In 1932 45,000 World War I veterans, many with families, traveled from across America to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress to financially compensate them based on a 1924 law promising them financial compensation for their service, in the form of a “bonus,” paid as a bond redeemable in 1945.
The veterans called the “bonus” the “Funeral Bond,” arguing they would be dead by 1945. They were already widely unemployed and impoverished and in immediate need of compensation for their service.
Under the leadership of former Army sergeant Walter A. Waters, 300 men first traveled to Washington, D.C. Their numbers grew to several thousand to 45,000 and they became known as the “Bonus Army.” Traveling to Washington, D.C. with their families they built shacks and pitched tents along the Anacostia River.
On July 13, 1932, Brig. Gen. Pelham D. Glassford, superintendent of the Washington, D.C. Police Department asked those on the Capitol grounds to raise their hands if they had served in France and were 100 percent American. He also publicly defended their constitutional right to assemble and petition the government.
The veterans lobbied and waited in the nation’s Capitol for over two months for the 72nd Congress to pay them. Instead, of acknowledging their pleas, Congress adjourned and left out of back and side doors, cowardly refusing to grant an immediate payment of the Bonus.
Worse still, President Herbert Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur, the Army Chief of Staff, to evict them– all 45,000 of them. With MacArthur was Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, who under the command of Major George S. Patton followed orders. The U.S. Military, including saber-wielding calvary men, burned the veterans’ camps, using tear gas and bully clubs on American veterans.
Tanks rolled down Pennsylvania Ave. with the U.S. Capitol in view and American veterans as targets.
Less than one year later, in 1933, veterans returned to Washington, D.C. Once again they were met with another refusal, this time by President Franklin Roosevelt. Additionally, Roosevelt required veterans to work under the “New Deal” program.
Congress did attempt to pay the Bonus, but Roosevelt vetoed their efforts three times. By 1936, Congress overrode his third veto, granting World War I veterans their Bonus. On average, each veteran received approximately $800.
To inform Americans of this blight on their history, PBS aired a half-hour documentary, “The March of the Bonus Army” based on the book, The Bonus Army: An American Epic. The book’s co-authors, Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen, also co-wrote the documentary.
It uses rare archival photographs and newsreel footage, interviews with scholars, writers, and eye-witnesses, and is narrated by Gary Sinise. The documentary was produced by New Voyage Communications and financially supported by the Disabled American Veterans National Service Foundation, the Tawani Foundation, and the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C.