May, 1932: Out of work, destitute, hungry WWI veterans with families to feed descended on Washington, DC to lobby Congress for the early payment of the bonuses promised after WWI. As many as 43,000-strong, including families, they set up well-laid out and maintained military-style camps, were polite and respectful to everyone they encountered, except for the communists who tried to infiltrate their camps. The local citizens enjoyed going to the camps and visiting with the veterans, bringing food and all sorts of supplies to help the inhabitants of the camps. Reporters were thick as flies covering the unfolding story of the Bonus Army for the rest of the nation who largely supported giving the bonuses to the veterans ahead of schedule.
June 15, 1932: The House passed a bill giving the early bonuses to the veterans. June 17, the Senate shot it down and then fled the city.
Officials in Washington believed the Bonus Army would just disperse and go home. But most of them didn’t have anywhere else to go and no resources to get there. So they remained in their camps during the sweltering summer and waited for Congress to come back to start the process of petition all over again.
(For two months, there was a behind-the-scenes operation going on led by Army Chief of Staff General DOUGLAS MacARTHUR who was anticipating (hoping for???) violence, so he had been secretly training his troops for riot control. His principal aide? Major DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER.
On July 28, a nervous President Hoover ordered the Washington police – through Chief Glassford, our hero who had given so much in support of the Bonus Army – to go in and evict the veterans. Glassford arrived with 100 policemen and did his best to diplomatically move the vets on. The veterans, seeing Chief Glassford now representing the other side, thought he had betrayed them. Spontaneously, bricks were thrown, someone ripped off the Chief’s badge, and chaos ensued. Shots rang out and suddenly one veteran lay dead, another mortally wounded. A couple of policemen were injured.
A day after the eviction notice, a veteran by the name of Joseph Angelo approached Major GEORGE S. PATTON to intercede on behalf of the Bonus Army. When Patton saw the vet, he said, “Sgt., I do not know this man. Take him away and under no circumstances permit him to return!” Once the vet had left, Patton said “That man was my orderly during the war. When I was wounded, he dragged me from a shell hole under fire and saved my life. I got him a decoration for it.”
The situation had spun out of control, so a panicked Hoover sent in the Army, led by MacArthur.
Well, MacArthur saw his opportunity to put his glorious plan into action. What happened next is etched into our national memory forever: for the first time in our history, tanks rolled through the streets of the capital. At 4:30 pm, as thousands of civil service employees were leaving work, nearly 200 mounted cavalry, sabers drawn and pennants flying, rode out of the Ellipse led by Patton. They were followed by five tanks and about 300 helmeted infantrymen, locked and loaded with bayonets affixed and gas masks in place. People lined the street to watch the surprising spectacle.
A newsreel of the event called it the greatest concentration of fighting troops in Washington since 1865.
As all this was unfolding, a citizen by the name of Blacher noticed the cavalrymen coming up the avenue towards the National Mall. “The horses were so beautiful, I thought it was a parade,” he remembers. “I asked a gentlemen standing there, ‘Do you know what’s going on? What holiday this is?” He said, “It’s no parade, bud, the Army’s come to wipe out the Bonus Army down there.”
The Bonus Army, believing the troops were marching in their honor, cheered the troops – until Patton ordered the cavalry to charge into them. The spectators started yelling, “Shame! Shame!” After the cavalry charged, the infantry-with fixed bayonets- began lobbing hundreds of tear gas grenades at the veterans and spectators.
The veterans, choking on gas and terrified, fled back across the river to Anacostia Flats. Concerned about the image of the government’s treatment of distinguished war veterans, President Hoover ordered the assault stopped and forbid the troops from crossing the bridge in pursuit. MacArthur, in his first documented act of defiance of a US president, chose to ignore the order and continue the attack. The infantry rushed across the bridge, bayonetting people in their way. One 7-year old boy stopped to save his pet rabbit and a trooper plunged his bayonet through the boy’s leg. More than 100 casualties were sustained that night as the troops surged through the camp driving the veterans and their families out and torching everything in their path, including an infant whose body was found among the smoldering ruins the next morning. A veteran’s wife miscarried, and a 12-week old baby boy died later from the effects of the tear gas.
By midnight, the veterans and their families were in full flight and the camp was a raging inferno that six city fire departments could not contain.
Joe diJoseph was a wire service photographer in Washington. He remembers the night they burned everything. “The sky was red,” he says. “You could see the blaze all over Washington.”
Within days, the images of that night were all over the country. In every little town across America, people watched the newsreels in disbelief. They saw the tanks in the street, the people being tear-gassed, the camps being torched, and MacArthur driving out the veterans who had won the first World War.
None of the three military heroes – MacArthur, Eisenhower or Patton –suffered any career setbacks from this action. As for Herbert Hoover, by sending infantry, cavalry and even tanks against ragged, hungry American veterans and their families, his career went into flames as hot as the Anacostia Flats fire. The Bonus Army was his symbolic end. Thirty years would pass before another Republican president was elected.
A postevent study conducted by the Veterans Administration concluded that 94% of the Bonus Army had Army or Navy service records, which annihilated J. Edgar Hoover’s overzealous attempt to prove few were actually veterans but were, instead, communists and criminals.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President in a land-slide. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (putting 25,000 vets to work in our forests), the G.I. Bill (which helped create a well-educated, well-housed new American middle class whose consumption patterns would fuel the postwar economy), the Works Progress Administration (WPA)that created 50,000 new jobs and rebuilt Hoover Dam among other projects, and – in 1936 – paid the bonus. On average, $583.