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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

Just months into FDR’s first term, in March 1933, bonus marchers began drifting back into Washington. By May, some 3,000 of them were living in a tent city, which the new president had ordered the Army to set up in an abandoned fort on the outskirts of Washington. There, in a visit arranged by the White House, the nation’s new first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, braved mud and rain to join the vets in a sing-along. “Hoover sent the Army; Roosevelt sent his wife,” said one vet. By June 1933, about 2,600 vets had accepted FDR’s offer of work in a New Deal public works program called the Civilian Conservation Corps, though many others rejected the $1-a-day wage, calling it slavery.

 

Beginning in October 1934, Roosevelt, attempting to deal with the jobless remnants of the Bonus Army, created “veterans’ rehabilitation camps” in South Carolina and Florida. In Florida, 700 men filled three work camps in Islamorada and Lower Matecumbe in the Florida Keys, building bridges for a highway that would extend from Miami to Key West.

 

The men had been working all summer and looked forward to the Labor Day weekend. About 3oo of them went on furlough, many to Miami. But on September 2, 1935, a hurricane unlike any recorded in the United States slammed into the Upper Keys where they were camped. Wind gusts were estimated at 200 miles an hour—enough to turn granules of sand into tiny missiles that blasted flesh from human faces.

 

Because it was a holiday weekend, the work-camp trucks that might have carried the veterans north to safety were locked. A train sent to rescue them was first delayed, then, just a couple of miles from camp, derailed by the storm surge. It never reached the men. With no way to flee, at least 256 veterans and many locals were killed. Ernest Hemingway, who rushed to the ghastly scene from his home in Key West, wrote that “the veterans in those camps were practically murdered. The Florida East Coast [Railroad] had a train ready for nearly twenty four hours to take them off the Keys. The people in charge are said to have wired Washington for orders. Washington wired the Miami Weather Bureau which is said to have replied there was no danger and it would be a useless expense.” In fact, the failure to rescue the men was not as callous as Hemingway claimed, though there is no question that a series of bureaucratic bungles and misunderstandings in Miami and Washington contributed to the calamity—the Bonus Marcher’s final, and in many cases, fatal indignity.

 

In 1936, Wright Patman reintroduced the cash-now bonus act, which finally became law. Senator Harry S. Truman of Missouri, an unflinching New Deal loyalist and a combat veteran of World War I, defied his president in supporting the bonus. In June 1936, the first veterans began cashing checks that averaged about $580 per man. Ultimately, nearly $2 billion was distributed to 3 million World War I veterans.

 

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