As the thirty-third President of the United States, Harry S Truman made some of the most important decisions in American military history. He served as Commander-in Chief during the closing months of World War II after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He made the ultimate decision to use atomic weapons against the Japanese. In the summer of 1948, Truman signed legislation that reinstated Selective Service, and issued Executive Order 9981, ordering the desegregation of the armed forces. During the next year of Truman’s presidency, the U.S. became a charter member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He also ordered U.S. troops to Korea after North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950.
While Truman made many command decisions as President, he also had an impressive military record of his own. An avid reader of military history, Truman had applied to West Point after graduating from high school, only to be rejected because of his abysmal eyesight. On 14 June 1905, Truman became a charter member of the newly formed Battery B of the Missouri National Guard. Some of Truman’s relatives, however, were less than ecstatic about his enlistment. Upon seeing him in his blue National Guard uniform, Truman’s grandmother, whose farm had been plundered by Union sympathizers from Kansas during the Civil War, said, “Harry, this is the first time since 1863 that a blue uniform has been in this house. Don’t bring it here again.”
Truman served as battery clerk until discharged in 1911. After the U.S. entered the war against Germany in April 1917, Truman reenlisted in the National Guard despite being exempt from the draft. He was elected first lieutenant of Battery F, 2nd Missouri Field Artillery at the age of thirty-three. On 5 August 1917 the 2nd Missouri was federalized and redesignated the 129th Field Artillery Regiment. The regiment was assigned to the 60th Field Artillery Brigade, 35th Division. In September 1917 the 129th was sent to Camp Doniphan, Oklahoma, a post adjacent to Fort Sill, for training. While at Camp Doniphan, Truman was assigned the duties of regimental canteen officer. Under Truman’s direction, the regiment’s canteen turned a respectable profit, the only one on the post to do so.
On 29 March 1918 Truman and the 129th boarded the George Washington for the voyage to France. After arriving in France, Truman was promoted to captain on 11 July 1918 and given command of Battery D. Despite some self-doubt in his abilities, he proved to be a very capable artillery officer, displaying great courage and initiative while under enemy fire. He led the battery in actions in the Vosges, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, and Verdun. By the end of the war, Battery D had fired over 10,000 75mm rounds into the German lines. Truman received sterling evaluations from his superior officers (“an excellent battery commander…an excellent instructor…resourceful and dependable”), and his regimental commander recommended him for the rank of major in the Regular Army. But Truman declined the commission. Truman and the 129th returned to the U.S. and were mustered out on 6 May 1919.
Following his discharge from active duty, Truman accepted an appointment as a major in the Organized Reserve Corps. He took great pride in his military service and never missed an opportunity to wear his uniform in public. He maintained a close association with his wartime unit and his men continued to call him “Captain Harry” years after the war.
In December 1941, Truman, who was 56 at that time and held the rank of colonel in the Army Reserve, was serving as a U.S. Senator. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Truman presented himself to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and volunteered for active duty. Marshall refused, telling Truman, “We don’t need old stiffs like you—this will be a young man’s war.”
Today, the 129th Field Artillery, Missouri Army National Guard, Truman’s former unit, honors him in a unique way. The 129th maintains a Battery D, nicknamed “Truman’s Battery,” the only Battery D in the National Guard.