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The Bonus Army: How A Protest Led To The GI Bill

On July 28, officials sent in the Washington police to evict the marchers. The action was peaceful until someone threw a brick, the police reacted with force, and two bonus marchers were shot. The situation quickly spiraled out of control. (The National Archives)

Occupy Wall Street protests have sprung up in cities across the U.S. — and around the world. The common denominator between them is protesters' commitment to stay and camp out. They've pitched tents and built large, impromptu communities.

It's a form of protest that echoes throughout American history.

In 1932, another group of protesters set up encampments and vowed to stay until their voices were heard.

The Bonus Army

As World War I drew to a close in 1918, millions of American veterans returned home to the promise of a cash bonus — compensation for their overseas service.

Makes me so damn mad, a whole lot of people speak of you as tramps. By God, they didn't speak of you as tramps in 1917 and '18. Take it from me, this is the greatest demonstration of Americanism we have ever had.
Retired Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler

There was a catch, though: The money would not be paid out until 1945.

Then, the Great Depression struck. Millions of Americans were left hungry and homeless. Veterans of the war were desperate for relief.

So in 1932, a group of veterans in Portland, Ore., led by a man named Walter Waters, decided to go to Washington to lobby for early payment of their promised bonus.

They went down to the railroad yards, with a bugle and an American flag, and hopped onto freight trains. They called themselves the Bonus Army.

As they moved eastward, their idea caught on. Radio stations and newspapers began to pick up the story. Veterans from all over the country began jumping on freight trains, heading for the capital.

Tom Allen, co-author of The Bonus Army: An American Epic, says the movement "was a magnet for the veterans and their families who had nothing.

"Suddenly, out of the whole Depression, comes guys doing something," he says. "There was hope there. They have a mission, they have a destination — and it's called Washington, D.C."

In 1932, Fred Blacher was a 16-year-old Washingtonian.

"They came in on trucks and old buses," he says. "They were hanging on freight cars, in old dilapidated Fords, with 20 people hanging on them."

Lillie Linebarrier was living in North Carolina with her veteran husband when she heard about the Bonus Army. They formed the Friendly Bonus Expeditionary Force String Band, and "we just packed up a tin tub and a wash pot and what few clothes we needed, and my banjo. And we let out, playing our music."

Encampments

The first Bonus Marchers arrived in Washington, D.C., on May 25, demanding payment of their bonuses. Within weeks, there were 20,000 veterans in town.

They set up camp in vacant lots, empty buildings and in an Army-style encampment along the Anacostia River. At one end of camp, there was a dump where veterans scavenged materials to build their houses: wrecked cars, chicken cages and pieces of wood.

The camp was elaborate. It was laid out with streets named after states. It had its own library, post office and barbershops. The Bonus Marchers produced their own newspaper, the BEF News.

"We ate better than we did at home," Linebarrier says. "They would load us up on vegetables, on honey buns, doughnuts. We never had the money to eat such a set at home."

The camp at Anacostia was the biggest Hooverville — or shantytown — in the country. Organizers were determined not to be bums. They laid out strict rules: no alcohol, no fighting, no panhandling and no communists.

The veterans had the support of many Washingtonians. Locals came down and brought them cigarettes and food, came to be entertained by the bands that played in the camp, or came down just to talk to the veterans.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler came to speak to the marchers.

"I never saw such fine Americanism as is exhibited by you people," he said. "You have just as much right to have a lobby here as any steel corporation. Makes me so damn mad, a whole lot of people speak of you as tramps. By God, they didn't speak of you as tramps in 1917 and '18.

"Take it from me, this is the greatest demonstration of Americanism we have ever had. Pure Americanism. Don't make any mistake about it: You've got the sympathy of the American people. Now don't you lose it," he said.

On June 15, the House of Representatives passed a bill to pay out the bonus. The Bonus marchers celebrated. But then the Senate turned it down and adjourned.

Army Attacks The Camp

Officials in Washington expected that the Bonus Marchers would all go home. But they didn't. The numbers dropped, but the hard core among them stayed. And there was no indication they were ever going to leave.

Waters, the organizer of the Bonus March, said, "We intend to maintain our Army in Washington, regardless of who goes home."

Herbert Hoover was in the White House, and his administration began to panic.

On July 28, officials sent in the Washington police to evict the marchers. The action was peaceful, until someone threw a brick, the police reacted with force, and two bonus marchers were shot.

The situation quickly spiraled out of control, and the Hoover administration sent in the Army, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

At the time, Blacher was standing on the corner waiting for a trolley. All of a sudden, he says he saw cavalrymen coming up the avenue toward the National Mall.

"The horses were so beautiful, I thought it was a parade," he remembers. "I asked a gentleman standing there, 'Do you know what's going on? What holiday is this?' He says, 'It's no parade, bud. Army's coming in to wipe out all these bonus people down here.' "

A newsreel called it the greatest concentration of fighting troops in Washington since 1865.

"These guys start waving their sabers, chasing these veterans out," Blacher says. "And then they start shooting tear gas. There was so much noise and confusion, hollering. There was smoke and haze. People couldn't breathe."

As night began to fall, the Army crossed into the Anacostia camp. MacArthur gave the marchers 20 minutes to vacate. Thousands of veterans and their families fled. A soldier took a torch and ignited one of the tents. And the Army began torching everything that was still standing.

John diJoseph was a wire service photographer in Washington. He remembers the night they burned everything.

"The sky was red," he says. "You could see the blaze all over Washington."

Within a week, the images of that night were all over the country. In every little town, people watched the newsreels, and they saw the tanks in the street, the tear gas, and MacArthur driving out the troops that had won the first World War.

"The reaction to it was, we can't let that happen again," author Tom Allen says.

Four years later, the WWI vets received their bonuses. And in 1944, Congress passed the GI Bill to help military veterans transition to civilian life, and to acknowledge the debt owed to those who risk their lives for their country.

This story was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries, and edited by Deborah George. Thanks to Alexis Gillespie.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz.

Occupy Wall Street protests have sprung up in cities across the U.S. and around the world. The common denominator among them all is protesters' commitment to stay, to camp out. They've pitched tents and built large, impromptu communities. It's a form of protest that echoes throughout American history.

SIEGEL: In 1932, another group of protesters set up encampments and vowed to stay until their voices were heard. They were World War I veterans. After the war, the government had promised them cash bonuses for their service, payable in 1945. But then, the Depression struck and veterans, desperate for relief, descended on Washington, D.C., demanding payment immediately.

Producers Joe Richman and Samara Freemark, of Radio Diaries, have the story of what came to be known as the Bonus Army.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: America in 1932, the land of lost homes and shattered dreams. Millions of Americans homeless, hungry and without hope.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: People were selling apples on the corners everywhere, knocking on doors asking for food.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The living conditions were horrible. The kids, they were lucky to eat. But that was life, life in those days.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And there were thousands of veterans, they're broke and they don't have a job, just wandering the country aimlessly, just trying to find something to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: From all over the country, unemployed veterans of World War I demand immediate payment of a cash bonus promised them for the future. They need it now. They want it now.

PAUL DICKSON: My name is Paul Dixon.

TOM ALLEN: My name is Tom Allen.

DICKSON: And we wrote "The Bonus Army: An American Epic."

ALLEN: In Portland, Oregon, 1932, a group of veterans got together, saying let's go to Washington because the way you get things from the government is to convince the government to give it to you. We can lobby for the bonus now. And a bunch of them went down to the railroad yards, with a bugle and an American flag, and got onto freight trains and headed to Washington, D.C. And that's how it started.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRAIN)

ALLEN: As they move eastward, it catches on. Radio stations pick it up, newspapers pick it up. Veterans start jumping on freights. Suddenly, out of the whole Depression comes guys doing something. There was hope there. It was a magnet for veterans and their families who had nothing, and they wanted to be part of it.

LILLIE LINEBARRIER: And so we just packed up a tin tub and a washpot, and what few clothes we needed, and my banjo. Put our instruments up and we lit out, playing our music.

ALLEN: They come down from Maine and they come from Florida, Los Angeles, coming from the Deep South, they were coming from everywhere.

FRED BLACHER: The trucks came and old buses. They came in hanging on freight cars. Some had those old dilapidated Fords, with 20 people hanging on them, you know.

ALLEN: They have a mission, they have a destination, and it's called Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLE)

DICKSON: The first guys arrive May 25th of 1932. Within two or three weeks, there were probably around 20,000 veterans in town.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: Why was it you came to Washington?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I came to Washington to get my bonus. And I'm going to wait for it till I get it, if I have to wait till 1945.

ALLEN: They set up camps in vacant lots, abandoned buildings and in an Army-style encampment along the Anacostia River. At one end of the camp was a dump and that's where they found stuff they could make their houses out of - car wrecks and chicken cages and pieces of wood.

LINEBARRIER: We got our place fixed up, got our washpot out and had it cleaned up good, and got set up and started playing our music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINEBARRIER: People was coming out and they'd stand there and listen. They'd stop and drop money in Steve's hat. He had his uniform on. We had a good time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND A SONG)

ALLEN: I mean, there were people in Washington who'd go down there on a Sunday with their kids. People came down and brought them sleeping bags and tents and brought them cigarettes, brought them food, brought them big bags of potatoes and sacks of turnips and a piece of pork or something. And they'd throw everything in the pot, turn it into a monstrous communal stew.

LINEBARRIER: We ate better than we did at home. Steve would go out into town and they'd load him up on vegetables and on honey buns, doughnuts. Well, we never had the money to eat such as that at home.

ALLEN: There was a library and there was a post office. They had their own barbershops; produced their own newspaper, the BEF News. It had streets with the names of states. You know, there's Mississippi Street and New Jersey Street over here.

DICKSON: It's a shantytown. It's the biggest Hooverville in the country, probably around 20,000 veterans. And they are determined not to be bums.

(SOUNDBITE OF A RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: One nation...

CROWD: One nation...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: ...with liberty...

CROWD: ...with liberty...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: ...and justice...

CROWD: ...and justice...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: ...for all.

CROWD: ...for all.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

DICKSON: The rules are: No alcohol, no weapons, no fighting, no panhandling, and you are not a communist. There was an absolute ban on anybody being a communist.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Bonus Army, cover.

ALLEN: And all along, the public was very much on the side of these guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The veterans' cause had the blessings of the retired Marine Corps Commandant General Smedley D. Butler.

GENERAL SMEDLEY BUTLER: I never saw such fine Americanism as is exhibited by you people. You have just as much right to have a lobby here as any steel corporation. Makes me so damn mad, a whole lot of people speak of you as tramps. By God, they didn't speak of you as tramps in 1917 and '18.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

BUTLER: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BUTLER: Take it from me, this is the greatest demonstration of Americanism we have ever had. Pure Americanism. Don't make any mistake about it, you've got the sympathy of the American people. Now don't you lose it. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

DICKSON: The veterans' arrival puts the pressure on Congress.

ALLEN: On June 15th, the House of Representatives passes the bonus, 211 to 176, it passes.

DICKSON: And it looks like good news. All that has to happen is the Senate has to pass it.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: In their last stand at the United States Capitol, the Bonus Army staged a final demonstration which they hope would induce the government to pay the cash they demand.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ALLEN: Several thousand veterans go up to the Hill and they're waiting for the news. And they're full of joy and happy. They're going to get their bonus.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Three cheers for the bonus that we're going to get.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING CROWD)

ALLEN: And the Senate turns it down. And it's all over. So that's the end of the Bonus Army in the view of official Washington. Everybody expects they're all going to go home, but they won't go home.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Comrades. Comrades, I want you to know, I am not advising anybody to go home. On the other hand...

ALLEN: The numbers drop, but the hardcore stays. And there's no indication they're ever going to leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: We intend to maintain our army in Washington, regardless of who goes home.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ALLEN: And there's a little panic that starts at the top of government. They want to get this thing over with.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Police are entering the first of a score of old buildings, appropriated by bonus seekers, to clear them out.

DICKSON: It all starts sort of peacefully and everything seems okay and somebody throws a brick. And all of a sudden, two guys are shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Words soon changed to blows. There was a scuffle, a shower of bricks, a shot and the whole affair got beyond control of the Washington police, who for months had handled the dangerous situation well.

DICKSON: This is now the moment in which the Army can take over. That's when they bring in Douglas MacArthur.

BLACHER: My name is Fred Blacher. I was 16 years old and I was standing on the corner waiting for a trolley. By God, all of a sudden I see these cavalrymen come up the avenue and then swinging down to The Mall. I thought it was a parade. I asked a gentleman standing there, I said, do you know what's going on? What holiday is this? He says, It's no parade, bud. He says the Army is coming in to wipe out all these bonus people down here.

JOHN DIJOSEPH: I'm John Dijoseph. I was photographer, worked for wire service. And when I got up there, I was amazed. MacArthur coming down Pennsylvania Avenue on horse and all these tanks behind him.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: The Third Cavalry from Fort Myers. The 12th Infantry from Fort Washington. And the first Light Tank Regimen, grim and relentless. The greatest concentration of fighting troops in Washington since 1865.

BLACHER: These guys got in there and they start waving their sabers, chasing these veterans out, and they start shooting tear gas. There was just so much noise and confusion, hollering and there was smoke and haze. People couldn't breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: I was in bad shape from the tear gas. Tear gas, damn it, and then more tear gas. It was a mess.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

ALLEN: As night begins to fall, soldiers crossed the bridge and they'd go to the camp at Anacostia and MacArthur gives them 20 minutes to get out.

LINEBARRIER: Here come a cop down there. I said, oh, boy. And he said, you all get out of here.

ALLEN: One soldier takes a torch and applies it to one of the tents and they start torching anything that's still standing.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: And to make sure the men will really stay out, the soldiers have orders to burn down the unsanitary and illegal camp.

BLACHER: That night, they burned everything. The sky was red, you know, and you could see the blaze all over Washington.

ANNOUNCER: And the roaring flames sound the death knell to the fantastic Bonus Army, in the shadow of the capitol of the United States of America.

ALLEN: Within a week, these pictures, these images, were all over the country, every little town, the newsreel comes on. The people see MacArthur and Patton driving out the troops that had won the first World War for us, burning them out, tear-gassing them, tanks in the streets. It was unthinkable.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: The reaction to it is, we can't let that happen again.

ALLEN: No more treating the veterans like we did in the last war. No more bonus armies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINEBARRIER: I always thought I liked General MacArthur, and I still do, but what they did that night to those soldier boys, I'll never forget that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Four years later, in 1936, the veterans did receive their bonuses. And, in 1944, Congress passed the G.I. Bill to help military veterans transition back to civilian life and to acknowledge the debt owed to those who risked their lives for their country.

SIEGEL: The voices you heard include the late Fred Blacher, John DiJoseph and Lillie Linebarrier. She played banjo in the Bonus Army String Band, which we're hearing now.

Our story was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark and edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Special thanks to Alexis Gillespie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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