Harry Truman was an interesting character. No, not that Harry Truman. Harry S. Truman was President of the United States. Harry R. Truman was virtually unknown until catastrophe struck. Harry R. Truman was an Army veteran, a businessman, a prospector, and a bootlegger.
Born in West Virginia in 1896, his family moved to Washington state where the land was cheap and the timber plentiful. In 1917, he enlisted in the Army as a private and was assigned to the 100th Aero Squadron, 7th Squad, where he was trained as an aeromechanic. He served in France during World War I.
The ship, the Tuscania that transported him to Europe, along with 384 crew and 2,013 U. S. Army personnel, was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland, killing 210 U. S. troops. Harry was not injured. After the war, he was honorably discharged in 1919.
Truman returned to Washington where he began prospecting. He failed in his goal to become rich and later took to bootlegging, smuggling alcohol from San Francisco to Washington during the Prohibition era. When Prohibition was repealed, he ran Harry’s Sudden Service, a gas station.
After a few years he grew tired of civilization and leased 50 acres of land overlooking Spirit Lake and opened a gas station and a small grocery store at the base of Mount St. Helens. He later opened Mount St. Helens Lodge and operated it for 52 years. He was married and divorced twice before marrying Edna Henrickson. He remained married to Edna until her death in 1978.
Harry poached, stole gravel from the U.S. Forest Service, and hunted on American Indian land using a fake game warden badge. Although his criminal activities were known to law enforcement, local rangers failed to catch him in the act. He was said to have loved politics and hated Republicans, hippies, children, and the elderly. He owned a pink Cadillac and swore frequently.
He once refused to allow U. S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to stay in his lodge, calling him an “old coot.” When he learned Douglas’ identity, he chased him down and convinced him to stay. When Edna died, Harry closed the lodge and afterward only rented out a handful of cabins and boats.
He became a minor celebrity in the two months preceding the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens by expressing his opinion that the danger was exaggerated. While residents were being urged to leave, he said he had no intention of “packing up.” He gave interviews and said, “If the mountain goes, I’m going with it…You couldn’t pull me out with a mule team. The mountain’s part of Truman and Truman’s part of that mountain.”
Truman became something of a folk hero and was the subject of many songs and poems by children. One group of children from Oregon sent him banners that said, “Harry – we love you,” which moved him deeply. Another group of fifth graders from Michigan wrote letters that brought him to tears. He wrote them back and included some volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens.
Articles about this Harry Truman appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Examiner and he attracted the attention of National Geographic, the United Press International, and The Today Show. Profiles about Truman also appeared in many magazines, including Time, Life, Field & Stream, and Reader’s Digest. Historian Richard Slatta wrote that Truman was immortalized “with many of the embellished qualities of the western hero.”
On May 17, 1980, fearing an imminent eruption, officials tried to persuade him to leave the mountain. He refused. It was a fatal decision. Mount St. Helens erupted the next morning and its northern flank collapsed.
The largest landslide in recorded history and a pyroclastic flow traveling on top of the landslide engulfed the Spirit Lake area, destroying the lake and burying Harry, the lodge, and his 16 cats under 150 feet of volcanic landslide debris. Harry Truman was 83 years old, one of 57 people to die that day.
According to an article by Sam Kean in the Science History Institute, Truman “likely died of heat shock in less than a second, too quickly to register pain.” It took less than a minute for the pyroclastic flow to reach Harry’s lodge. The world will never know that if, in that less than a minute of life remaining, Harry regretted his decision not to leave when officials repeatedly urged him to do so.
Some people regarded Harry as a hero — a true “mountain man,” belonging to a different period where self-reliance and fearlessness were desirable characteristics. Others regarded him as a stubborn old fool. Whatever he was, in 1980, the entire country heard of him, and his fame grew, even in other nations. As late as 2007, the Irish band, Headgear, wrote and released the song, “Harry Truman.”
Within a year of the eruption, over 100 songs had been composed about Harry R. Truman and he was the subject of at least two books. Art Carney, Truman’s favorite actor, portrayed him in the 1981 Docudrama, “St. Helens.” Cottage industries sprung up in the area around Mount St. Helens, selling memorabilia such as Harry Truman hats, pictures, posters, and postcards. A restaurant in Alaska, named after him, served a dish known as “Harry’s Hot Molten Chili.”
The 5th graders in Grand Blanc, Michigan, whose letter brought Harry to tears and to whom Harry sent the volcanic ash, later sold the ash. They used the proceeds to buy flowers for Harry’s family after the eruption.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but are also live streamed at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]