The Bonus Army – Part II
The real hero of the story and the guardian angel of the Bonus Army was Washington, DC Chief of Police Pelham D. Glassford, who had been the youngest brigadier general in the Army in WWI. He understood immediately what was going on as bedraggled, gaunt but cheerful veterans – some with empty sleeves and walking with canes – and women marched into DC singing and waving at the passing traffic, carrying American Flags. As veterans by the thousands started pouring into his jurisdiction, he helped oversee the establishment of the camps, making sure that building supplies arrived, soliciting food from local merchants and that the needs of the veterans and their families were met as best he could.
Chief Pelham had a friend by the name of Evalyn Walsh McLean, heiress to a Colorado mining fortune, owner of the famed Hope diamond and wife of the owner of the Washington Post. Between the two, they solicited help from her other connected friends, they organized food drives, set up schools within the camps for the children, arranged for volunteer physicians and medical corpsmen from the local Marine Corps reserve unit to hold sick call twice a day and toured the camps daily to check on things. In the early days of the migration, the two of them even drove to a restaurant late one night and ordered 1,000 sandwiches, 1,000 packs of cigarettes and 1,000 cups of coffee – all distributed to every veteran they could find.
The largest Bonus Army camp housing 10,000 veterans plus another 1,100 wives and children was named Anacostia Flats, located on the muddy, bug-infested swampland on the Anacostia River just across the river from Capitol Hill; it became the largest Hooverville in the country. In addition to Anacostia, 26 smaller outposts sprung up and condemned buildings near the Capitol filled up with Bonus Army vets and families. All were organized and run with military precision. Anacostia Flats had its own library, post office and barbershops. They even produced their own newspaper, the BEF News, had MPs and officers in charge for security and order, daily flag raising ceremonies complete with bugle, parades and entertainment.
Since the veterans had the support of many throughout the nation, and especially the locals, people came down to visit with the vets, bringing food, cigarettes, and medical supplies for their medical facility. Even famous celebrities came to call. Retired Marine Corps General Smedley Butler came to speak to the vets and praised them by saying:
“I never saw such fine Americanism as is exhibited by you people. You have just as much right to have a lobby here as any steel corporation. Makes me so damn mad, a whole lot of people speak of you as tramps. By God, they didn’t speak of you as tramps in 1917 and ’18.
“Take it from me, this is the greatest demonstration of Americanism we have ever had. Pure Americanism. Don’t make any mistake about it: You’ve got the sympathy of the American People. Now don’t you lose it.”
Newspaper reporters from all over the nation covered the story relentlessly and the nation devoured the news about the daily camp life of the Bonus Army. But there was a bigger story that was overlooked: in this Southern city, where schools, buses, movies and restaurants were still segregated, Bonus Army blacks and whites were living, working, eating and playing together. It was the first massive integrated effort in the country and it was all done voluntarily with no animosity or violence. These men were brothers who had survived WWI together and now faced hard times – together.
But even as the press ignored the integration phenomenon going on, they blew up the story of Communist infiltration of the camp, which simply was not true, and is a charge that history does not substantiate. In fact, just the opposite occurred.
J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Bureau of Investigation (to later become the FBI) was working overtime trying to establish evidence of this communist angle to the Bonus Army and rumors about the “Communist revolutionaries” floated in the air like leaves in the fall. President Hoover’s press secretary announced “The marchers have rapidly turned from bonus seekers to communists or bums.” The attorney general described the Bonus Army as “the largest aggregation of criminals that had ever assembled in the city at one time.” The unfounded “Red Scare” rumors continued to circulate and tension was building in the nation’s capital.
On June 15, the House passed the bill giving the bonuses to the veterans. June 17, “the tensest day in the capital since the war,” arrived as the Senate took up the bill. 10,000 marchers waited outside the Capitol for the outcome. 10,000 more were stranded back in Anacostia because the authorities had raised the draw bridge over the river, fearing trouble. Finally, Walter Waters appeared with the announcement: the Senate defeated the bill by a vote of 62 to 18. The crowd reacted with stunned silence. Walter said, “Sing ‘America’ and go back to your billets.” And they did.
Congress hastily left town for summer recess. President Hoover vacated the city and went on vacation.
Stay tuned for the amazing conclusion!