For two months, General MacArthur, anticipating violence, had been secretly training his troops in riot control. By the time the deadly conflict commenced, MacArthur, acting on orders from the president, had already commanded troops from Fort Myer, Virginia, to cross the Potomac and assemble on the Ellipse, the grassy lawn across from the White House. His principal aide, Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower, urged him to stay off the streets and delegate the mission to lower-ranking officers. But MacArthur, who ordered Eisenhower to accompany him, assumed personal command of the long-planned military operation.
What happened next is etched in the American memory: for the first time in the nation’s history, tanks rolled through the streets of the capital. MacArthur ordered his men to clear the downtown of veterans, their numbers estimated at around 8,000, and spectators who had been drawn to the scene by radio reports. At 4:30 p.m., nearly 200 mounted cavalry, sabers drawn and pennants flying, wheeled out of the Ellipse. At the head of this contingent rode their executive officer, George S. Patton, followed by five tanks and about 300 helmeted infantrymen, brandishing loaded rifles with fixed bayonets. The cavalry drove most pedestrians—curious onlookers, civil servants and members of the Bonus Army, many with wives and children—off the streets. Infantrymen wearing gas masks hurled hundreds of tear-gas grenades at the dispersing crowd. The detonated grenades set off dozens of fires: the flimsy shelters veterans had erected near the armory went up in flames. Black clouds mingled with tear gas.
Naaman Seigle, now 76, was 6 years old that day. He remembers a detachment of cavalry passing in front of his house in southwest D.C. that morning. “We thought it was a parade because of all the horses,” he says. Later in the day, the boy and his father happened to go downtown to a hardware store. As they emerged from the shop, they saw the tanks and were hit with a dose of tear gas. “I was coughing like hell. So was my father,” Seigle recalls.
By 7:00 p.m., soldiers had evacuated the entire downtown encampment—perhaps as many as 2,000 men, women and children—along with countless bystanders. By 9:00, these troops were crossing the bridge to Anacostia.
There, Bonus Army leaders had been given an hour to evacuate the women and children. The troops swooped down on CampMarks, driving off some 2,000 veterans with tear gas and setting fire to the camp, which quickly burned. Thousands began the trek toward the Maryland state line, four miles away, where National Guard trucks waited to drive them to the Pennsylvania border.