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.