Oral History Interview with
Private in Battery D, 129th Field Artillery Regiment in World War I, under the command of Capt. Harry S. Truman.
Floyd T. Ricketts
Rancho Santa Fe, California
March 24, 1970
by James 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 January 1978
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
Floyd T. Ricketts
Rancho Santa Fe, California
March 24, 1970
by James R. Fuchs
FUCHS: Mr. Ricketts, would you begin by giving a brief sketch of your background, when and where you were born, and maybe something about your education and jobs you held up until the time you entered the service?
RICKETTS: Well, I was born June 1, 1896 in Clay County near Kansas City, Missouri but spent most of my life in Kansas City up until the time I came to California in 1919. I went to the public schools in Kansas City and did some work in the City; worked for a
printing company. With the advent of the war in 1917 I, along with a number of the other neighborhood boys with whom I was raised and grew up with as little children, joined Battery D. We were from the vicinity of 22nd and Prospect.
After the war ended, because of sickness of my brother, we moved to California, Los Angeles in 1919, and I've been living in California ever since. I worked for the Santa Fe Railroad in the personnel branch of the service and for one of the railroad unions for 45 years. I've been retired ten years and my wife and I built this home here in Rancho Santa Fe thirteen years ago and we're enjoying our retirement years here very much.
FUCHS: Did you belong to the National Guard before the war?
RICKETTS: No. It was just that one of the boys in the neighborhood joined the Battery and then he persuaded the rest of his schoolboy friends to join with him; and there was, in my neighborhood, about fifteen that joined Battery D. We started our training there at the old Convention Hall in Kansas City, until we left for Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, where we had preliminary training, artillery school, and so forth before we left for France.
FUCHS: There were a lot of Irish boys in that outfit, I understand.
RICKETTS: About 60 percent were Irish boys. There was the O'Hares and the Schmidts and the Murphys. Tommy [Thomas E.] Murphy, I guess someone had told you, was the amateur light-weight champion of the U.S.A. in 1917; most of the young fellows were athletes of some kind. I was a semi-pro ballplayer around
Kansas City, and there were fighters, and football players, and basketball players; and so, the Battery was pretty much all made up of athletes of one sort or another.
FUCHS: Who enlisted you in the Battery?
RICKETTS: I think Bill [William A.] O'Hare, an old buddy that I went to school with and grew up with and played baseball with.
FUCHS: What was his rank?
RICKETTS: I think he was a corporal when we were at the Convention Hall.
FUCHS: Do you have any recollections of Camp Doniphan or Mr. Truman?
RICKETTS: Well, now my only recollection of Camp Doniphan was that when we got down there -- in November I think it was -- it turned cold and it was the coldest winter they ever
experienced in the Midwest. We were in what were actually tents, and we had what they called, Sibley stoves. We kept that thing going red hot all night long. March came along, then the dust and the winds began to have their day and my recollections of Ft. Sill was pretty rough training.
FUCHS: Did you see Captain Truman there? He was then a lieutenant, of course.
RICKETTS: He was then a lieutenant, and he and Lieutenant [Edward] Jacobson had charge of the regimental canteen; and we would see them around the canteen of course. But I didn't get acquainted with Truman until he was made captain of the Battery in France.
FUCHS: What were your impressions of the canteen?
RICKETTS: The canteen was well-run and it was a
godsend for us to go and get something different than the usual mess hall meals. We could at least get snacks and candies and so forth.
FUCHS: Did you go over with the advanced detail as Mr. Truman did?
RICKETTS: No, I didn't go with the advanced detail. I was a cannoneer. The advanced detail left about six, eight weeks before we did. Their purpose, I guess, was to get things lined up for equipping the Battery with horses and artillery pieces when we got there.
FUCHS: Battery D had a succession of captains. Who were they, and what do you recall of them? Perhaps you could say something of why they didn't stay with Battery D?
RICKETTS: Well, Battery D, as I say, was made up of a group of young fellows that had a lot of vim and vigor and had to be on the move
and doing things at all times; and I might say that they were a little bit unruly. The succession of three or four captains we had, for some reason or other, couldn't get along, or do the job with the Battery. When we arrived in France -- and I think we were at Camp Coetquidan at the time -- Truman was appointed to take over the Battery.
Our first impression of Truman was when he appeared before the Battery; he gave the impression of a professor more than he did an artillery officer. He had those thick glasses and the first words that I think he spoke to the Battery were, "Now men," and then he went on to tell us just what he expected of us, and what he would try to do for us. I would say that when he took over the Battery the first thing I recall, was that we had better mess. We found also that he was much interested personally in each individual
and any of their problems; and he would talk to them.
On the other hand, we found, too, that he was a pretty strict disciplinarian. If we got out of line too far he would take what steps were necessary to put you back in line. But he, we think, was a great artillery officer, and it was demonstrated at the front later on when we got into actual action that he was a good artillery officer and very proficient in directing the fire of the Battery. He did, we think, a marvelous job.
I remember one instance while we were at the front. We were in position in an old orchard and we had set our guns and fired a few salvos into the German lines. Then we were set to protect the infantry against a counterattack that evening. Then a German airplane came over, flying at low altitude; and the pilot sprayed the Battery position
with his machine gun, but fortunately, no one was hit. After he was out of sight, Truman ordered the Battery to abandon that position and move back about a quarter of a mile near a crossroads. I remember it was between the little village of Cheppy and Varennes; and we went into position there and set up our guns.
And that night, about midnight, the orchard which we had formerly occupied was heavily shelled. I think that Truman realized that that airplane had probably notified the German artillery of our position. They, of course, knew the locale and so forth, and they just gave that location the business. I think that act on the part of Truman in moving our location probably saved a lot of lives.
FUCHS: What about the Battle of Who Run?
RICKETTS: Well, the Battle of Who Run was a rather
comical experience. It was our first taste of war. We were in position up in the Vosges Mountains near Kruth. I think it was more or less a training exercise for the infantry, going over the top and into the German lines and perhaps taking a few prisoners. After we fired our barrages, Truman ordered the Battery to leave that spot and return to our echelon at Kruth. Half of the Battery had moved out and was on the road ready to move. I was with the first section on the road when the Germans opened up with counterfire on the position we had just left.
There was a gas alarm and little Johnny [John J.] Higginbotham -- he was my little number three boy on the gun squad -- and myself were supposed to put the gas masks on the horses. He was only about four feet eight inches tall and I was over six feet; we got out the gas masks and did our best to get
these masks on the horses. I think we got them on a couple of them and then we gave up. Our gun section then moved out; we weren't down where the action was, so to speak -- where the shells were falling at that time -- and for some reason we couldn't move the two remaining guns.
FUCHS: The horses came out all right?
RICKETTS: Oh, yes, no one got hurt. But it was our first experience at being under fire and I don't know whether anyone really ran or not. I didn't see anyone running. But that was the name they gave the battle, "the Battle of Who Ran." It was quite a joke in the Battery afterwards.
FUCHS: Mr. Truman relates an incident where he was on a road and a battery of French fired over his head from where they were up above
this road? Do you recall this? Was that something that was related just to him or to the entire Battery?
RICKETTS: I think that was on the way back from the Battle of Who Ran. It was dark and we had gone about a mile and a half and all at once to our left a French battery of 75s opened up. We didn't know they were there or anywhere near, and we didn't know what had happened. That was quite a show, those guns going off almost right in your face.
FUCHS: What kind of an officer was Colonel Karl Klemm, Captain Truman's superior?
RICKETTS: I wasn't really acquainted with Colonel Klemm. I understand he was a West Point officer, and he was the colonel when we went to Camp Doniphan; but I was a private first class, and I had no contact with the commander
of the regiment.
FUCHS: Do you recall any other incidents over there related to Mr. Truman?
RICKETTS: Well, I've said that Truman was very conscious of the well-being of the men under his command. I remember one time we had gotten some bad water. It was just shortly after the Argonne offensive, and we all had developed severe diarrhea and we were in pretty bad shape. I don't know where Truman got the idea, but he bought, we think out of his own pocket, a case of chocolate, cocoa, and issued that to us thinking maybe that would help to tighten us up a little bit. The cooks had it and issued it to us anytime we wanted it, but it didn't seem to help at all. The diarrhea was, we found out later, caused by bad water.
FUCHS: You related to me earlier an incident about Colonel Klemm ordering a little punishment for you. Would you retell that story now?
RICKETTS: We had been in initial training down in the Vosges Mountains. From there we were moved in support of the St. Mihiel offensive. To get there it amounted to about fifteen nights of forced marching. The weather was bad, rainy, and we would sleep in the daytime in thickets or in woods and then take off at dusk and march all night long. The next morning, of course, we would bivouac in another woods or forest. After about a week or ten days most of us were pretty well exhausted and that also went for the horses of the regiment. The horses were in bad shape. Every night it seemed we would lose one or two horses. They would just drop by the road exhausted and would have to be destroyed. And there
was an order out that we cannoneers who were walking and following the guns were not to hold onto any part of the gun or the caissons so as not to put any more burden on the horses. But walking along almost dead on your feet, you could hardly resist grabbing ahold of the caisson to help you along.
I remember this one night, several of the boys were holding onto the caisson and Colonel Klemm rode by and noticed it and was quite upset, and, I was told later, he had asked Captain Truman to take us out of line away from the caissons, take us up ahead of the Battery and give us a little double-timing as punishment. I also understand that Truman refused to do it, told the colonel that the men were in very bad shape. We think that was a pretty fine act on the part of Truman not to do it.
FUCHS: I have heard several stories that Mr. Truman took the side of the men when he felt that an order was unjust. Do you know if he ever came under any sort of censure from his superior officers for not, in a sense, obeying an order from them?
RICKETTS: Not that I ever heard of.
I had a funny experience. It's funny to me, but it wasn't funny at the time. I was the number one man on the gun squad, and my job was to pull the lanyard and fire the gun. I also assisted the sergeant in setting the quadrant for the different elevations for barrages and so forth. After the war was over we moved back into a little village named Rosierès, it was near Bar-le-duc. We still had the guns and our job was to keep them clean and greased. They belonged, however, to the French Government and as I understand it were on lease to the
United States Government.
While we were at Rosierès, orders came to turn the guns back to the French Government, and we took them down to the railhead nearby and turned them in. Well, before we turned the guns in there were several things on that gun I thought might be pretty good souvenirs to take home and one was the lanyard, that was a little wooden knob and cord that you pulled to fire the gun; so, I took that off of the gun. Then I thought, "Well, I'll take the firing pin," and I took the firing pin off, and that led to another piece. So, before I got through I had a bag full of parts off of this gun, and I kept them under the straw tick that was my mattress. Several weeks after we turned the guns in, apparently the French Government questioned our act and wanted these parts returned. I suppose some of the other fellows had taken souvenirs also.
So, one evening Captain Truman asked us if we had any of these parts and to turn them in. Well, there was complete silence and none was turned in.
About a week went by and one morning after reveille we stood formation and instead of releasing us for the day, they gave us squads right and took us up on a little hill nearby; and they marched us back and forth for about an hour or two and finally back to the village