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The Bonus Army camp burns within sight of the U.S. Capitol. (Image: Signal Corps/National Archives)

Marching on History

When a "Bonus Army" of World War I veterans converged on Washington, MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton were there to meet them

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Washington, D.C. Chief of Police Pelham D. Glassford was driving south through New Jersey the night of May 21, 1932. Suddenly, a sight appeared in his headlights that he later described as “a bedraggled group of seventy-five or one hundred men and women marching cheerily along, singing and waving at the passing traffic.” One man carried an American flag and another a banner that read, “Bonus or a Job.” Glassford pulled over to have a word with the ragtag group. Atop one of the marchers’ pushcarts, he noted, an infant girl lay sleeping, nestled amid one family’s clothes, oblivious to the ruckus.

From This Story

 

Glassford, who had been the youngest brigadier general in the Army in World War I, understood almost immediately who these wayfarers were. For two weeks or so, newspapers across the nation had begun carrying accounts of marchers bound for the nation’s capital. The demonstrators were part of a growing delegation of veterans and their families heading to Washington to collect payment of the “bonus,” promised eight years before, in 1924, to soldiers who had served in the Great War. (That year, wrangling over the federal budget had ordained that this compensation be deferred until 1945.) Now in 1932, the men, who called themselves the Bonus Army, were dubbing the deferred payment the “Tombstone Bonus,” because, they said, many of them would be dead by the time the government paid it. Glassford drove on to Washington.

 

By the time he got there, morning newspapers were carrying stories about the progress of the Bonus Army. The Washington Star reported that “One hundred unemployed World War veterans will leave Philadelphia tomorrow morning on freight trains for Washington” and that other vets were converging from as far away as “Portland, Oregon and the Middle West.” The chief was quick to grasp the logistical nightmare he faced. What he could not have seen was that the Bonus Army would help shape several figures who would soon assume larger roles on the world stage—including Douglas A. MacArthur, George S. Patton, Dwight D. Eisenhower and J. Edgar Hoover. The Bonus Army would also affect the presidential election of 1932, when the patrician governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, squared off against incumbent President Herbert Hoover, widely blamed for the Great Depression then roiling the country.

 

In 1932, nearly 32,000 businesses failed. Unemployment had soared to almost 25 percent, leaving roughly one family out of every four without a breadwinner. Two million people wandered the country in a futile quest for work. Many of the homeless settled in communities of makeshift shacks called “Hoovervilles” after the president they blamed for their plight. Glassford knew he would have to create a sort of Hooverville of his own to house the Bonus Army. But where? In the end he chose a tract of land known as Anacostia Flats, at the outer reaches of the District of Columbia, which could be reached from Capitol Hill only by a wooden drawbridge spanning the Anacostia River.

 

Glassford oversaw the establishment of the camp as best he could, making sure that at least a certain amount of building materials—piles of lumber and boxes of nails—were supplied. The chief solicited food from local merchants and later added $773 out of his own pocket for provisions. The first contingent of Bonus Army marchers arrived May 23. Over the next two months, an estimated 25,000 more, many with wives and children, arrived to stake their claim to what they felt was their due.

 

Six years after the end of World War I, Congress responded to vets’ demands that the nation fulfill promises to compensate them by passing a bill granting “adjusted service compensation” to veterans of that war. The legislation was passed over the veto of President Calvin Coolidge, who declared that “patriotism which is bought and paid for is not patriotism.” By the terms of the new law, any veteran who had served in the armed forces was due compensation at the rate of $1 a day for domestic service and $1.25 for each day spent overseas. Those entitled to $50 or less were to be paid immediately; the rest were to receive certificates to be redeemed in 1945.

 

Nothing much happened until May 1929 (five months before Wall Street’s Black Monday), when Congressman Wright Patman of Texas, himself a war veteran, sponsored a bill calling for immediate cash payment of the bonus. The bill never made it out of committee.

 

Patman took steps to resurrect the legislation early in the new year of 1932. Then, on March 15, 1932, a jobless former Army sergeant, Walter W. Waters, stood up at a veterans’ meeting in Portland, Oregon, and proposed that every man present hop a freight and head for Washington to get the money that was rightfully his. He got no takers that night, but by May 11, when a new version of the Patman bill was shelved in the House, Waters had attracted a critical mass of followers.

 

On the afternoon of that same day, some 250 veterans, with only, as Waters would recall later, $30 among them, rallied behind a banner reading “Portland Bonus March—On to Washington” and trekked to the Union Pacific freight yards. Aday later, a train emptied of livestock but still reeking of cow manure stopped to take on some 300 men calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, BEF for short—a play on American Expeditionary Force, the collective name that had been applied to those troops sent over to France.

 

Sympathetic railroad men, many of them veterans themselves, eased the army’s way eastward. In town after town, well-wishers donated food, money and moral support. Inspired by the Portland group, other Bonus Army units formed throughout the nation. Radio stations and local newspapers carried accounts of the growing contingent headed for their nation’s capital. “The March was a spontaneous movement of protest, arising in virtually every one of the forty-eight states,” observed novelist John Dos Passos, who had served in the Great War with the French Ambulance Service.

 

As the men headed east, the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division reported to the White House that the Communist Party had infiltrated the vets and was determined to overthrow the U.S. government. The president, however, didn’t take the matter entirely seriously; he called the protest a “temporary disease.”

 

On May 21, railroad police prevented Waters’ men, who had disembarked when their St. Louis-bound train reached its destination, from boarding eastbound freight trains, departing from just across the Mississippi River on the Illinois shore. In response, the veterans, who had crossed the river by footbridge, uncoupled cars and soaped the rails, refusing to let trains depart. The governor, Louis L. Emmerson, called out the Illinois National Guard. In Washington, the Army deputy chief of staff, Brig. Gen. George Van Horn Moseley, urged that U.S. Army troops be sent to stop the Bonus Marchers, on grounds that by commandeering freight cars, the marchers were delaying the U.S. mail. But the Army chief of staff, a West Point graduate who had commanded the 42nd Division in combat during the Great War, vetoed that plan on the grounds that this was a political, not a military matter. His name was Douglas MacArthur.

 

The confrontation ended when the veterans were escorted onto trucks and transported to the Indiana state line. This set the pattern for the rest of the march: the governors of Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland, in turn, each sent the veterans by truck on to the next state.

 

On May 29, the Oregon contingent, including Walter Waters, arrived in Washington, D.C., joining several hundred veterans who had gotten there first. In addition to the main camp in Anacostia, 26 smaller outposts would spring up in various locations, concentrated in the northeast quadrant of the city. There would soon be more than 20,000 veterans in the camps. Waters, the Bonus Army’s “commander in chief,” demanded military discipline. His stated rules were: “No panhandling, no liquor, no radical talk.”

 

Evalyn Walsh McLean, 45, heiress to a Colorado mining fortune and owner of the famed Hope diamond, had heard the trucks rumbling past her Massachusetts Avenue mansion. After 1 a.m. on a night soon after the vets began pouring into the city, she drove down to the Anacostia camp, where she came upon Chief Glassford, whom she had encountered socially as she moved among Washington’s power elite, just on his way to buy coffee for the men. McLean drove with him to an all-night diner and told an awestruck counterman that she wanted 1,000 sandwiches and 1,000 packs of cigarettes. Glassford placed a similar order for coffee. “We two fed all the hungry ones who were in sight,” McLean recalled later. “Nothing I had seen before in my whole life touched me as deeply as what I had seen in the faces of the Bonus Army.” When McLean learned that the marchers needed a headquarters tent, she had one delivered along with books, radios and cots.

 

About 1,100 wives and children populated the main camp, making it, with more than 15,000 people, the largest Hooverville in the country. The Bonus Marchers named their settlement CampMarks, in honor of the accommodating police captain S. J. Marks, whose precinct encompassed Anacostia. The vets published their own newspaper (the BEF News), set up a library and barbershop and staged vaudeville shows at which they sang such ditties as “My Bonus Lies Over the Ocean.” “We used to watch them build their shanties,” says then eighth grader Charles T. Greene, now 83, a former director of industrial safety for the District of Columbia who lived just a few blocks from the camp in 1932. “They had their own M.P.s and officers in charge, and flag raising ceremonies, complete with a fellow playing bugle. We envied the youngsters because they weren’t in school. Then some of the parents set up classrooms.”

 

Almost daily, Chief Glassford visited the camp riding a blue motorcycle. He arranged for volunteer physicians and medical corpsmen from a local Marine Corps reserve unit to hold sick call twice a day. All the veterans, wrote syndicated Hearst columnist Floyd Gibbons, “were down at the heel. All were slim and gaunt. . . . There were empty sleeves and limping men with canes.”

 

James G. Banks, also 82 and a pal of Greene’s, remembers that neighborhood people “took meals down to the camp. The veterans were welcomed.” Far from feeling threatened, most residents saw bonus marchers as something of a curiosity. “On Saturdays and Sundays, a lot of tourists came down here,” says Banks.

 

Frank A. Taylor, 99, had just gone to work that summer as a junior curator in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. (In 1964 he would become the founding director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History.) “People in Washington were quite sympathetic [to them],” Taylor remembers. “They were very orderly and came in to use the rest room. We did ask that they not do any bathing or shaving before the museum opened.”

 

While newspaper reporters produced almost daily dispatches on camp life, they largely missed the biggest story of all: in this Southern city, where schools, buses and movies remained segregated, Bonus Army blacks and whites were living, working, eating and playing together. Jim Banks, the grandson of a slave, looks back on the camp as “the first massive integrated effort that I could remember.” Roy Wilkins, the civil rights activist who in 1932 wrote about the camps for The Crisis, the NAACP monthly, noted that “there was one absentee [in the Bonus Army]: James Crow.”

 

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