Oral History Interview with
Lorain H. Cunningham
Member of the 129th Field Artillery regiment, 35th Division, in World War I, acquaintance of Harry S. Truman, and mining engineer.
Baxter Springs, Kansas
September 8, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson
[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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 October, 1990
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript |List of Subjects Discussed]
Oral History Interview with
Lorain H. Cunningham
Baxter Springs, Kansas
September 8, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson
Subjects discussed include coal mining in Kansas; Camp Cody, New Mexico; Camp Doniphan, Oklahoma; 129th Field Artillery's trip to France; Cunningham's experiences as an artilleryman in France, 1918; photographs taken by Cunningham of 129th Field Artillery personnel, including Captain Harry S. Truman; Verdun battlefield; disposal of surplus military equipment; Missouri School of Mines at Rolla; Peabody Coal Company; and Battery D reunions at the Inaugural in 1949 and in Kansas City on November 3, 1952.
Names mentioned include Harry S. Truman, Eugene Donnelly, Ted Marks, Lynn Cunningham, Gordon Cunningham, Olive Cunningham, and Glenna Cunningham.
JOHNSON: Mr. Cunningham, will you tell us when and where you were born and what your parents' names were?
CUNNINGHAM: I was born in Pleasanton, Kansas, in Lynn County.
JOHNSON: What was your birthdate?
CUNNINGHAM: March 10, 1895.
JOHNSON: All right, and your parents' names?
CUNNINGHAM: My father was a Scotchman, Duncan Cunningham. He didn't come until he was 19 years old from Scotland.
JOHNSON: What was your mother's name?
CUNNINGHAM: Helen. She was a foreigner. She was a musician. Oh, she was a beautiful woman.
JOHNSON: What was her maiden name?
CUNNINGHAM: Porter. Most of her life was spent up at Pleasanton, Kansas.
JOHNSON: What did your mother do? Was she a housewife, was she a teacher, or what did she do?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, she was mostly a housewife.
JOHNSON: What was your father's occupation?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, he was a miner, mostly. He was president of the local union here for twenty-some years. See, around this place, from Northrop and Scammon on up, at one time there was about 45 mines working you know.
JOHNSON: What kind of minerals was it?
JOHNSON: How about zinc mining; was there zinc mining here?
CUNNINGHAM: Yes, but that was way down here.
JOHNSON: More south.
CUNNINGHAM: Yes, that was across into Oklahoma.
JOHNSON: Harry Truman did some zinc mining back about 1913-14. Did you know that, that Harry Truman did some zinc mining?
CUNNINGHAM: I don't remember that.
JOHNSON: Down in Commerce, Oklahoma.
Okay, let's get a little background here. Where did you go to school?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, I went to high school in Columbus, Kansas. My dad took me underground when I was 11 years old, because I was the oldest of 11 children. I had three brothers and seven sisters. Dad, of course, was digging coal.
JOHNSON: Was it his own coal mine; did he own the mine?
CUNNINGHAM: No, no.
JOHNSON: He just worked for a coal mine operator. And you had to do some mining yourself; you had to go down and dig coal when you were eleven or twelve years old?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, he just took me down during the summer vacation, you know, in the mine we were working. He got me a little shovel and took me underground, more I think to teach me. I stayed there until I graduated from high school [in 1913]. Dad had been promoted then. The local union was in the little town where we lived and they promoted him to that. But there was no such thing as Rolla, or a school of mines around there then. There was one in Colorado and the one at Rolla [Missouri], of course, and the people in Kansas were hollering; they
wanted a school of mines too.
So, just about the time, right after I got out of high school, they took an old high school building there and made that a school of mines for Kansas. That's at Webb City. I was raised four miles north of Columbus.
JOHNSON: What city was that where they set up the school?
CUNNINGHAM: Webb City. They set up the third floor, and when they first started, I went up there and joined them. The street car line went through my dad's farm, just about a hundred feet from the barn, and I could go from there. I think it was about 10 miles from where I was living. It was fine, except when the people on these cars went on strike; then I had to get up in the morning and walk ten miles, and then in the evening come home and carry my book and read. I did that sometimes eight or ten days at a time.
JOHNSON: That was after you finished high school, or during high school?
CUNNINGHAM: Just as soon as I finished high school.
JOHNSON: You went to this school of mines.
CUNNINGHAM: Yes, for two years. My dad wanted me to go to college, and of course, that's the reason I was up to Webb City. I stayed at home. You see, I'd take the
street car and go. It only cost me a dime to go either way. Then I could stay home and do my studying and stuff there. But then I had a chance to go to Missouri School of Mines at Rolla -- that's where I wanted to go. I got an encouraging letter from them to come up there; they would help me.
So I went up there with a couple of the other fellows that still live here in Kansas you know. I went up there as a junior, in 1916.
JOHNSON: Did you get your degree there?
CUNNINGHAM: Oh, yes I did [after the war]. I went there as a junior. One day, when all this war stuff was going on, the dean of the school there at Rolla -- that was one of the really big schools -- got word that they wanted all the guys that were taking engineering education to go to a training school of some kind. They were going to need them in the war somewhere. But they only wanted seniors, and I was a junior. Well, they picked three juniors that were there, and I was one of the juniors but had enough grades to be called in as a senior. We went in there and talked to him and he said, "Now, listen, I want to tell you what; they want you as engineers. You don't have to take it, but if you don't go up to that training school and get a degree, you'll be drafted then just as common old everyday soldiers.
That was when World War I was on you know, and they were looking for students all over
JOHNSON: What year was this?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, now, let's see. I don't remember just when the date was [Cunningham enlisted in the Army in May 1917 at Fort Riley, Kansas. See Appendix I for a chronology of his military service.] but I went with the gang down to the training school headquarters here in Kansas. They had a school for the Army. They sent most of us down there; most of us got this doggone walking you know, walking, walking around.
CUNNINGHAM: Yes, marching, and I didn't like that.
JOHNSON: Where was that camp?
CUNNINGHAM: That was close to Lawrence, Kansas, at Fort Riley, Kansas. They asked me if I liked it one time and I said, "No, I don't like it." I got married just about that time; that was [December 20] 1917, I remember that.
JOHNSON: You got married before you went into the Army, or after?
CUNNINGHAM: After I went in. Now, while I was up there word came that they wanted some men to come down to Deming,
New Mexico. I went down there, to Camp Cody, and it was just about the same as up here -- just walk all day and run and make charges, you know. We'd get out there and take our pistols, twelve of us, and six of them would run ahead and plop, and then we'd protect them; that was just in theory, you know. Then they'd lay there so long, and we'd get up and run past them. And you talk about the weeds and all those things down there! If they weren't a mess, and bugs -- whooo. That lasted about four months. The guy down there was this Scotchman and I get pretty well acquainted with him. He said, "You really don't like this, do you, Cunningham?" I said, "No." He said, "What would you like?" I said, "I'll tell you what I think I'd like; it would be in artillery or something where you do something like engineering, a certain amount of work in engineering, where you figure all the stuff you know." He said, "Well, that sounds pretty good."
Oh, I don't know about how long after that, he came to me one day and he said, "Listen, I'm going to send you up to Oklahoma. There's going to be a meeting up there of some of the big people from Washington, D.C. just to see how the different units look like, you know." He said, "Would you like to go up there and spend a week or two?" I said, "I sure would."
JOHNSON: Do you remember his name?
CUNNINGHAM: No I don't.
JOHNSON: Did you go to Oklahoma, to Camp Doniphan?
CUNNINGHAM: Yes. [Transferred there on October 19, 1917.]
JOHNSON: These would be Army generals, Army officers who were meeting?
CUNNINGHAM: And people interested in the Army.
JOHNSON: At Camp Doniphan now you're talking about?
CUNNINGHAM: In Oklahoma, yes. Anyhow, they were short one man on one of the four guns. I think there was a little Scotch in him, but he and I got along pretty well. I'd been there, oh I guess for several weeks or maybe a month or two -- I've forgotten just when -- and he said, "Cunningham, would you like to stay here?" I said, "I'd rather be here than a hundred places like that down there." "Well," he said, "I'll talk to the man in charge here;" that was Harry S. Truman.
Truman called me in one night and he said, "Say, do you really mean that you would like to stay here and be on the number one gun? Would you like to stay and study and be put with that?" I said, "I'll try it." "Well," he said, "I'll see what I can do to get to keep you." And he sent word down to New Mexico and that guy said, "That's just exactly what I want you to do, because I
know that he's not satisfied down here." So they kept me here.
JOHNSON: That was the first time you met Harry Truman?
CUNNINGHAM: Oh, yes. I had been there a couple of weeks before I met him. Yes, and they had some big shots; they were making the rounds of different plants you know, and they were going to stop there. That was artillery, of course, down there.
JOHNSON: At Doniphan.
CUNNINGHAM: Yes, and they were going to put on a show, how you shoot the guns, you know. I don't know what caused it, but there was really some big shots from Washington, D.C. I think there were six or seven of them, and they wanted to put on a show; they wanted Truman to put on a show. They said, "Okay, we'll give you a pair of field glasses, powerful field glasses," and this was when there were clouds up there. They had guns and they had them shoot up, and then the bullet would disappear in the cloud. They didn't give me a pair of field glasses but I stood there and watched them. They shot them and you could see them about that time up in the sky.
JOHNSON: You could see the projectile, you could actually see the shell, the projectile?
CUNNINGHAM: Yes, you could see it.
JOHNSON: They were shooting into the clouds.
CUNNINGHAM: Into the clouds, yes. I don't know what happened but one of the guys there evidently didn't see very good, one of those big guys from Washington. I said, "There it is, coming down on the other side." He said, "You're a damn fool; it's not even up there." Three of the other guys that had the glasses, they saw them [the projectiles] all right you know; and they said, "Well, did you really see them?" I said, "Yes, I saw them." I had an awfully good pair of eyes.
JOHNSON: So you were out at this firing practice and you saw this without your spyglass, or binoculars. What did they do then? They made you an officer apparently. You were a first lieutenant, weren't you?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, first this guy who had been my friend, who I thought was a Scotchman, he talked to Truman about it. He said, "I know the way he talks, the things he had in school, and things like that. I believe that he could learn this kind of business." Well, anyhow, Truman said, "Would you really like to come here?" I said, "Yes, I would like to." He got me transferred there and put me on number one gun, and that's where I stayed [except for January 1918 when he was an instructor at
Camp Funston, Kansas].
JOHNSON: Are we talking about the fall and winter of 1917? Do you remember when you went to Camp Doniphan?
CUNNINGHAM: No, I don't.
JOHNSON: Do you remember going to the canteen down there. You know, Truman and Jacobson ran the canteen. Do you remember that? Do you remember the canteen at Camp Doniphan? Do you remember Jacobson?
JOHNSON: You don't remember Eddie Jacobson? What was your first impression of Truman?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, he and one of the guys in there had a little store, Truman and them, and that's...
JOHNSON: Yes, that's the canteen we're talking about. Did you use the canteen there?
CUNNINGHAM: Oh, yes. Yes.
JOHNSON: But Truman made you, was it head of the section, section 1 of the...
CUNNINGHAM: Yes, number one gun.
JOHNSON: What was your job then with that section one gun?
CUNINGHAM: Just the same as all the rest of them that had been there; they were trained on it.
JOHNSON: Did you calculate the firing angles and so on?
JOHNSON: You calculated those?
CUNNINGHAM: Yes. Then we got orders to get ready to get our stuff all put on the train, that we might be leaving. We put the guns on the flat cars you know, and then we got orders then from Washington, D.C. Those orders came out to all of us you know "Don't ever tell who you are or where you are going. Don't say what you're going to." And there were those guns sitting up there, and all those things, with great big letters, "Battery D." Yet, don't tell anybody you know.
JOHNSON: Did your train go through Kansas City, Missouri?