Oral History Interview with
Eugene Donnelly and Edward Meisburger
Mr. Donnelly served as a corporal and Mr. Meisburger as a sergeant under Captain Harry S. Truman in Battery D during World War I. Both men remained close personal friends with Harry Truman through his early business years and political career. Mr. Donnelly has practiced law in the Kansas City area since his return to civilian life. Mr. Meisburger was the City Editor for the former Kansas City Journal-Post and a reporter for a Minneapolis, Minnesota newspaper, and the public relations director for the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers in Kansas City before his retirement.
President Truman is the lifetime president of the Battery D Association. Mr. Donnelly is the permanent chairman, and Mr. Meisburger is the permanent secretary treasurer.
Kansas City, Missouri
December 27, 1975
by William D. Stilley and Jerald L. Hill
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This interview was conducted by William D. Stilley and Jerald L. Hill as part of a intern and independent study project at William Jewell College in March 1976, under the direction of the Political Science Department of William Jewell College. 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 transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of William D. Stilley and Jerald L. Hill.
Opened July, 1985
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
Oral History Interview with
Eugene Donnelly and Edward Meisburger
Kansas City, Missouri
December 27, 1975
by William D. Stilley and Jerald L. Hill
STILLEY: Mr. Meisburger, when did you first meet Captain Truman? Was it at Camp Doniphan, or did you meet him earlier than that?
MEISBURGER: I met him first--I believe it was July 11, 1918, at what we called Camp Coetquidan--I believe it's listed in that background there. Coetquidan, near Angers, France.
STILLEY: What was your rank at that time when you first met him?
MEISBURGER: I was sergeant of the first gun section. Sergeant of the first gun section.
STILLEY: What was your first impression of him? Were you awed? Did you think of his military character, or did you come into much contact when you first met him?
MEISBURGER: Well, my impression was he wasn't a military character, especially. He was just sort of like a man getting his family around a table and telling them what the score was and what he could expect of everybody. They realized, I think, at that time our Battery D was, I would say, a little bit exceptional because they were mostly men that had been through high school, a few in college, and they were--of course it was a volunteer outfit wholly at the time. He was dealing with people that he felt understood what he said about things. I think Mr. Donnelly will affirm that he said that he had a lot of responsibility commanding the outfit, and figuring out movements and firing data and things on the overall level, and the conduct of the outfit would depend on the sergeants and corporals down the line, and he was
relying on them to take care of it.
STILLEY: Mr. Donnelly, was this when you first met Captain Truman, at the same time?
DONNELLY: Well, in a general way, we had met him, as a man, because he was in charge of the canteen at Camp Doniphan, which served, of course, the whole regiment. In that way we were familiar with Lieutenant Truman because he was in charge of the thing. He operated the barber shop and the canteen, and had to account for the money, of course; and the profits were divided among the various batteries for their mess fund, wouldn't you say?
DONNELLY: So, that's the only way that I would enlarge a little bit on when we all first met the man, not in a personal manner, or as a superior officer, but just because he was operating the canteen. Of course, he himself wouldn't be on duty there, but Eddie Jacobson, who later was his partner in
business here in Kansas City, was actively in charge of handing out the merchandise, you know, taking the money.
STILLEY: What was your first impression? Even though you really didn't meet him that well, what was your first impression?
DONNELLY: Well, my first impression of him was a whole lot like Eddies. He succeeded a man by the name of Captain John Thacher, and Captain John Thacher was an elderly man, compared with Truman. I think Truman was about perhaps 32 years of age when he took command of Battery D. John Thacher was several years older than that, and John Thacher was promoted to a major of the Second Battalion, wasn't he Eddie?
DONNELLY: [William] Yeates was in charge of our battalion.
MEISBURGER: There were contrasts there, if you remember, Gene, even at that time. Captain Thacher, you know, was an honor graduate of Princeton University. He
Wrote articles for the Atlantic Monthly and things like that; in other words, he was a very scholarly man and Truman was a right down--to--earth. He had historical knowledge in which other people say he knew more history about the world and the United States than a lot of the people know, but he dealt from man to man, that's what he did.
STILLEY: Sir, the references say that you went through, was it, four captains before Captain Truman took over the battery?
DONNELLY: Yes, when the regiment was first organized Battery D was made up of Kansas City men and some from down in the surrounding counties. And I think that we were still in the National Guard, and the officers went through a process of being elected, didn't they Eddie?
MEISBURGER: Yes, that's right.
DONNELLY, So when we left Kansas City a man by the name of Charles Allen--his name is in the roster there--he was in charge of Battery D, the captain
of Battery D. And then later on he left the regiment and a man by the name of [Rollin] Ritter became the captain of Battery D. Then Ritter, Captain Ritter, was succeeded by John Thacher, and John Thacher was in command at the time we left Camp Doniphan and remained in charge of Battery D until he was succeeded by Harry Truman.
STILLEY: These men, were they unable to control or to order the battery? I think some references say that Battery D was kind of rambunctious or rough and they weren't able to command the battery, is this true?
DONNELLY: I think that Battery D was unique in a lot of different ways. For instance, Sergeant Meisburger, and Tommy [Thomas E.] Murphy at that time was the amateur lightweight champion in boxing in the United States.
MEISBURGER: Murphy was at that time.
DONNELLY: Yes. Eddie was a boxer too, for that matter, and we could pick a baseball team out of Battery
D, and play regimental teams, or a football team that would play regimental teams, don't you see? When you think that you had to pick your teams out of 220 to 240 men, to play teams that were the pick of an infantry regiment or an artillery regiment, why it kind of shows you the makeup of the rank and file of Battery D. As you see, there were some awful good men in the battery, big men, good football players.
MEISBURGER: In addition to that, Gene, we won’t go into detail name for name, but I believe, of course, we are very proud in the fact that our captain became President of the United States, but you can go down the Battery D roster and you'll find men like Mr. Donnelly. He was chair- man of the Democratic County Committee of this county here, Jackson County; he was a public administrator for several years. Then we had another man who became a Federal Judge. That was Judge Albert Ridge. We had another man who was a second--whatever the lowest is--a second grade
buck private, who rose to become a lieutenant general in War II in Europe, John Uncles. And then they both succeeded in business and other enterprises and I think Captain Truman always had it under his mind that he was dealing with people who could add two and two anyway.
STILLEY: When he took over as your captain, what kind of a speech did he give you? Did he say, "This is the way it's going to be done," or how did he give the orders when he first took over?
DONNELLY: Well, he was ever a gentleman, but he was very firm in telling you just what he wanted you to do. Just like Eddie said, he depended on the sergeants and the corporals to more or less convey to the men under them just what the score was all the time. And of course in a training outfit like that it's a matter of welding them into a team so that every man knew just what his function was and how to perform it. See, a battery consisted of four guns. It was a horse-drawn outfit; we depended on horses both in the United States and when we
got to France. A sergeant was in charge of each section, and then under him was a gun corporal and a driver corporal, horse corporal, so that that was the way a battery was organized. Then of course, you got down the line and you had men that had to do with ammunition and stable people and horseshoers and all that sort of thing that made you a mobile outfit and so that you could always keep your equipment up, a master mechanic, and the like of that. It required some ability to organize and weld them into a unit that could carry out everything a battery is supposed to do, firing problems, and care of horses, what have you.
HILL: Did Captain Truman operate the battery any differently than the previous captains had done?
DONNELLY: Well, of course, when he took charge of us, this Camp Coetquidan was your last stop before you went to the front, so that your course of training there was very intensive. I don't suppose in the United States that we fired more than ten rounds
of ammunition to a gun, but at Coetquidan where we got into these firing problems, like the creeping barrage, and firing, just laying your gun on the target that you could see, when they bring the ammunition up there in boxes, and just fire and fire and fire, the barrage program, so it was much more intensive,
MEISBURGGER: That night Mr. Donnelly mentioned at Coetquidan, that's included in our little background on the outfit on their 50th anniversary, so you can refer to that order for specifics, spelling of names and things like that.
I think that a captain of an artillery outfit, and not too far off from going in action was responsible for men's lives and equipment, and he had to deal on the top level about where you're going to be and when are you going to fire and how many rounds to fire and this and that, and that's like Mr. Donnelly said a while ago. He said, "I can't be monkeying with these people down the line that want to cut up some. That's
up to the sergeants and corporals to take care of that." They did a pretty good job.
DONNELLY: It might be mentioned that along about the first of March in 1918 when we were still at Doniphan, that they picked a contingent of officers from the regiment and about seventeen men from each unit; and Truman was one of the men that was picked, as an officer, and I happened to be one of the men that was picked out of Battery D. We all left Doniphan ahead of the 35th Division and we were sent to France to be schooled in the use of the French 75. And the officers were sent to a specialists camp where they got the more comprehensive knowledge of what was expected of an artillery unit. Truman had that much special training by the time that he took charge of Battery D, I forget where the officers training school was, but we wound up in Camp Valdahon up near, not very far from the Swiss border, where we received our training, the Battery D contingent along with the other units of the regiment. We
had a West Point man that was in charge of us just to teach us the use of the French 75. And then Truman went to an officers' training school that made him more familiar with what was expected of you in France under actual battle conditions. And it wasn't long before he took charge of Battery D that we were on our way to the front, don't you see. From then on we got into the campaign as far as Battery D was concerned.
We got into five different engagements up in the Vosges Mountains, in Alsace, and then we marched overland to St. Mihiel, and from there to the Argonne. When we came out of the Argonne we had a week's rest or something like that and moved into a sector up near Verdun, and then changed to another sector at Verdun where we were at the time the Armistice was declared, November 11. By that time every man in the battery knew just exactly what his duties were and how to perform them.
STILLEY: Mr. Meisburger, when Captain Truman took over the battery, I have read somewhere, the
battery tried to initiate him into the battery. What was the initiation like?
MEISBURGER: Is this recorder on here?
STILLEY: Yes. Don't you want to talk about it on the recorder?
MEISBURGER: I have some memories of it; Mr. Donnelly may have others. I remember when they tried to initiate it was just a normal nightly activity at Camp Coetquidan where he took us over (which by the way was Napoleons old training camp). Some of the boys went down on what we called a pike, that was down a highway where they had wine shops and other things like that, and they got fixed up for the evening; and when they got back to the barracks where people slept pretty close together in a kind of a barn more than a barracks, I guess. Anyway someone stepped on somebody's foot or hand; or something, and the commotion arose, and I think they called out the officer of the day; and the captain finally got on the job
and read the riot act, that's all I remember. He said, "We're not over here for monkey business. There are certain rules and regulations, we've got to quiet this down." So they did. But I must say they had a little respect for him, I'll tell you that. Later on during various engagements they found that. He was a commander, I'll tell you that. Not like General Patton would be; I would say he was the extreme opposite of General Patton, but he still got things done.
STILLEY: Would you like to add something on that, Mr. Donnelly?
DONNELLY: I think that pretty well covers the episode you're speaking of. I was one of those that was down on the pike, I can tell you that.
METSBURGER: Well this is off-the-record. He had a hell of a time. I can remember that night when the chief mechanic, Quinn, came in that night late from down on the pike and the officer--I don't know whether he was a corporal or a sergeant, but
the guard at the gate questioned him. Quinn had a big heavy wine bottle you know, and had his finger stuck down in the neck of it, and one fellow asked him a question, so Quinn Just swung around to him and hit him on top of the head. I know