Oral History Interview with
Associate of Harry S. Truman in the Reserve Officer's training program, 1930-40, and Regular Army officer, 1946-61.
Col. Edward F. Thelen
June 6, 1968
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 January, 1969
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
Oral History Interview with
Col. Edward F. Thelen
June 6, 1968
by J. R. Fuchs
FUCHS: Colonel Thelen, I wonder if you would start by giving me a brief statement of your career, your life.
THELEN: O.K. I was born in Sedalia, Missouri, the 21st of October, 1906. I lived in Sedalia until I was about eight years old. My father had died when I was six, my mother remarried, marrying his brother, about two and a half years later and we moved to Kansas City. We lived for a month or so in Kansas City just across the line into Kansas, and then moved to the northeast section of Kansas City, Missouri where I grew up. I attended Northeast High School. It might be of interest to you people that this is
also the school Maxwell Taylor attended. He graduated from Northeast High School back in 1917. I graduated there in 1924. In relation to what we’re talking about, I took a couple of years of R.O.T.C. at Northeast. I then came to the University of Missouri. During my freshman year they informed me that because of my two years of military in high school I could go in the advanced course at the beginning of the second semester. I did enter the advanced course of the R.O.T.C. during the second semester; and this led, of course, to my military background, such as it is. I was out of school one semester in the 1925-26 school year because I had gone to the advanced camp during the summer and I had to make money in order to return to school. But I did come back. In June of 1927, I guess it was, I completed the R.O.T.C. program in what would have normally been the end of my junior year. I was not commissioned until the
following October when I became twenty-one years of age. I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the field artillery at that time. I graduated from the University in 1928 with a degree in education and went to Kansas City to teach. While I did not become involved the first couple of years in the Reserve activities in Kansas City, I did become involved along about 1930, I believe it was. I attended many of the Reserve officer meetings, unit meetings and one thing or another, and a number of summer camps. After many summer camps, I was asked by one of the former instructors of our unit in Kansas City, if I would be interested in going into the army before Pearl Harbor. I said, "Yes," and Jo Zach Miller, who then was vice president of the Commerce Trust, and a member of our unit, had orders cut and I went to Fort Leavenworth for examination in November of '40. I passed it. Somewhere the examination got lost and then ninety-six
days later in February, '41, they ordered me up for another one. This time they had a doctor up there who said I had a bilateral hernia and turned me down. Well, the upshot of this was that I went back to Kansas City and all the doctors down there, including Dr. [Wallace] Graham, said I did not have a hernia and advised me not to have anything done about it. In early 1942, they threatened to take my commission away from me if I did not get something done. I went to Ft. Leavenworth and had another examination. This time they said I had a weak ring. My doctor said, "Well, if you want to get into the Army, we'll operate." So, as a result, I was a little bit late getting into the Army, reporting for active duty in August of 1942.
While serving, I, of course, expressed an interest in a Regular Army commission, but they didn't do much about it. In late 1945, I was released to go back to Kansas City to teach.
I thought I was suffering from the standpoint of my career, and the war was over. Shortly after I got back to civilian life in Kansas City, the Army sent us a pamphlet about Regular Army integration. I applied in March of '46 for integration into the Regular Army. That's how I became a Regular Army officer. I had a rather varied career. As a Regular Army officer I went to Artillery School the first year. The second year I attended the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Then I served three years in Trieste, followed by a six month's stint with the CIA. Then I went with the Third Corps Artillery at Fort Lewis, Washington and Fort MacArthur, California. During the latter period I was deputy director of the atomic tests at the Nevada testing grounds. From there I went to the University of Oklahoma as Professor of Military Science. While there I requested attache duty and was named the attache
FUCHS: What year would this have been?
THELEN: This was in 1956. I got to Burma in the first part of 1957. I stayed in Burma until late December of 1958, and was then assigned to the First United States Army in New York, originally as G-1. Subsequently, about nine months later, I became deputy chief of staff, first for administration, and then for both administration and operations. I was retired December 31, 1961. After a short period of vacation in Puerto Rico, I came to the University of Missouri as Foreign Student Adviser. About two years later I was made Director of Student Affairs for Men in addition to my Foreign Student Adviser title. I've enjoyed it very much. I think my military background has helped me very much in this work with foreign students.
FUCHS: Very good. Back in 1925-26, you said you
went to advanced camp, R.O.T.C. Where was that?
THELEN: That was at Fort Knox, Kentucky, At that time it was Camp Knox, and they used the old pre-World War I barracks. They had no paint on them and were pretty crude. We had a tick which we filled with straw for a mattress. Those were in the days when they had the horse artillery and we spent a good deal of time working with the horses, and the horse drawn artillery. A very interesting experience.
FUCHS: I'm familiar with Fort Knox. I went through basic there, and then officers school, then back again, and then was assigned overseas from there.
THEUN: Well, Fort Knox is not the same place now that it was when I was there, Camp Knox, by any means.
FUCHS: No. Now, when did you first come in touch
with Mr. Truman?
THELEN: I would say that it was about 1930 or 1931 when I became active in going to the Reserve meetings, I attended them in the old National Guard Armory on Main Street. They had an artillery section and, although I was assigned to a unit with headquarters and instructor in St. Joseph, Missouri, I attended the meetings there at the Armory. This is where I first saw Mr. Truman. I wouldn't say we became acquainted at that time. Probably I became a little better acquainted with him along about 1932 or 1933.
FUCHS: You probably met him along in 1930-31.
THELEN: That's right.
FUCHS: How frequently did you meet?
THELEN: At that time I believe that we were meeting
every other week at the Armory through the winter months -- fall, winter and spring. Later on, as I recall, we had weekly meetings and started meeting at the old Medical Center at 34th and Broadway. I cannot remember the exact year that the Reserve Headquarters moved over there, but I remember that Colonel George M. Peek was our instructor. I think that President Truman had something to do with keeping Peek there beyond the normal number of years of his assignment. His tour lasted more than the normal four years, as I recall. We had a room in the medical building which was for the artillery group alone. Then, of course, they had their auditorium down on the first floor used by the Reserve Officers Association. Frequently, we would have a meeting of the Reserve Officers Association, followed by a section meeting, the cavalry and the infantry having separate
rooms for each. We had our own room. I can remember that at these sessions, where we would have a lecture, or some instruction in a particular phase of artillery firing, or an artillery problem, and then we'd have some practical work. I remember one of the things that we had was a mechanical gadget which could simulate artillery fire. It was a metal object, about three feet square and it had a slit in it. Someone could stand to the side and they could push a little ball down and it would look like an artillery round landing on a certain spot. It was all calibrated so that if you would say move it so many yards right or left or increase the range, why, this would act in accordance. I remember distinctly that Colonel Truman (his rank then) would come to the meetings and he would sort of supervise this firing, and critique it from time to time.
FUCHS: Who was actually the leader of the group,
though? Was that Peek?
FUCHS: Of the artillery section?
THELEN: Yes, Colonel George M. Peek. He was United States Army Officer. I believe Colonel Peek had graduated from VMI. He had been, at one time, assistant commandant of the Artillery School. I believe this was just before he came to us. He was quite a horseman, but had been injured in a fall. He got very, very much interested in the training of Reserves, and did a magnificent job. As we go along, you'll see that he, in conjunction with Colonel Truman, was very much interested in developing our ability to handle artillery fire. They had a lot of schemes worked out to improve the instruction in this particular phase of artillery work.
FUCHS: I see. Now, you knew him then as "Colonel
Truman." Was he a full colonel at that time?
THELEN: Yes, he was a full colonel.
FUCHS: That would have been, then, subsequent to, according to my record, June 17, 1932, which was when he became a full colonel.
THELEN: That was when we were over in the Medical Center. I couldn't say that I knew just what his rank was prior to that.
FUCHS: Well, he became a lieutenant colonel on May 28, 1925 in the Reserves.
THELEN: Yes. Of course, he had been elected senator, I believe, in 1934, was it?
THELEN: And there were a couple of years in there, I think, when we were over at the Medical Center before he went to the Senate. He used to come back from Washington, and whenever he was in
town and we had a Reserve meeting, he usually attended. And again, he was always willing to critique a problem rather strongly, because I was the subject of it. One summer, I believe it was 1937, we were out at Fort Riley for our summer encampment, and we used the Bishop trainers to fire problems when it was raining, and we had to go to an area where we didn't have the full range. We were firing over in the riding hall. Now a Bishop trainer fires about a one-inch steel ball, and to propel it they use a .22 breech; it's a gadget that has an artillery sight on it and has everything that you would find on an artillery weapon, except that it's done on a 1 to 1/100 scale. We were firing in the riding hall and I was shooting. They had a blackboard there on which they kept a record of the problem. But I knew that when we got up on the firing point we would not have this blackboard and I was trying to shoot by carrying the factors, etc. in my head. I was firing a bracket problem.
If you're familiar with that, it's where you have an over and a short, and you keep splitting the bracket until you get on the target. I got an over at 3,200 and a short at 3,000, and I immediately said: "3400."
Somebody laughed, you know, and a fellow said, "You jumped your bracket, Thelen."
And I said, "Yep, that's what I get for not using the blackboard."
Well, this was early in the week. Later in the week when it was not raining we went out to fire on the range. You are probably aware that Colonel Truman gave a prize each year for the best problem fired. The year before I had won the prize.
FUCHS: This was in summer camp?
THELEN: Yes. The year before I had won the prize and he sent it to me through General Vaughan, who was then Lieutenant Colonel Vaughan. It was
a pair of spurs. Under the rule I was not supposed to be eligible to fire this year for the problem, but I got there and we were firing what we called a large "T" problem. That is where you're looking at a target and your guns are firing from such a direction that what you see as right or left is really over or short in range as far as the gun is concerned. Jo Zach Miller was in charge of the point -- a major at that time -- and Jo Zach said -- we were getting down to where it was almost the close of firing -- "Thelen, I'm going to give you a problem."
I said, "Jo Zach, I'm not eligible. I won the prize last year."
"Well, the boss said to give you one."
I said, "Well, we are about to run out of ammunition."
"Well, you get the problem."
So, he gave me a target. I figured my data and, lo and behold on the second round I got a
target. I knew what to do. I called for five rounds and then I got two targets, I think, and three or four overs. Then I had to adjust that to get a still finer adjustment. I worked this out and they ran out of ammunition. The next finer adjustment came up and they said, "We're out of ammunition."
Colonel Truman says, "Tell him to figure it out."
So, I figured it out. He said, "O.K." Then he said, "Jo Zach, is that the target you gave Thelen?"
"Yes, sir, that is."
He turned to me and said, "Well, Thelen, that's pretty good shooting, but I saw you jump your bracket down in the riding hall the other day." Now I did not e