The Forgotten History of the Bonus Army

Police attack the Bonus Army

For Memorial Day, some dismal reading about the way the U.S. treats its soldiers (yes, this would actually be more appropriate for Veterans Day):

On 11 March 1932 Waters called for a march on Washington and 250-300 men from Portland joined him. They marched behind a banner reading “Portland Bonus March – On to Washington.” The veterans and their families had popular support and the support of some authorities. A Portland railroad offered the use of dung-stained cattle cars to transport the Bonus Army. The Indiana National Guard and the Pennsylvania National Guard used military vehicles to transport the Bonus Army. Toll bridge operators let the Bonus Army march silently across bridges without pay, and police officers refused to arrest Bonus Army veterans for trespassing. Thousands joined the Bonus Army as it marched towards Washington with Sergent Waters as their elected leader. Waters forbade drinking, panhandling, and ‘anti-government’ or ‘radical’ talk.

When Waters and his Bonus Army arrived in late May 1932 they were twenty thousand strong. The veterans and their families camped in buildings abandoned during the Great Depression and in giant shantytowns. Communists showed up at the shantytowns and agitated for their cause among the veterans. In reply, Bonus Army veterans seized the communists, held trials and sentenced them to fifteen lashes. More than two hundred communists were expelled from the Bonus Army camps. But supporters who were not communists showed up at the shantytown with material support. Among them were eight German soldiers, each having fought against US soldiers, each wounded twice or more in World War I, all naturalized citizens and bearing a total of eight tons of food and supplies for the Bonus Army.

On 29 June the US Government announced it would not meet the demands of the Bonus Army and that the Bonus Army had to leave by 15 July. By 5 July there was no food remaining. On 7 July congress offered $10,000 to the Bonus Army if it would simply leave Washington DC. Some did take the money and leave, but many more took the money and stayed while other veterans joined for the first time. One thousand more veterans and their families had joined the Bonus Army in Washington and more were on their way. On 17 July 1932 Congress voted down the bonus and then adjourned. President Hoover went on a vacation.

OVO: The Bonus Army

Somewhat related: Nightline on how hundreds of soldiers wounded in Iraq have ended up owing the military money. That is from 2006. The problem is ongoing. And that’s just one of many of the problems today’s veterans face.

2 Comments

  1. Don’t forget the roles of Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Patton in the dispersal.

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