The Bonus March
As the third bleak winter of the Great Depression passed in 1932, little hope was offered for the coming spring. Many families who had managed to support themselves thus far swallowed their pride and began to turn to the local relief agencies. Conditions had reached a point where three or four families sometimes shared a one-room shack. Some men in Chicago fought over food scraps in the trash cans outside restaurants.
As the desperation deepened, one man in Portland, Oregon, decided to do something about the situation. Walter W. Waters was a veteran who had served as a sergeant overseas during World War I in the 146th Field Artillery. Waters had been an aggressive and ambitious soldier, and now as a jobless cannery superintendent, he was anxious to do something about his situation.
In the spring of 1932 Waters began to discuss plans with other jobless veterans concerning a march on Washington, D.C. This "bonus march" was designed to persuade congressmen to pass a bill that called for immediate payment of veterans' adjusted compensation certificates. The money was not due until 1945, but the veterans' thinking was that it was better to have it early than on time so they wouldn't starve to death. The bill, however, was slowed up in the Ways and Means Committee.
When this delay became evident, Waters began to organize the veterans from Portland. Membership grew. Men were required to show evidence that they had been soldiers. All members agreed to follow the military-style leadership. On May 10 the group elected a "commander-in-chief" and "field marshall." The group began calling itself the "Bonus Expeditionary Force."
The Bonus Force set out for Washington, D.C. They made most of their progress by hopping railroad cars across the country. The group made it halfway across the nation in good time and reached East St. Louis, Illinois, on May 21, 1932.
It was in East St. Louis that the Bonus Force hit its first obstacle. Trouble began when railway police would not allow the veterans to board a Baltimore
ILLINOIS HISTORY / MAY 1993
and Ohio train. Members of the Bonus Force protested by causing mayhem—uncoupling cars and soaping the rails in the freight yard. The Governor of Illinois then called upon the National Guard. Nine units were brought in to scatter the Force. There was a general fight, but no one was seriously injured. This was known as the Battle of B & 0, and it made front-page news all over the country the following morning. The governor wanted to settle the problem quickly; therefore the state supplied trucks to carry the bonus army to the Indiana border.
Although the problem was dealt with quickly, news of the B & 0 battle spread like wildfire. As a result there was considerable sympathy for the Force, but more importantly, it spurred membership. Many new recruits formed additional branches in the Southwest and the South totaling almost five hundred new members. In the South, the new arm of the Force enjoyed quick transportation in fancy cars and hearty meals provided by the heads of the states on their route.
Another group of dissatisfied veterans from Cleveland banded together to form another branch. They made easy progress to the nation's Capitol by sending letters requesting transportation to the governors of the states that lay ahead. In every state, the request was granted. The authorities were happy to oblige the soldiers and get them out of the state before any trouble started. They knew that any large group of hungry men could be a threat to law and order. As the march toward Washington continued, the membership grew. But it was in Illinois and the events there from which the Bonus Army took momentum, drive, sympathy, and a large increase in membership.
On Memorial Day the first group arrived in Washington. The superintendent of police, Pelham D. Glassford, was sympathetic to the cause, and helped tremendously. Glassford supplied food and shelter for the men.
The congressmen were alarmed at the numbers of the veterans pouring in. They felt the pressure immediately and worried about how the city was to feed the 25,000 men that were expected. Commander Waters and the original group from Portland (that now numbered one thousand men) soon made it to Washington. Waters predicted even larger numbers. He went on to say that the Bonus Army was not leaving until the bonus was paid, even if it took until 1945.
On June 17, 1932, approximately ten thousand veterans crowded the Capitol grounds while the Bonus bill was being considered. Another ten thousand waited across the Anacostia River. When the bill failed to pass, about one thousand men left the city, but more kept pouring in.
Finally, Washington had enough. On July 28 four troops of cavalry marched into the streets. The infantrymen marched with their sabers drawn, armed with tear gas bombs, machine guns, and six tanks. They drove out the veterans, their wives, and their children by setting fires to the shacks and using tear gas. Others were allowed to gather their things and were then politely escorted out of town.
Those men and their families had served their country well. In return, their "bonus" was to be driven out of Washington. Although the action took place in Washington, D.C., the stage was set by the events that took place in East St. Louis. Illinois Senator J. Hamilton Lewis spoke to Congress strongly against the bonus demonstration. The Bonus March is one of the largest protests to occur and one of the most dramatic episodes in American history.—[From Dictionary of American Biography; Olin Dee Morrison, Illinois; American Heritage (June 1963); Robert N. Webb, The Bonus March on Washington, D.C.]
People across the country were desperate for work. In Chicago, jobless men