the survivors abandoned their guns permanently. But Truman, knowing that his own position had been spotted, pulled his own troops to the southwest and resumed operations.

All good, right? Well, no. The regimental commander, Col. Karl Klemm, somehow got it in his head that wiping out a German artillery battery was less important than following orders to a T, and he threatened Truman with a court-martial.

It didn't seem to have much effect on Truman, though. After all, the 129th Field Artillery Regiment was already short qualified leaders, so it was unlikely he would get relieved of command on the spot. So he filled some notes and letters home with choice insults for Klemm, but he also kept his men moving forward with the advance.

Artillery Observers worked to find enemy targets and direct artillery fire onto them.

(National Archives)

And the next day, despite the threat of court-martial, Truman fired out of sector again. Twice. The first breach came the very next morning when Truman saw a German observation post being set up in an abandoned mill right in the middle of the 28th Infantry Division's sector. Truman ordered his 75mm guns to smack it down.

And just hours later a German artillery battery tried to re-position in the 28th sector, and Truman spotted it. Again, he turned his guns and slammed them with his own artillery fire.

Later that same day, the order restricting artillery units to their own sectors of fire was withdrawn. From then on, artillery units could engage anything in their sector as well as any target they directly observed, exactly as Truman had been fighting the whole time.