- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005


By Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen

Walker, $27, 370 pages


When World War II ended and Johnny came marching, sailing or flying home he was greeted by more than cheers, kisses and parades; he was greeted also with a package of financial goodies all wrapped up in legislation known as the GI Bill of Rights.

That legislation guaranteed him a college education, a home loan at low interest rates and, most immediately, membership in an exclusive organization known as the 52-20 club. That club — it wasn’t really a club — promised him, or her, $20 a week for 52 weeks or until he found a job.

So here was a grateful nation showing its gratitude to those who had fought and bled and won World War II.

But most things, including the GI bill, don’t happen by accident and most things that happen have unintended consequences. One thing that didn’t happen by accident occurred 10 years before WWII ended. This was the legislation passed in l935 over President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s veto giving a bonus to the veterans of World War I, also known as the Great War. The unintended consequence of the long, often bitter fight to win that bonus was the overwhelming passage 10 years later of the GI bill. It is almost a certainty that if the WWI veterans had not won their bonus battle any legislation rewarding the WWII veterans would have been slower in coming and less in substance.

The battle for the bonus and the men who fought for it are the subject of “The Bonus Army,” a new book by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen. This thoroughly researched and eminently readable book is one that every veteran, indeed, every American should read.

Let me say at the outset that I am one of those WWII veterans who took advantage of and was enormously benefited by the GI bill. But I never knew or much cared why or how it came about. Growing up I had vaguely heard about the bonus army and how in the summer of 1932 its members were dispersed and chased out of Washington, D.C. by the regular army, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur who was acting on orders from President Herbert Hoover.But it had little meaning for me at the time — I was eight and my dad, not a veteran, was having his own struggle to feed his family in those Depression years — and over time it faded from the national consciousness as well as from my memory.

But “The Bonus Army” brings it all back in painful and painstaking detail. And it is those details, replete with the names and activities of the leading participants in that years-long drama that bring the book to life. I learned, for instance, to my great surprise, that about one million American blacks served during WWI and because of segregation those who fought were not allowed to fight under the American flag so they fought under the French flag.

Later, to the consternation of Southern segregationists and the astonishment of the generals and admirals of the armed services, when the veterans gathered in Washington to lobby for their bonus blacks and whites mixed and lived together without incident. They had shared common experiences and had a common goal. It appears to have been that simple.

The book also dispels the popular canard that the bonus army was led by communists and was a tool of the Communist Party. Although there were some communists involved, most of whom were also veterans, the leaders of the bonus army went to extreme lengths to keep them out of the their organization and to insure that participants were bona fide veterans. Indeed, far from being part of an anti-government, undisciplined mob, most of those in the bonus army were flag-waving patriots, many of whom had won medals for heroism. And that army as such was well organized and well disciplined.

Two men in particular stand out in the book. Today they are all but forgotten. One is Walter W. Waters, a former army sergeant, who organized and led the first contingent of veterans from Portland, Ore. to Washington, D.C. As other groups arrived in the capital, Waters was elected to head the entire army. The other man is former Gen. Pelham D. Glassford, the motorcycle-riding Washington chief of police, who worked closely with Waters and went to extraordinary lengths, including spending large sums of his of his own money for food and supplies for the veterans.

The villains of the piece are Hoover and MacArthur, while a couple of bit players are named Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. If there are heroines in the saga they are the fabulously rich bonus army sympathizer, Evalyn Walsh McLean, and Congress’ indomitable fighter for veterans’ right, Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican from Massachusetts.

The setting for the story is America in l932, the height of the Great Depression with millions out of work and tens of thousands of jobless, homeless men wandering the country and riding the rails hoping to find any kind of employment anywhere it might be available.

In the years after the war various veterans groups had agitated for some sort of payment — it was not called a bonus — but they were opposed by Presidents Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt on various grounds including — and this sounds silly today — running the federal government into debt. Eventually a bill was passed giving the veterans a bonus payable in 1945, a mere 27 years after the war ended. If a veteran died before l945 his heirs could collect sooner. Obviously l945 was a little late to do much good for a jobless veteran in 1932 who perhaps had lost his home and whose hungry family was wondering where its next meal was coming from.

While the climax to the story is the action taken by MacArthur under orders from Hoover to disperse the bonus army and run its members, including many wives and children, out of the nation’s capital city, much of the drama in the book has to do with how the bonus army came together from all parts of the nation and how the various groups got to Washington.

In the first place they had no money. But a little thing like being broke didn’t stop them. Many rode empty box cars and when railroad officials tried to bar their way they rode anyway or found other means. As they traveled across the country they were helped by friendly governors and mayors and police chiefs who would help with transportation, often from state border to state border. Citizens and civic groups, even in a period when money and jobs were scarce, contributed food and coffee and small amounts of cash.

Hard to believe is the discipline these old soldiers showed. There was no violence, no crime, no demands. They negotiated with the railroads for empty box cars, they paraded through towns with their flags waving. They marched and demonstrated in Washington with flags flying.Some built a shantytown — Hooverville they called it — on the mud flats down by the Anacostia River. Others took over abandoned buildings. They had come to stay until they got their bonus and also because most of them had no homes to return to.

Because they had come to demonstrate peacefully, they were unarmed and unprepared when MacArthur-led (he led from the rear) cavalry and infantry troops, throwing tear gas grenades and wielding the flat sides of their sabers and bayonet-equipped rifles ran them out of the capital and burned their shanty town. This was in August of l932 and Franklin Roosevelt, by now the Democratic presidential nominee, is said to have told an aide the next day that now there was no need to campaign. He wondered, “Why didn’t Hoover offer the men coffee and sandwiches instead of turning MacArthur loose?” A good question, but one the authors make no attempt to answer.

While the dispersal of the bonus army is the memory that lingers, that was not the end of the effort to obtain a bonus for the WWI veterans. That came in l935, 17 years after the war ended and only nine years before Congress passed the GI Bill. With very few exceptions the World War I veterans are dead now but Mr. Dickson and Mr. Allen have done a fine job of reminding Americans of the almost forgotten fight a relatively few of them made to finally shame the Congress into paying what in effect was a mere pittance in return for the sacrifices they had made during the Great War.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer and World War II veteran, was an adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

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