Over Here*

November 11 is Veterans Day–known as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in other countries. November 11 has been celebrated since 1918 to commemorate the Armistice that brought an end to the War to End All Wars.

Last year, in 2010, the last US veteran of World War 1 passed away. His name was Frank Buckles. He was 105 years old. During World War 1, Frank Buckles served as an ambulance driver near the front lines in Europe. In his final years, he advocated for support of the National World War 1 Memorial in Washington, D.C.  He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, although a few strings had to be pulled because he’d never fought in combat. On the day of Buckles’ burial, President Obama ordered flags be flown at half-staff in Buckles’ honor. The burial of Frank Buckles put to rest our final World War 1 veteran.

If World War 1 had actually ended all wars, there would be no more living veterans in the United States to honor this year. Veterans Day could be retired as a holiday. The war veteran could go the way of the dodo bird. Extinct. Alive only in art, stories, and oral history.

I would love to be writing today about the extinction of war veterans.

Instead, I will write (again) about a sometimes forgotten moment in American history when a group of war veterans marched on their national capitol. The soldiers were veterans of World War 1. They came to be known as The Bonus Army. Here is a simplified version of their story:

In 1924 Congress voted to award bonuses to World War 1 veterans. The bonuses, based on a soldier’s pay plus interest, could not be redeemed until 1945. That was Congress’ intent. But in 1932, in the black hole of the Great Depression, veterans were hungry, hopeless, and desperate. You’ve seen photos of vets selling apples on street corners. That year, veterans wanted their bonuses. They’d earned them. They needed them. They couldn’t wait 13 more years.

A group of WWI veterans marched to the nation’s capital to appeal for early redemption of the promised bonus. 17,000 soldiers plus their families and supporters eventually swelled to 45,000 people. The group was nicknamed the Bonus Army. In the summer of 1932, they squatted in tents in a makeshift settlement—a Hooverville—in the Anacostia Flats section of Washington.

A Bonus Bill was introduced to award early payment of the bonuses. In June of 1932, the bill was defeated by the Senate.  The Bonus Army had nowhere to go and no money to go there. They waited for President Hoover to act in their behalf. After all, they were veterans, not beggars. They’d brought their wives and children—their families. All they wanted was to receive what was due them, what had been voted on and promised, to honor them for participating in the war that was supposed to have ended all wars.

The Hooverville was a slum. Anacostia was a muddy, insect-infected swamp. There were masses of humans with no steady food supply, no plumbing, nowhere to dump garbage. Tension began to run high. The local police chief was sympathetic and encouraging, but flare-ups and small altercations broke out.

Finally, President Hoover acted. He instructed the U.S. Army to evict the Bonus Army out of the city.

The force that expelled the Bonus Army was led by General Douglas MacArthur. He was supported by a tank division led by General George Patton. Major Dwight Eisenhower was one of Patton’s aides. MacArthur, it has been recorded, believed that the veterans’ camp had been infiltrated and supported by Communists. He ordered the “eviction” be conducted with infantry wielding bayonets and cavalry on horseback, both supported by six tanks.

The eviction turned into a melee that turned into a riot. The veterans’ Hooverville was torched. The Bonus Army was driven across the river and out of the city. Three veterans were killed, 54 injured, over 130 arrested.

It was a publicity nightmare for Hoover. A year later, after he was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt, another contingent of Bonus veterans marched. FDR did not support their demands, but he did authorize a proper campsite and delivery of meals. In 1936 a Bonus Bill was passed to award the bonuses early.

If this bit of American history is news to you, don’t feel badly. There was no 24-hour news cycle in 1932. If there was, can you imagine a sitting President ordering an armed assault on U.S. veterans?

The three military leaders became heroes in the next world war. That one didn’t end all wars, either. Nor did the Korean Conflict, or the wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya.

The Bonus Army went to Washington D.C. because they could not find work in a terrible economy, and they wanted Congress’ help. They weren’t beggars, not any more than a veteran seeking government help would be called a beggar today.

*Note: A version of this post was originally published on Thursday, November 10, 2011, at the Working Stiffs blog.

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