Captain Harry S. Truman was 34 years old when he was put in charge of Battery D, 129th Field Infantry, a rowdy band of undisciplined young soldiers. Truman's mission was to transform the group into a combat-ready unit capable of taking on the German army. The odds were not in Harry's favor. Battery D had a reputation for being tough on commanders, and up to that point Truman had experienced considerable failure in his life.
He was born on May 8, 1884 to John Truman, a Missouri livestock trader, and his wife Margaret, a housewife who appreciated the arts. Harry Truman grew up a weak-eyed, timid child. He seemed ill-suited to the rugged frontier town of Independence, Missouri, and dreamed of a career as a classical pianist.
Young Truman tried hard to please his father, but Harry disliked the livestock business and struggled to find his place in the world. He grew up pampered and protected. He was one of the few boys in town to attend high school. His terrible eyesight ruined his chances of attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His father's failed business deals spoiled his plans for college.
In 1901, after graduating from high school, Truman went to Kansas City to seek his fortune. He studied business at Spalding's Commercial College but dropped out after one semester. He took a job as a mailroom clerk at the Kansas City Star, a local newspaper, then as a timekeeper at a railroad construction outfit. In early 1903, he moved into banking, and by 1905 he was making $100 a month working for Kansas City's Union National Bank.
In 1906, the Truman family fortunes changed. John Truman had invested heavily in the grain markets and come out a loser. Harry's father fell back on running the 598-acre family farm near Grandview, Missouri. At age 21, Harry returned to Grandview to help his father run the farm. For eight years, Harry farmed, and year by year, the farm sank into debt.
The one bright spot in Harry Truman's life was Elizabeth "Bess" Wallace, the woman he had loved since childhood. Beautiful, athletic, and charming, Bess resisted Harry's early attempts to win her heart. Yet Harry showered her with letters, and saw her as often as he could. In 1911 he proposed marriage to Bess and she refused. Harry, however, did not blame her. She came from a prominent family, and Truman did not.
On November 2, 1914, John Truman died of cancer. Free from the farm at last, Harry struck out on his own. Like his father, Harry believed in luck and gambled willingly in business. In early 1916, he invested in a zinc and lead mine in Commerce, Oklahoma, hoping to cash in on a rise in metal prices caused by the war. Unfortunately, prices fell, and Truman lost his investment. Later that year, he sank money into Oklahoma oil wells. Again, Truman went broke.
In 1917, when Truman joined the Second Missouri Field Artillery Regiment to fight in World War I, his luck began to change. Truman adapted well to the discipline of military life. He trained at Camp Doniphan in Oklahoma, where he organized a profitable camp commissary with a fellow soldier named Eddie Jacobson. In 1918, Truman received a captain's commission and shipped out to France.
On July 5, Truman took command of Battery D. The rowdy Kansas City Irishmen of the battery specialized in wearing out commanding officers. Many predicted the bespectacled captain would crumble quickly.
Harry Truman, the son of a Missouri mule trader, knew how to handle rowdies. Scared but determined, Truman forced his men to buckle under, rewarding those who obeyed him, punishing those who did not. Within weeks, he transformed Battery D into a disciplined, loyal outfit. The test of combat lay ahead.
On August 29, 1918, Battery D fired 500 rounds of artillery at a German position. When the Germans returned fire, some of Truman's men panicked and ran. "My greatest satisfaction is that my legs didn't succeed in carrying me away, although they were very anxious to do it," Harry wrote Bess later. Cursing and yelling, Truman drove his men back to their positions, and successfully repositioned two of his four guns. For the remainder of the war, Truman led Battery D across the French countryside, hammering German positions and never losing a man. On the battlefields of Europe, he experienced the success that had long eluded him.
Truman returned from the war as a hero. On June 28, 1919, he married Bess Wallace. The couple lived with Bess' mother. Truman went into business with his army buddy Edward Jacobson. Together they opened a men's clothing store in Kansas City. Although the store went under in 1922, Truman wasn't without a job for long. His leadership on the battlefields of France had captured the attention of another army friend, Jim Pendergast. Their association would change Truman's life.
Pendergast's uncle, Tom Pendergast, ran the Kansas City Democratic political machine. Involved in numerous illegitimate activities, from gunrunning and prostitution to bootlegging and narcotics, Pendergast needed a clean-cut candidate to run for commissioner of Jackson County, Missouri. Captain Harry Truman, war hero, fit the bill.
In the Democratic primary, Truman balanced his political inexperience with work and determination. The soldiers of Battery D supported their captain, and Tom Pendergast pulled all the strings he could. Truman won the primary by less than 300 votes, and carried the general election by about 3,000.
Truman earned a reputation for efficient, honest performance. He undoubtedly made concessions to the Pendergast machine -- and he was rewarded for doing so. In 1934, Pendergast chose Harry S. Truman as his candidate for U.S. Senate and, in a rigged election, Truman won.
United States Senator Harry Truman took office in January 1935. Just as he had on the battlefields of France, Truman faced challenges, this time fellow senators who resented his association with the Pendergast machine. Using the assets that had served him well on the battlefield -- honesty, hard work and determination -- Truman would struggle to prove himself. Again, he would succeed.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?