The Bonus Army: How A Protest Led To The GI BIll

Nov 11, 2011

Occupy Wall Street protests have sprung up in cities across the U.S. — and around the world. The common denominator between them is protesters' commitment to stay and camp out. They've pitched tents and built large, impromptu communities.

It's a form of protest that echoes throughout American history.

In 1932, another group of protesters set up encampments and vowed to stay until their voices were heard.

The Bonus Army

As World War I drew to a close in 1918, millions of American veterans returned home to the promise of a cash bonus — compensation for their overseas service.

There was a catch, though: The money would not be paid out until 1945.

Then, the Great Depression struck. Millions of Americans were left hungry and homeless. Veterans of the war were desperate for relief.

So in 1932, a group of veterans in Portland, Ore., led by a man named Walter Waters, decided to go to Washington to lobby for early payment of their promised bonus.

They went down to the railroad yards, with a bugle and an American flag, and hopped onto freight trains. They called themselves the Bonus Army.

As they moved eastward, their idea caught on. Radio stations and newspapers began to pick up the story. Veterans from all over the country began jumping on freight trains, heading for the capital.

Tom Allen, co-author of The Bonus Army: An American Epic, says the movement "was a magnet for the veterans and their families who had nothing.

"Suddenly, out of the whole Depression, comes guys doing something," he says. "There was hope there. They have a mission, they have a destination — and it's called Washington, D.C."

In 1932, Fred Blacher was a 16-year-old Washingtonian.

"They came in on trucks and old buses," he says. "They were hanging on freight cars, in old dilapidated Fords, with 20 people hanging on them."

Lillie Linebarrier was living in North Carolina with her veteran husband when she heard about the Bonus Army. They formed the Friendly Bonus Expeditionary Force String Band, and "we just packed up a tin tub and a wash pot and what few clothes we needed, and my banjo. And we let out, playing our music."


The first Bonus Marchers arrived in Washington, D.C., on May 25, demanding payment of their bonuses. Within weeks, there were 20,000 veterans in town.

They set up camp in vacant lots, empty buildings and in an Army-style encampment along the Anacostia River. At one end of camp, there was a dump where veterans scavenged materials to build their houses: wrecked cars, chicken cages and pieces of wood.

The camp was elaborate. It was laid out with streets named after states. It had its own library, post office and barbershops. The Bonus Marchers produced their own newspaper, the BEF News.

"We ate better than we did at home," Linebarrier says. "They would load us up on vegetables, on honey buns, doughnuts. We never had the money to eat such a set at home."

The camp at Anacostia was the biggest Hooverville — or shantytown — in the country. Organizers were determined not to be bums. They laid out strict rules: no alcohol, no fighting, no panhandling and no communists.

The veterans had the support of many Washingtonians. Locals came down and brought them cigarettes and food, came to be entertained by the bands that played in the camp, or came down just to talk to the veterans.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler came to speak to the marchers.

"I never saw such fine Americanism as is exhibited by you people," he said. "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," he said.

On June 15, the House of Representatives passed a bill to pay out the bonus. The Bonus marchers celebrated. But then the Senate turned it down and adjourned.

Army Attacks The Camp

Officials in Washington expected that the Bonus Marchers would all go home. But they didn't. The numbers dropped, but the hard core among them stayed. And there was no indication they were ever going to leave.

Waters, the organizer of the Bonus March, said, "We intend to maintain our Army in Washington, regardless of who goes home."

Herbert Hoover was in the White House, and his administration began to panic.

On July 28, officials sent in the Washington police to evict the marchers. The action was peaceful, until someone threw a brick, the police reacted with force, and two bonus marchers were shot.

The situation quickly spiraled out of control, and the Hoover administration sent in the Army, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

At the time, Blacher was standing on the corner waiting for a trolley. All of a sudden, he says he saw cavalrymen coming up the avenue toward the National Mall.

"The horses were so beautiful, I thought it was a parade," he remembers. "I asked a gentleman standing there, 'Do you know what's going on? What holiday is this?' He says, 'It's no parade, bud. Army's coming in to wipe out all these bonus people down here.' "

A newsreel called it the greatest concentration of fighting troops in Washington since 1865.

"These guys start waving their sabers, chasing these veterans out," Blacher says. "And then they start shooting tear gas. There was so much noise and confusion, hollering. There was smoke and haze. People couldn't breathe."

As night began to fall, the Army crossed into the Anacostia camp. MacArthur gave the marchers 20 minutes to vacate. Thousands of veterans and their families fled. A soldier took a torch and ignited one of the tents. And the Army began torching everything that was still standing.

John 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 a week, the images of that night were all over the country. In every little town, people watched the newsreels, and they saw the tanks in the street, the tear gas, and MacArthur driving out the troops that had won the first World War.

"The reaction to it was, we can't let that happen again," author Tom Allen says.

Four years later, the WWI vets received their bonuses. And in 1944, Congress passed the GI Bill to help military veterans transition to civilian life, and to acknowledge the debt owed to those who risk their lives for their country.

This story was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries, and edited by Deborah George. Thanks to Alexis Gillespie.

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