A shameful example of how our veterans have been being screwed over by our government.
When World War I veterans faced U.S. troops.
War veterans are generally, and most often rightfully, considered to be the truest patriots of their nation. As a result, incidents of veterans facing down serving soldiers or police elicit great media attention and are often a sign that something is going very wrong. One such occasion occurred in July, 1932.
The U.S. military established the tradition of paying bonuses to veterans in 1776, during the War of Independence, with the purpose of compensating soldiers for the loss of money they could have made in better-paying civilian professions. World War I veterans were promised a $60 bonus but didn’t even get that after the war. Instead, Congress passed a bill in 1924, overriding the veto of President Calvin Coolidge, to award a bonus based on time served. Sums up to $50 were paid in cash. Bonuses above that, however, were paid as a certificate that would only mature and become payable 20 years later. Most of these were issued in 1925, for a maturity date of 1945.
The Great Depression struck in 1929 and many veterans lost their jobs and homes. They could borrow a part of their promised bonus as a loan but for many even this was not enough to support their families. In the summer of 1932, a group of veterans led by former sergeant Walter W. Waters set out from Portland, Oregon and hopped on freight trains, heading to Washington, D.C. to lobby for an early payment on their bonus certificates. As news of the venture spread, similar groups were set up and moved out towards the capital all across the country.
The first marchers, now called the Bonus Expeditionary Arm, or Bonus Army for short, reached Washington, D.C. on May 25, 1932 and started setting up, with their numbers soon bolstered to around 17,000 with another 26,000 family members and affiliated groups. Some stayed in empty houses or vacant lots but many built themselves shantytowns, the largest one on the Anacostia Flats a couple of miles from the White House, scavenging construction materials from a nearby dump.
The camp reflected its builders’ military discipline. It had clearly delineated streets, sanitation facilities, barber shops, a library, a post office and even a newspaper. Veterans could only move into the camp after registering and proving they were honorably discharged. Alcohol, fighting and communist propaganda were forbidden.
Public opinion was on the veterans’ side and they even enjoyed the sympathy of Police Superintendent Pelham D. Glassford, who himself served in the war as a brigadier general. Another supporter, at least early on, was Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, who sent the demonstrators tents and camp equipment.
On June 15, 1932 the House of Representatives passed a bill to pay the veterans ahead of time but it was defeated in the Senate two days later. Many protesters packed up and went home but a strong contingent remained in the capital, making President Hoover and his administration panic.
On July 28, Glassford was ordered to break up the protest with the police. During the confrontation, shots were fired and two veterans suffered fatal wounds. With events spiraling out of control, the Army was sent in. The operation was personally overseen by Douglas MacArthur, who withdrew his support from the veterans. Dwight D. Eisenhower was serving as his aide and the cavalry troop slated to spearhead the effort was commanded by Major George Patton.
Supported by six tanks for intimidation, infantry and cavalry showed up at the protest. Believing the troops were marching in their honor, the veterans cheered. Then the cavalry charged. Infantry followed with fixed bayonets and Adamsite candle: cans dispersing smoke laced with an arsenic-based vomiting agent. The veterans retreated to their main camp across the Anacostia River. Hoover ordered the troops not to pursue but MacArthur ignored the order and went after the protesters. During the fight, the shantytown was set on fire and burned to the ground overnight. A small child died, a veteran’s wife suffered a miscarriage, 55 veterans were wounded and 135 were arrested during the attack.
The Bonus Army was dispersed but moral victory was theirs. Glassford soon resigned from his post as Police Superintendent. MacArthur was heavily criticized for his part in the conflict and the incident is generally considered as the low point of his career. Later that year, in November 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated President Hoover in the elections in a landslide victory, which was partially enabled by the events earlier in the year.
n 1933, another, smaller Bonus Army marched on Washington, D.C. again. Like Hoover, FDR was also unwilling to pay the bonuses early but handled the situation better. Giving the Secret Service the slip, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the veteran’s camp without an escort, singing Army songs with them and giving an impromptu speech, successfully defusing the situation. To help the veterans in need, 25,000 positions were opened up for them in the Civilian Conversation Corps, a work relief program. The matter was finally laid to rest in 1936, when Congress agreed to pay the veterans’ bonus ahead of time – overriding the President’s veto and paving the way for the G.I. Bill of 1944.