Oral History Interview with
A sergeant in Battery D, 129th Field Artillery Regiment, commanded by Captain Harry S. Truman in World War I, 1918-19.
Frederick J. Bowman
La Jolla, California
March 24, 1970
by J. R. Fuchs
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened March, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
Oral History Interview with
Frederick J. Bowman
La Jolla, California
March 24, 1970
by J. R. Fuchs
FUCHS: Mr. Bowman, I wonder if to start you would give a little background sketch to acquaint scholars with who Fred Bowman is. Touch on when and where you were born, your education, your career up to the time you entered the Battery?
BOWMAN: Well, I was born in Kansas City in 1895, educated there in the public schools and high school. Graduated high school, Westport High School in 1913. Out of school there, I worked a couple of years before going on to college. I had an older brother that was in electrical engineering, and was helping him through. When he got through then I was to go on. In the meantime, I went to night school there a couple of years and took up various subjects and continued working in two or three different places. With high school I had an education in the usual subjects of English, mathematics, American history, and various business subjects, such as bookkeeping, accounting, typing, and shorthand and so on, and worked in various jobs there from the time of graduation until
the Mexican border started in 1916.
In the meantime, immediately out of high school, there was a neighbor friend of mine who was in the old Battery B of the Missouri National Guard, and was interested in athletics, and they had had various teams down there. So, he talked me into coming down there and playing basketball on their Battery B team, and we got quite a few fellows of about the same age, Keith Dancy and Tod [Godfrey C.] Downey and Charlie [Charles B.] Allen, and several more of them all in there with the idea we'd play basketball on this team in the so-called Mercantile League. And at the time, we told them we didn't want to join the National Guard, but they said, well, we wouldn't be considered in the National Guard, that we'd just play down there and that we wouldn't be considered enlisted men. We attended no drills.
FUCHS: Now what year was this?
BOWMAN: That was starting about 1914. And we played there. Then the Mexican border ruckus started then in 1916. They called out all the National Guards to send them all down on the Mexican border, and we woke up to the fact that we were all members of Battery B. So, when we tried to explain the terms under which we went in,
all we were going to do was to represent them playing basketball down there, they told us, "Well, your name's down here, you're joined," and so the first thing we knew we were hightailed off to the Mexican border.
FUCHS: You went to the border?
BOWMAN: Yes. So, we went to the border in June 1916, down at Laredo, Texas; and while it didn't come out at that time, we later learned that this was more or less what we thought was a premeditated move on the part of President [Woodrow] Wilson. That they figured we were going to get into World War I and they wanted to know what they had in the way of National Guard, and this was a good excuse to call all the National Guard units out up and down the Mexican border to see just what they had. General [John J.] Pershing was supposed to chase [Francisco] Villa the Mexican rebel down here, but anyone that's been on the Mexican border knows what kind of a job that would be to chase a little band full of bandits up into the mountains wasn't very much and wouldn't mean calling out the whole National Guard of the United States.
Well, while we were down on the border the question came up then of the expiration of our enlistments, and
also we had to sign then another waiver that we would go out of the country and so on, and when it came up to sign that waiver I was one that objected to signing it. I said that we were brought in here under a misrepresentation and I wasn't going to sign any unless a war was on. I was perfectly willing to go, but I wasn't going to sign up for another term in the National Guard. And I didn't make very many friends with some of the so-called officers of the day by taking that stand, but when I took that stand about ten or twelve other fellows that came in the same way, all took the same stand. The captain we had of the Battery at that time, who since was dead, wasn't in my opinion a very ethical man, never had been.
FUCHS: Who was that?
BOWMAN: That was Elliot, Colonel [Arthur J.] Elliot, later Colonel Elliot. Well anyway, we were down on the Mexican border, and my enlistment was up in December, and we served six months and we came home. The Battery came home about six weeks after I did. Around the first of January we were home.
I was then furloughed to what was then called the National Guard Reserve and then we were called out again in August of 1917 into World War I. And then they took
the nucleus of Battery B, which was from Kansas City, was on the Mexican border, Battery C from Independence was on the border, and Battery A from St. Louis made up the three units of the Missouri National Guard, the battalion of field artillery.
When World War I came on they took Batteries B and C and formed a regiment, the 129th Field Artillery. Battery A of St. Louis was the nucleus of the 128th Field Artillery. And that was the artillery regiments of the 35th Division, was the 128th was from St. Louis and the 129th from Kansas City, which was a 75 outfit, and then they had another outfit that they -- 155s that made the 130th that came over from the Kansas National Guard, most of them from around Lawrence and Pittsburg and down in through there.
FUCHS: When they were beefing up these units there in Kansas City, did you have occasion to see Mr. Truman by any chance?
BOWMAN: Well, I had just only met him. I knew who he was, had never had anything particularly in common. He had joined the old Battery B before that and had served his enlistment and was no longer a member. But a lot of the fellows there knew him and I had known of him, but I had met him once; but I never had anything in
particular in common because I lived in Kansas City and he lived in Independence and I never had very much in common with them.
Well, then they took these units and formed them -- we were called back out in August I think it was, of 1917 and stayed in Kansas City for a couple, three weeks and then we were sent on to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma where the division trained.
At the time they formed this regiment of the 129th Field Artillery, a good friend of mine had charge of forming the units and he came to me and told me what he was doing, that they were forming this and they were needing officers and with the experience I had had in the Mexican border and so on, would I consider going in as an officer? And I told them that would depend on who was going to head the regiment. He told me it was this Colonel Elliot -- this Captain Elliot was going to be the Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment and I said, "Well, if he goes in as Colonel I'll go along as a buck private, because my name would be mud if I was an officer under him," I wouldn't have any part of him. And that's the way it ended up, that's the way I went. But in the meantime he didn't get to be lieutenant colonel -- I mean full colonel, a man who married the Heim Brewing Company's
daughter there, a West Point man, a man named Karl Klemm was brought in and was made colonel of the thing, and Elliot was lieutenant colonel and that was as high as Elliot should ever have gone anyway. In fact, he shouldn't have gone that high in my opinion. But anyway, that was the nucleus of the way the thing started.
Well, then we went to Fort Sill at that time and I went on over into Battery D. A friend of mine was captain of the Battery D and I went over into Battery D and was appointed instrument sergeant, which has charge of the computation of firing data and communications and so on in the Battery. And I served in there for all the time, practically, during the war. But that's when I first met -- Truman came in there and he was called back, being in the National Guard before, and was called back and was given a commission and he was assigned to Battery F and was also assigned to what we called the canteen of the regiment, but they had established that and they put him in charge of that. That's where I first met him.
FUCHS: This was at Camp Doniphan?
BOWMAN: At Camp Doniphan in Oklahoma, that's where I first knew him.
FUCHS: Did you meet him there?
BOWMAN: Yes, I'd met him and used to see him around the canteen and got to know him and knew who he was and he knew who I was and so on. That's really the first time I knew him.
FUCHS: Do you recall any specific incidents that might have occurred down there, or conversations?
BOWMAN: Well, the only thing is that they started the thing out, of course it was a question of whether they were going to make any money out of the thing. We used to walk in there and talk about it and so on. He would always say, well, he was going to put it in shape where it would make some money, that it was for the accommodation of the men and they didn't want to make a lot of money. They weren't going to lose any money, but they were going to run it on a sound businesslike basis and that was where Eddie [Edward] Jacobson first came into the...
FUCHS: Did you know him down there?
BOWMAN: I knew him down there, yeah.
FUCHS: You thought the canteen was well-run then?
BOWMAN: Well-run, yeah. We had a little fellow in our outfit, fellow named Frank Spina, who was born in Italy, was a barber. And Frank at that time was the, more or less, the Battery D barber. But he would set up his stand down there at the canteen sometimes and give haircuts
there. He had a portable barber chair they'd move down there that he'd bought that he'd prop them up and whack off their hair.
FUCHS: Did you go over with the advance detail?
BOWMAN: No, I didn't go with the advance detail. I was there at Fort Sill. They picked the advance detail to go over, and I wasn't fortunate enough to get on that. A lot of the fellows from our Battery did go over. I would have liked to have gone, but I wasn't selected and I know the reason why I wasn't selected.
BOWMAN: Well, it was account of my friend Elliot. Because at Camp Doniphan a request came out for Officers' Candidate School and my name went in at the head of the list from Battery D to go to school and I was immediately crossed off by my friend Elliot, and that brings us up to a very interesting concern about Mr. Truman.
And they went on there, oh, about every 90 days or every three months there'd be another Officers' Candidate School. Well, Keith Dancy went to it, and graduated with high honors. So, that went on, oh, then with the Battery we went over to Europe and we'd changed battery commanders a couple of times and
each time I changed, being the job I had as instrument sergeant, you worked right with the battery commander, giving him firing data.
While we were at Fort Sill, Oklahoma with those old three-inch guns we fired out on the range down there, the artillery range, it was my job to help compute the firing data, the distances and the elevations and all that and also the communications. So, I had worked very closely, naturally, with each of the battery commanders.
There was one man that was on the Mexican border as a battalion adjutant, a Captain John Thacher, who was a very high grade lawyer there in Kansas City, his old firm of, oh, Thacher, Rozzelle and Vineyard, I think. They were mostly corporation lawyers and trusts and legal work of that kind. Quite a man, quite a worldwide traveler, and he was brought in as battery captain there at one time. And of course, knowing him on the Mexican border as I did, I worked very closely with him and he recommended me to officer's school. Well, he almost got fired for recommending me to officer's school.
So when we get over to France and in training there at Camp Coetquidan, which was an artillery training point there, we went through the regular firing data again,
except we changed from the old three inch guns to the French 75s. We completed that training and we moved up along, I forget where, it was along, oh, the first part of August for the Vosges Mountains. That was going to be our quiet sector, supposedly quiet sector.
Well, we got up there moving the guns into position. It was after dark and they had wrapped burlap around the wheels of the guns so they wouldn't make too much noise and all that kind of stuff, which was all a big joke. This so-called Elliot came storming out of there a couple of times bellowing out a few orders and so on. Nobody paid much attention to him, but -- and the infantry -- talked to some of the infantry later, said when they went down into position, took their position on the front line -- you see we were in two mountains, the Vosges Mountains came down kind of a V-shaped affair. The Germans on the one side and the Americans were on the other. You could shoot all day over there and never hurt anything. They could shoot all day over there and never hurt anything here. You couldn't advance anywhere, no place to go. You start going up the hill and get the hell shot out of you, go up that hill either side. Well, it was just a quiet sector to give the boys a little indoctrination in the trench warfare and so on. And all this secrecy
about where we were coming in with the horses and all that kind of junk. And the fellows in the infantry said when they took their positions up in the front lines, the Germans hoisted a sign saying, "Welcome 35th Division."
FUCHS: I'll be darned.
BOWMAN: So, there was where we were at the little old town of Kruth, down there in Alsace, and we were out working around there, and that was when we went to locate the gun positions up in the Vosges Mountains. Captain Truman was then put in charge of the Battery at Coetquidan, and Captain Thacher was moved over as adjutant. And the story was at that time that my friend Colonel Elliot was going to send Captain Thacher home as inefficient; but th