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Bonus Army: 1932

Bonus Army: 1932

"B.E.F. camp, Anacostia, 1932." The "Bonus Expeditionary Force" encampment of World War I veterans (the Bonus Army) and their families in Washington, D.C. 8x10 acetate negative, National Photo Company Collection. View full size.


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A book on the BEF

A book with many details and several pictures was written by W. W. Waters (principal organizer of the BEF) and William C. White. It's titled B.E.F. the Whole Story of the Bonus Army. I have what I believe is the first edition, published in 1933. It has been reprinted a number of times however. Copies are available from several booksellers on the Web.

Both Sides Now

Interesting, every historian has an agenda. Looking at two current college textbooks, they tell a completely different story, a story featuring only the how awful veterans were treated, and how vicious the government was in removing these folks.

Thank you Dave!

Headline News

The tone of these articles could be characterized as generally indignant that an "army" of able-bodied men in their thirties were trying to shake down the government for early (as opposed to 1945) payment of their World War I bonus. There was also the assumption that besides bona fide veterans, the camp included many with dubious claims to military service, as well as Communist political agitators and anarchists. All in all, not a lot of editorial sympathy for the ragtag B.E.F.

Click to enlarge.

USS Grebe

The other ship is USS Grebe, a minesweeper that towed USS Constitution around the country on its tour of the country.

Camp Despair

Washington Post, Jul 28, 1982.

Bonus Army of 1932: Life Without a Safety Net

Chalmers M. Roberts

Fifty years ago today the ragtag "bonus army" of jobless World War I veterans was driven out of Washington, an act that symbolized the depth of the Great Depression and the paralysis of the federal government in dealing with America's worst economic disaster.

It is worth recalling in order to give some perspective to the current miseries of millions of Americans. Out of that disaster half a century ago came the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which constructed the basic ribs of the economic safety net now so severely strained by Reaganomics. But one has only to look at mid-1932 to see what a different America it was before there was any safety net at all.

In 1932, unemployment averaged 23.6 percent — over 12 million jobless out of a civilian labor force of 51 million; today 9.5 percent, about 10.5 million out of well over 100 million workers, are jobless. That year over a quarter million Americans lost their homes because of mortgage foreclosures. Unemployed men sold apples for a nickel on thousands of street corners.

In such an atmosphere, the capital, as today, was the focus of protest. Father James Cox of Pittsburgh already had led one jobless march on Washington, the Communist Party another. The bonus army began in Portland, Ore., and by early summer some 20,000 vets and family members were here, calling themselves the BEF — bonus expeditionary force. The ostensible purpose was to pressure Congress into voting immediate payment of a veterans' bonus promised for 1945. Rep. Wright Patman's proposal was to have paid $1 for each day served in the United States, $1.25 for those spent overseas. The Democrat-controlled House approved, but the Republican senate refused while thousands of the vets jammed the Capital grounds. Thereupon they sang "America" and peacefully went back to their camps. These were shack villages thrown together at several locations, principally on the Anacostia's east bank and on Pennsylvania Avenue about where the National Gallery East Building now stands.

On June 7, as 100,000 watched, some 8,000 vets marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in what The Post called "the strangest military parade the capital has ever witnessed," By mid-July, the White House was "guarded from veterans" by "the greatest massing of policemen seen in Washington since the race riot after the world war." Inside the mansion sat a beseiged President Hoover.

Police chief Pelham D. Glassford, World War I's youngest brigadier general, wanted to feed the vets, not fight them. Evelyn Walsh McLean, who owned the Hope diamond, impulsively ordered a thousand sandwiches from nearby Child's; Glassford paid for coffee. But the District commissioners, under White House pressure, ordered evacuation of the camps.

Glassford tried persuasion to no avail. Skirmishes turned into a brawl, and then a panicky cop pulled his revolver. One vet was killed, another wounded; he died later. It was 4:30 in the afternoon of July 28 when Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur appeared on the Avenue, with him Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Third Cavalry troopers from Fort Myer, sabers drawn, pranced down the street under command of Maj. George S. Patton Jr., followed by infantry with fixed bayonets, a machine gun detachment, troops with tear gas canisters and six midget tanks, their treads eating into the heat-softened macadam.

Some 20,000 rush-hour spectators watched as the troops charged the vets. Tear gas spread a haze over the Avenue as spectators fled; Sen. Hiram Bingham of Connecticut was trampled in the rush. It was quickly over as the bonus marchers retreated toward Anacostia, the flames and smoke from their torched shacks framing the Capitol dome for photographers. The other camps, too were burned. The bitter vets finally straggled out of town.

MacArthur claimed the "mob" had been "animated by the essence of revolution." Some of those involved were indeed would-be revolutionaries, but that was not the veterans' motivating force; despair was. One vet put it simply: "If they gave me a job, I wouldn't care about the bonus."

Earlier View

This is a somewhat earlier view (and from a different angle) of the Navy Yard across the river. If those are their NAA radio station towers then the one on the right must have been undergoing rehab or dismantling by 1932.

Bonus Marchers

This is a fascinating story that has always intrigued me and one that you don't hear mentioned much today. Especially when you consider how many of our future WWII military leaders were involved in it. Great pictures!

Old Ironsides

Old Ironsides (USS Constitution) in the background. This is probably the 235th post on this topic. The ship was in DC in 1932 and first day covers were postmarked on the ship for collectors. I built a Revell plastic kit model of the ship in the late 1950's. It was pretty pricy at $2.98, but it came with the bottom of the hull already painted a copper color to match cladding on ship.

A different view

This view looks like it was at what is now the intersection of 295 and the 11th Street Bridge.

Two ships - or not the two ships - that is the question.

The two ships in the top background of the top photo look like Admiral Dewey's flagship and maybe the Constellation. Don't know if they were there at the time. Dewey's ship is in Phila and the Constellation in Baltimore now.

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