Special Report

Marching on History

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

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


In 1942, soon after Pearl Harbor, legislation was introduced in Congress to provide benefits for the men and women of World War II. The law, known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, would become one of the most important pieces of social legislation in American history. Some 7.8 million World War II veterans took advantage of it in academic disciplines as well as paid on-the job training programs. It also guaranteed ex-servicemen loans to buy homes or farms or start businesses. The G.I. Bill helped create a well-educated, well-housed new American middle class whose consumption patterns would fuel the postwar economy.


President Roosevelt, overcoming his long-standing opposition to “privileges” for veterans, signed the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944,” as the G.I. Bill was called, on June 22. At that moment, Allied troops were liberating Europe under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. One of his generals, George S. Patton, was leading troops toward the Seine, while Douglas MacArthur was planning the liberation of the Philippines. For the three by-then legendary figures, the Bonus March had receded into the past, a mostly embarrassing incident, largely forgotten. If character is destiny, however, the major players in that drama had enacted, in cameo, the defining roles they would soon assume on the stage of the 20th century.


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