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Marching on History

When a "Bonus Army" of World War I veterans converged on Washington in 1932 to demand a promised payment, MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton were there to meet them

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.

 

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