Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened May, 1996
Oral History Interview with
December 7, 1991
by Niel M. Johnson
Subjects discussed include Harry S. and Ralph Truman's trip to Texas in 1902; the career of General Walter Short; the personality of General George Patton; military preparedness in Hawaii prior to December 7, 1941; the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th; the Roberts Commission report on Pearl Harbor; 84th Infantry Division; President Truman's review of the troops during Potsdam Conference; Truman's offer of support to Eisenhower to run for President; Louis Truman's relationship with President Truman; Sunday dinners on the Martha Truman farm; the assignment of General Matthew Ridgway to Korea; and the dismissal of General MacArthur.
Names mentioned include William T. Truman, Deborah Gray, Ralph Truman, Nanny Louise Watson, Jacob L. Milligan, Harry S. Truman, General Walter Short, Margaret Stevenson Truman, General Benjamin Lear, General Walter Kreuger, General George Patton, Jr., Walter Phillips, Admiral Husband Kimmel, Fred Bays, General Leonard T. Gerow, General Charles D. Herron, J. Lawton Collins, General Delos C. Emmons, General George C. Marshall, Colonel Philip Hayes, "Swede" Henderson, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, General Max Murray, General John DeWitt, Floyd Parks, Nelson Walker, General Maxwell Taylor, General Bedell Smith, General Alexander Bolling, Roger Colgan, Jim Sommers, Matthew Connelly, General Matthew Ridgway, General James A. Van Fleet, General Jim Fry, and General Douglas MacArthur.
General Louis W. Truman
JOHNSON: I'm here with General Louis Truman, and the date is December 7, 1991, which of course, is the 50th anniversary date of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
General Truman, before we get to Pearl Harbor, if I can get just a little background on you. We do have a biographical sketch here that will serve as a kind of an overall guide, but would you relate for us who your parents are and where and when you were born.
TRUMAN: My parents were Nanny Louise Watson Truman, and my father was Ralph Emerson Truman, Major General Ralph Emerson Truman, with the National Guard and the 35th Division. I was born in Kansas City, Missouri on the 20th of June, 1908.
JOHNSON: What was your mother's maiden name again?
TRUMAN: Watson. My middle name is Watson. Nanny Louise Watson Truman. And so I'm Louis, knocking the "e" off, and Watson Truman.
JOHNSON: I believe your mother died when you were very young.
TRUMAN: When I was at West Point. I didn't get home in time to see her before she passed away. She died of peritonitis.
JOHNSON: What year was that?
TRUMAN: That was 1930.
JOHNSON: I see. And your father later remarried and her name was Olive.
TRUMAN: Olive Johnson.
JOHNSON: Of course, your father was a first cousin of Harry Truman.
JOHNSON: Your father's parents -- what do you recall about them?
TRUMAN: I don't remember the grandmother, but William
Truman was my grandfather, my father's father. He came from Texas, I think it was Bomar, Texas. But in some way or other, my father was separated from his father and he was brought to Kansas City and lived with the Gray family. I remember living at 1908 Michigan, I believe it was, in Kansas City, Missouri. I was born not too far away from there. Mrs. Gray -- Deborah I believe her name was -- was a wonderful person.
JOHNSON: What was the address of your birthplace?
TRUMAN: I don't remember right off hand. I believe it was Kansas Avenue; I have it someplace at home, but right away this morning I can't remember it.
JOHNSON: I think your grandfather, your father's father, was William, and apparently his wife died rather young and left three children, Earl, Grace, and Ralph Emerson.
TRUMAN: That's correct.
JOHNSON: Ralph Emerson was your father. And his father, William, when he remarried, moved to Texas apparently.
TRUMAN: That's possibly right.
JOHNSON: He took Earl and Grace with him, and your father stayed behind, stayed with this Gray family, which we
were talking about. They had taken care of him as a baby apparently.
TRUMAN: That's right.
JOHNSON: After Harry Truman graduated from high school, he and your father went to Texas, apparently to visit your father's family.
TRUMAN: I don't know about that.
JOHNSON: Did your father ever talk to you about this trip that he made with his cousin to Texas around 1902?
TRUMAN: The only thing I remember him saying was that if they went to Lone Oak, Texas on that trip, why then that's when Harry Truman met my mother, and then he introduced my mother to my father, and my father finally married Nanny Watson, Nanny Louise Watson.
JOHNSON: Do you have any idea how Harry Truman knew this Nanny Watson?
TRUMAN: I have no idea. Maybe it's in the autobiography that I'm going to send to you.
JOHNSON: I want to ask you if you have any papers at all that are connected with Truman and the Truman administration.
TRUMAN: As far as Ralph Truman is concerned, my father, that autobiography would have all of the information in there [ A copy of Ralph Trumans manuscript copy of his autobiography is located in the Papers of Ralph E. Truman, Box 4 ].
JOHNSON: Good. I'd be happy to receive that.
Would you tell us about your education?
TRUMAN: I started at Irving School on Prospect, and I think I went up to the sixth grade there. Then we moved to Springfield, Missouri, and I went to Bowman Grade School and Springfield High School. After high school graduation, I went two years to Southwest Missouri Teachers College. I then went to a prep school, because the first time I tried to get into West Point in 1927 I was not high enough on the list. It was a competitive examination, and I didn't rank high enough. There were 24 National Guarders that had gotten in and I was number 26, so the next year I went to Columbia, Missouri and went to Hall Prep School. Then I took the examination and I think I ranked about number 4; I got into West Point in 1928 and graduated from there in 1932. Then I went to the National War College.
JOHNSON: When was it that you attended the National War College?
TRUMAN: That was in '48. I had correspondence courses with the Armed Forces Staff College. Although I wanted to go to the Camp GS [Command and General Staff] school, the timing was not right for me to go, so I never went there. But I did take the correspondence courses so far as their studies were concerned.
JOHNSON: Who induced you to go to West Point?
TRUMAN: My father. Not induced me, but demanded that I go. I never will forget being in the upstairs bedroom -- I think at that time I was 16 or 17 -- and he was giving me a dissertation on the things that young men run into, so far as is concerned on the female side, and giving me a sex lecture on that. At the same time, he said, "And by the way, I know you want to go to Rolla School of Mines to be an electrical engineer, and possibly to Massachusetts' MIT." And he said, "But we don't have enough money to send you to either place, so you're going to go to West Point." So therefore, I went.
JOHNSON: Well, how was your experience at West Point?
TRUMAN: Very, very fine. I really didn't want to go to
begin with, but in the meantime I changed my mind completely. I was fascinated with West Point. I never walked the area as far as that was concerned; I was low as far as demerits were concerned. I wasn't a goody-goody so far as that's concerned. My first year I ranked about, oh, well below 100 because I had had most of the mathematics there, in the first and second years. The third year I dropped way down. We entered with 300 and some odd in the class in 1928, and in my third class year I didn't do too well because I started playing poker and I dropped down. I'll never forget that my father was tremendously upset with my activities at West Point.
But then I finally got to myself and I thought about my class standing which he was continuously telling me about. Class standing would mean a lot as far as ranking in the future life in the Army is concerned. In the overall, I ranked 109 out of 265 that graduated.
JOHNSON: So about half of them that started graduated.
TRUMAN: Oh, yes, that's right.
JOHNSON: In 1934, your father was the campaign manager for Tuck [Jacob L.] Milligan here in Missouri.
TRUMAN: That is correct.
JOHNSON: Of course, Harry Truman was running for the Senate against Milligan.
TRUMAN: That is correct, in the primary.
JOHNSON: Yes. We have a little correspondence about that. Did your father tell you anything about why he was managing Tuck Milligan's campaign instead of Harry Truman's?
TRUMAN: I'm having to recall now, but I believe that he and Milligan had served together in the 35th Division in World War I over in Europe. And I think that they were close friends. I don't believe there was bad blood between Cousin Harry and my father as far as that's concerned, because he certainly supported him in the general election. If I remember correctly.
JOHNSON: Yes. Do you remember the name, James Ruffin? He apparently was a close friend of your father's.
TRUMAN: Who was he?
JOHNSON: He went to Congress, but he was persuaded by your father to support Truman for Governor in 1931. So your father had been involved in the Harry S. Truman for
Governor campaign in 1931. You were at West Point at the time.
TRUMAN: Yes, and so I don't know about that.
JOHNSON: So he never talked to you about that?
TRUMAN: No. I know that Harry Truman and Ralph Truman were very close, very close so far as that's concerned.
JOHNSON: They always spoke favorably of his...
TRUMAN: I think they were practically as close as Vivian and Cousin Harry were.
JOHNSON: You never heard him say negative things about Harry Truman.
TRUMAN: Not a thing. He was very supportive of him.
JOHNSON: What was your first assignment then, after West Point?
TRUMAN: Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.
JOHNSON: In '32?
TRUMAN: In June '32, as a second lieutenant. That's right outside of St. Louis; it's a suburb of St. Louis. The unit was the 6th Infantry Regiment at that time.
JOHNSON: That's where you met General Walter Short?
TRUMAN: Yes. Well, the first commander there was Walter Krueger, Colonel Walter Krueger, who became a four-star general, under MacArthur in the Philippines. Then Colonel Short came in 1934 to Jefferson Barracks. He remained there until '36. He was an outstanding and fine commander. He was very strong on machine gun training. He had been a machine gun trainer in World War I, and also was trained in rifle marksmanship. He wanted everybody to know completely how to use their weapons. He was a fine instructor. Later in 1936, I went to the Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia. He went there as Assistant Commandant of the Infantry School and the Tank School, and was made a Brigadier General there. I went to the Tank School the next year during '37 and '38. During those two years my wife and I were invited by General and Mrs. Short to their quarters and to parties many, many times. We became very close friends.
JOHNSON: At the Tank School.
TRUMAN: And Infantry School, both schools.
JOHNSON: At both schools. When did you marry, and who did
TRUMAN: On June 24, 1934, I was married to Margaret Stevenson -- Margaret Blackwell Stevenson. She was from Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Her mother was a very outstanding concert pianist. She probably was one of the finest piano teachers in the Midwest. Margaret was one of seven children. She also started learning to play the piano at the age of four and she, also, started teaching at the age of 12. And she still plays very beautifully.
JOHNSON: What was your rank, and your role at