The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Partners:
Related Items
On Our Site
  • The Washington Century
  • The Washington Post Century
  • Index of previous stories
  •  
    Routing a Ragtag Army

    Linda Wheeler
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, April 12, 1999; Page A1




    The Washington Post Century

        Protesters
    World War I veterans demonstrate at the Capitol in July 1932 to demand payment for their military service. (UPI file photo)
    The clatter of horses' hooves and the rumble of tanks cut through the hot July day and reached Fred Blacher as he waited for a trolley along Pennsylvania Avenue.

    A parade, he thought.

    But when he turned, the teenage Blacher saw hundreds of soldiers marching from the White House and this was clearly no festive demonstration. They were heading toward the crowds of jobless World War I veterans who had encamped in Washington, living for months in parks and empty buildings, some with small children. To them, Washington was as good a place as any to be homeless.

    Daily, thousands of the veterans who came to be known as the Bonus Marchers pleaded with Congress for payment of the money owed them for war service. It was 1932, deep into the Great Depression, and those bonuses held many of the men's last hopes for finding money to pay rent or feed their families.

    Steadily, the troops marched, joined by D.C. police. They shoved veterans off the curbs and drove them from abandoned buildings. Behind the troops, the cavalry rode, scattering Blacher and hundreds of other spectators.

    Family
    A World War I veteran lived in a makeshift shelter with his wife and six children in an encampment along Pennsylvania Avenue. (UPI file photo)
       
    Before that afternoon ended, Blacher, now 83 and living in Silver Spring, would be enveloped in tear gas and struck by a blow from the flat side of a cavalryman's sword. The encampments would be set ablaze, soldiers would be forced to bear arms against their own, and legions of families would be rousted.

    The capital has been the setting for thousands of demonstrations in the last century, and Pennsylvania Avenue the scene of presidential inaugural parades, victory marches and civil rights demonstrations. Yet few events lasted as long as the Bonus Marchers' protest or ended so violently.

    By the time the marchers descended on Washington, the fallout from the stock market crash nearly three years earlier had left hundreds of thousands of people jobless and destitute.

    When the World War I soldiers came home victorious in 1918, there were plenty of good jobs and a vigorous economy. In that climate, the veterans supported a 1924 congressional bill that put off the promised bonus for wartime service until 1945, when they would receive their due plus interest. A soldier owed $400 would collect $1,000 by waiting until 1945.

    However, the Depression replaced any sense of prosperity, and many veterans began pressing their congressional representatives to help them get their hands on the only asset they had left: the promised money. In early 1932, Rep. Wright Patman, of Texas, responded with a bill that would immediately pay the full value of the certificates.

    In mid-May of 1932, 300 veterans set out from Oregon under the leadership of 34-year-old Walter W. Waters, an unemployed cannery worker. They dubbed themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, and their goal was to get the Patman bill passed.

    As they traveled the country by rail, they gathered volunteers and a lot of media attention. Irving Bernstein wrote in "The Lean Years" that many marchers said they came to Washington because there was no reason to stay home.

    "A Pole from Chicago, at one time with the 39th Division . . . slept in flophouses, usually with other veterans. One day they got to talking about the bonus and, 'the next thing we knew we were on our way.' "

    From young Fred Blacher, who would see the marchers as he passed through downtown, they elicited sympathy. In his own worn knickers, high socks and shoes, he was not much better off, but his father had managed to open a shoe store after losing everything in the crash. Looking at the veterans, he would say to himself, "poor guys."

    By July, their leader, Waters, said 80,000 veterans had come to Washington. Police said the number was closer to 22,000. Either way, they were a city within a city.

    Washington Star reporter Thomas R. Henry wrote that they were "a fair cross section" of America, with "truck drivers and blacksmiths, steel workers and coal miners, stenographers and common laborers. They are black and white. Some talk fluently of their woes. Some can hardly muster enough English to tell where they came from and why."

    The "dusty, weary, melancholy" men were in a struggle "which is too severe for them," Henry wrote. "They have come to the point where they recognize the futility of fighting adverse fate any longer. . . . The bonus march may as well be described as a flight from reality a flight from hunger, from the cries of starving children, from the humiliation of accepting money from worn, querulous women, from the harsh rebuffs of prospective employers."

    Now that they had landed in Washington, the city had to somehow take care of them. The new chief of police, Pelham D. Glassford whose only experience with police before getting his job was receiving a speeding ticket was assigned the task. He was a World War I veteran and seemed to understand the men.

    He arranged for the veterans to move into four empty buildings, on Pennsylvania Avenue near Third Street, that were available until October, when they were to be razed. Eventually, that land would become part of the Federal Triangle.

    But still they came, and four campsites sprang up, including the Mall, where veterans built shelters of crates, tin cans, old newspapers and bits of tar paper. American flags decorated the simple homes.

    Glassford set up a commissary in a garage at 473 G St. NW and persuaded bakers, coffee distributors, meat suppliers and others to donate goods. The District's medical and dental societies set up a 50-bed hospital near the Capitol.

    The marchers organized their own military police force of 300 to keep order. One of their assignments was to prevent about 200 determined communists from moving in. The veterans were not anti-government; they saw themselves as good citizens who had come to Washington to get well-deserved help.

    For weeks, about 12,000 kept a vigil at the Capitol. When Patman's bill failed to pass the Senate on June 17, they sang "America the Beautiful" on the Capitol steps and then formed ranks and marched back to their camps.

    Rather than be discouraged by the bill's defeat, the Bonusers, as they were called in the press, grew more determined to sway Congress.

    Herbert Hoover, who had spent his administration ignoring the economic crisis, wanted the publicity-drawing veterans out of town. He authorized Congress to spend $100,000 to buy them train tickets home. The travel expenses eventually would be deducted from their war bonus.

    About 6,000 marchers took the money but then many stayed in Washington anyway.

    District residents embraced them, delivering coffee and sandwiches and inviting some of the marchers' families to share their homes. But the city commissioners, worried about riots, wanted the marchers out and daily pressed the police chief to get rid of them. The commissioners insisted that Glassford evict them from the federal buildings by July 28 on the pretense that demolition was about to begin.

    Glassford drew on his personal relationship with the men to persuade those in one building to leave by late morning, but he refused to push the other veterans around the city any harder that day. The commissioners appealed to Hoover to bring in the military, saying that Glassford had lost control.

    The president responded promptly.

    "You will have United States troops proceed immediately to the scene of the disorder," Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley told Gen. Douglas MacArthur in a memo dated 2:55 p.m. July 28, 1932. "Surround the affected area and clear it without delay."

    About two hours later, four troops of cavalry, four companies of infantry, a mounted machine gun squadron and six whippet tanks lined up on Pennsylvania Avenue near 12th Street. Some of America's greatest military minds were on hand. MacArthur, the commander, was there with Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower and one of his officers, George S. Patton Jr.

    "I remember MacArthur with his hands on his hips," Blacher said.

    Constance McLaughlin Green, in her book, "Washington, a History of the Capital, 1800-1955," gave this account: "In the lead rode General Douglas MacArthur, his medals shining on his immaculate uniform, his boot gleaming, his horse perfectly groomed. It was a magnificent sight. The bedraggled men sitting on the curb and the crowd gathered nearby watched with fascination."

    As the horses pounded toward the awe-struck veterans, reporters at the White House were being told the Secret Service had learned that those resisting eviction were "entirely of the Communist element."

    Tear gas bombs drove the demonstrators into a frantic retreat as spectators ran for cover.

    "The mob, the horses, the tear gas," Blacher said, flinging his arms to embrace a huge expanse. "There were bricks being thrown. All those guys running and screaming. It was awful."

    Chased by the cavalry, he raced across the avenue and onto the Mall. The horsemen swept behind them. Blacher went down.

    "What the hell you doing?" he remembers yelling at the soldier on horseback. "The guy just kind of shrugged." Blacher, who was not badly hurt by the blow, stayed around to watch the rest of the operation.

    The shelters built of scrap material caught fire quickly when ignited by either departing veterans or impatient soldiers. To the heat and humidity of the day were added the incessant crackle of a spreading fire, black billowing smoke and the wail of sirens.

    By midnight, the police and troops from Fort Myer had driven the demonstrators from downtown and from campsites in Northeast and Southeast Washington.

    From the White House that evening, Hoover saw a red glow in the east toward the Anacostia River that indicated the largest site, Camp Marks, had been torched. Aides reported the next day that the president was pleased.

    The routed veterans departed, with most carrying their few belongings on their backs and a few driving decrepit cars packed with weary men. Troops blocked the bridges leading back into the city, and while many men weren't certain where they would head, some went to Johnstown, Pa., where they had heard they would be welcome.

    Blacher gave up on catching a trolley and walked to his father's store at 433 Seventh St. SW, where the Department of Housing and Urban Development building stands now. He excitedly told him the news.

    "We didn't have TV in those days, you know, and nobody really knew what was going on."

    The press ran a list of casualties the next day that included one marcher who was shot to death by police and 26 veterans, 15 residents, 11 police officers, five soldiers and one news photographer who had been hospitalized.

    In 1935, Congress passed the bill providing for the immediate cash payment of the war bonuses.

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt vetoed it.

    In 1936, FDR vetoed the same bill again. But that year, the House of Representatives overrode him 326-61 on Jan. 24, and on Jan. 27, the Senate voted to override.

    The next day's Washington Post headline read: "Soldier Bonus Becomes Law as Senate Crushes Veto, 76-19; Full Payment Sped for June 15."

    Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.


    Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar