After World War I, a Fight for Pay

World War I veterans known as the Bonus Army march for early benefit pay on Pennsylvania Avenue in July 1932.
World War I veterans known as the Bonus Army march for early benefit pay on Pennsylvania Avenue in July 1932. (Historical Society Of Washington)
By Ashlee Clark
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

John Gill was 10 when his father, Theodore, took him to visit the destitute veterans on the muddy Anacostia River flats.

The former World War I soldiers pitched tents and built makeshift shacks. It was 1932, and they had come by the thousands to collect war bonuses the government had promised.

Payouts were scheduled to begin in 1945. But as hard times swept the country during the Great Depression, the veterans demanded their money early. While they waited, sympathizers such as the Gills visited and gave away cigarettes.

"Things were really bad," said John Gill, now 84, describing veterans in line at soup kitchens on Constitution Avenue.

Yesterday, the Historical Society of Washington commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Bonus Army's march with the opening of an exhibition, "Wages of War: Bonus Army to Baghdad." It includes firsthand accounts of what happened, police nightsticks used to drive the veterans away, buttons and photographs.

It is an effort, organizers said, to reclaim a piece of the past.

"It's been bleached out of the history books for too many years," said Paul Dickson, co-author of "The Bonus Army: An American Epic."

The government had promised veterans $1 for each day of service at home and $1.25 for each day served overseas. But 1945 seemed too far off for people who were starving. Veterans and their families converged on Washington to lobby for a bill to permit advance distribution of the bonuses.

They called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force. It is estimated that as many as 65,000 veterans and their families came, spreading out in Anacostia and across the city, Dickson said.

The bill died in the Senate. But many of the veterans remained.

On July 28, 1932, District police tried to remove some veterans. Two were fatally shot by police. Then the U.S. Army, ordered by President Herbert Hoover and commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, continued the removal, with tear gas and bayonets.

"What was compelling to me about this story is that veterans could go through the experience that they went through in World War I and then be completely mistreated when they came home," said Robert Uth, who directed the PBS documentary "The March of the Bonus Army."

Still, the impact of the protest has been lasting.

In 1936, Congress overrode President Franklin D. Roosevelt's veto to grant the bonuses. Uth said the bonus was a half-step toward the GI Bill, which gave veterans a college tuition benefit and home loan guarantees.

"It had such a positive effect on the people of the country, and it motivated a young generation to be patriotic and to believe that veterans were treated fairly just before that generation was called upon for World War II," he said. "The Bonus Army was a test that let the government see that positive social change came from treating veterans fairly."

Austin Kiplinger, chairman of the Kiplinger Washington Editors, was 13 when he was taken to Anacostia and he remembered the heat, mud and sewage.

"It was a pretty messy and pretty desperate-looking sight," he said.

The exhibition runs through Veterans Day.

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