Bonus Marchers: Homeless Vets Routed from DC in 1932 FWD

Tom Boland (
Tue, 13 Apr 1999 10:33:44 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD  Washington Post - April 12, 1999; Page A01

     The Century: Washington Comes of Age
     Another in a biweekly series of stories about the people
     and events that shaped Washington in the Twentieth Century.


     By Linda Wheeler - Washington Post Staff Writer

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.
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

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

"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

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

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

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

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

>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.]


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