The Other March on D.C.

‘Bonus Army’ Details WWI Vets’ Struggle for Compensation

Posted February 7, 2005 at 4:26pm

The summer of 1932 would have been a wild time to live in Washington, D.C.

At the height of the Great Depression, some 45,000 veterans of World War I descended upon the nation’s capital to demand a bonus that had been promised to them in the 1920s as compensation for their service during “the war to end all wars.”

Setting up huge “Bonus Army” camps all across the city, these down-on-their-luck vets suddenly gave what had been a sleepy Southern town a kind of carnival atmosphere, complete with daily parades and stump speeches, exhibition boxing matches, picketers, and the constant hum of music and camp songs.

It was a grass-roots public demonstration the likes of which the country had never seen, said Thomas Allen, one of the authors of a new book about the movement, titled “The Bonus Army: An American Epic.” “But somewhere along the line, the march of the Bonus Army didn’t quite fit into history.”

Today the Bonus Army often receives little more than a passing reference in history texts. Few people know about how the summer of ’32 eventually ended in tragedy for the Bonus marchers, and fewer still understand how their actions later inspired the far-reaching piece of veterans benefits legislation that became known as the G.I. Bill of Rights.

It is the epic, not the episode, of the Bonus march that Allen and fellow author and journalist Paul Dickson bring to life in their new book, which was released last week by Walker and Co.

The book seeks to not only explain what inspired these men to leave their homes and hitchhike their way across the country, but also to show how the actions of this group have been marginalized by history for racial and political reasons.

“In many ways the legacy of the Bonus Army is still being felt,” Dickson and Allen write at the beginning of their book. “Harry Specter, who had been wounded in the Argonne, had too little money to leave Wichita, Kansas, and march to Washington. He also had a wife and four children to provide for. The youngest child was two-year-old Arlen, who as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania said much later, ‘In a figurative sense I have been on my way to Washington ever since to collect my father’s bonus — to push the government to treat its citizens, the millions of hard working Harry Specters, justly.”

Dickson and Allen spent a combined three years researching the “The Bonus Army,” searching endless accounts from newspapers across the country. The various articles served to create a map of veterans’ movement across America as local papers picked up stories about the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” as they moved through a hundred small towns and cities.

What Dickson and Allen found was that the Bonus Army was neither a rabble of communist agitators nor trouble-seeking anarchists, but instead a cross section of Depression-area Americans who were simply looking to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

One of the most surprising discoveries for the authors was realizing that the Bonus Army was very much an integrated movement at a time of deep-seated segregation.

“If you just went to The Washington Post and New York Times you would not have known that this was an integrated movement,” Dickson said, so the authors were forced to seek out less mainstream publications like black newspapers and even the Bonus Expeditionary Force News, which sprung up in one of the city’s many camps in 1932.

Following in the footsteps of the tens of thousands of veterans who went to Washington to lobby for their bonus pay, Dickson and Allen “went from Skowhegan, Maine, in the Northeast to Southern California and from the Florida Keys to Portland, Oregon, and about 20 places in between,” Dickson said, adding that the two also spent countless hours searching through the vast newspaper storerooms of the Library of Congress.

“It was almost like a fantasy for a writer,” he said. “Every time we opened an archive something more would pop up.”

“No matter where we turned we found a new character,” Allen added. “No one had really strung it together and saw that it arched over into 1944 and the G.I. Bill.”

A few characters who played major roles in this national drama, including Douglas MacArthur, J. Edgar Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower, would go on to achieve fame later in life. Others, like the general-turned-Washington Police Chief Pelham Glassford and the jobless veterans leader Walter Waters, became national symbols in the 1930s.

Dickson and Allen were also able to find 13 living witnesses to the Bonus March who remembered the event from their early childhood. Two of those witnesses are Nick and Joe Oliver of Pennsylvania, who, when they were 7 years old, were brought to “Camp Marks” in Anacostia during the summer of 1932 by their father, veteran Anthony Oliver. The two boys would stage boxing matches against each other in the camps to raise extra money for the family while Anthony searched for odd jobs around Washington.

Other witnesses helped Allen and Dickson vividly recount the brutal day of July 28, 1932, when, after two veterans were killed during fights with police at “Camp Glassford,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur began to forcibly evacuate the veterans from the city. With tanks, tear gas and bayonets, soldiers, under the direction of the young calvary officer George Patton, removed their veteran brothers from the city and then set fire to their camps, the largest of which was located along the Anacostia River.

But while that day, when tanks took to the streets in Washington, brought an uproar from veterans groups and Members of Congress, it would take another four years and even more tragedy — including the landfall of one of the strongest hurricanes in recorded American history, which killed 250 veterans who were scratching out a living at a government work camp in the Florida Keys — before World War I veterans received the bonus they had been promised in 1924.

After the House and Senate overrode President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s veto, the bonus bill finally became law in 1936 and some 3.5 million veterans were mailed bonuses altogether valued at $2 billion. And it was the lessons of the Bonus Army that laid the groundwork in Congress, and in the minds of the American people, for the G.I. Bill to be passed in 1944 for the newly returning veterans of World War II. That bill would send millions of young men to college, finance the homes of an entire generation and even have an impact on race relations in America.

“I think you could make a case for the fact that the beginning of a new attitude in race starts with the G.I. Bill,” Allen said.

Today, as a new generation of veterans is returning from another overseas battlefield, both Dickson and Allen said the lessons of the Bonus Army must not be forgotten by the public, or by American lawmakers.

“If these guys start coming back and are missing limbs and their lives have been shattered and their families have been pushed to the edge, if they’re not getting a lot of help, it’s going to be a mess,” Dickson said.

Dickson and Allen’s national tour begins Wednesday at the National Geographic Society at 1145 17th St. NW. They will appear Feb. 28 at the National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW.