Bonus Army: the Day Our Military Turned Against Its Own Veterans
This is a day you won’t learn about in history class. It doesn’t foster pride in the American ideal we’ve been taught to be so proud of. This was a day our politicians reneged on promises. A day our nation chose a few dollar signs over 15,000 World War I vets with their backs against the wall, pockets empty, and their stomachs growling with hunger.
These were proud men of a caliber you rarely see anymore. The type of men that would rather starve to death than ask for help, and it was getting to that point. These men were promised payment for their service while defending Europe from the Germans and The Ottoman Empire. Washington had shirked their promise for almost 10 years, but now these veterans’ hunger and desperation motivated them to act.
It was 1932 and our country in was in the midst of the great depression. There were no jobs, no opportunity and little hope of any relief. An estimated 17,000 veterans made their way into Washington D.C, along with their families. All accounted, experts estimate nearly 45,000 people total. They weren’t crying for entitlements or free healthcare, they wanted what was owed to feed their families. They camped in make-shift shanty towns, swampy neighborhoods built from scraps and garbage fielded from a nearby garbage dump.
But this was no ghetto, the veterans built roads, sanitation facilities and maintained tight security – entrance required proof of an honorable discharge. As the small city grew, politicians started getting nervous. Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, a popular war hero at the time and a timeless legend among Marines to this day, even visited the camp to show support and encourage the veterans.
When Congress finally cast the vote officially denying the veterans their bonus, the suits quietly snuck away. At 4:45 p.m., on President Hoover’s orders, General Douglas MacArthur led the 12th Infantry and 3rd Cavalry regiments in to quell the uprising. He was supported by six armored tanks commanded by Major George S. Patton. General MacArthur’s aide, a lowly Major at the time by the name of Dwight Eisenhower, strongly advised MacArthur not to act, believing it wrong to move against fellow veterans.
The U.S. Army employed rifles, tanks and gas as they stormed through the village burning everything that they could ignite. After the assault, a soldier named Joe Angelo, a decorated hero who had saved Patton’s life during the war, pleaded with Patton. Patton denied even knowing Angelo and ordered him taken away.
It’s difficult to even consider the possibility of such an injustice happening to such undeserving men, but it happened. But the veterans didn’t give up, a year later they marched yet again. This time, the newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt welcomed the veterans with respect, providing the veterans with improved land to camp on and three meals per day. Although he was against paying the bonuses, Roosevelt eventually negotiated a deal where the veterans would receive jobs in his newly created Civilian Conservation Corps. He also waived many of the CCC’s employment requirements, such as being unmarried and under the age of 25, for the veterans. Three years later Congress passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act which authorized payment of the overdue bonuses, overriding Roosevelt’s veto of the bill.
Check out this video summarizing the Bonus Army’s stand: