Walter W. Waters Leader of the Bonus Army

Tombstone Bonus protest, Portland Oregon USA August 1932.

The leader of the Bonus Army was Wallter W. Waters.  Waters was born in Burns, Oregon in 1898.  He served in the Idaho National Guard in 1910 against Francisco “Pancho” Villa.  In 1917 he served in the Oregon National Guard, shipping to France on Christmas Eve to fight in World War I.  He received an honorable discharge in 1919.  In 1925 he moved to Washington and then Portland, Oregon looking for work.  He picked fruit and worked in a cannery.  Wherever he went he listened to veterans unable to find work who were also not being paid for services rendered in war.  He met many other veterans who had lost their jobs and savings after the war.  Congress did pass a law allowing for a one-time half-payment borrowing (with interest until repayment) of the Adjusted Service Certificate.  Walters noted that special interest lobbyists got results in Washington, and conceived of a lobby of veterans to encourage the United States Government to deliver the payment the veterans were due.

On 11 March 1932 Waters called for a march on Washington and 250-300 men from Portland joined him.  They marched behind a banner reading “Portland Bonus March – On to Washington.” The veterans and their families had popular support and the support of some authorities.  A Portland railroad offered the use of dung-stained cattle cars to transport the Bonus Army.  The Indiana National Guard and the Pennsylvania National Guard used military vehicles to transport the Bonus Army.  Toll bridge operators let the Bonus Army march silently across bridges without pay, and police officers refused to arrest Bonus Army veterans for trespassing.  Thousands joined the Bonus Army as it marched towards Washington with Sergent Waters as their elected leader.  Waters forbade drinking, panhandling, and ‘anti-government’ or ‘radical’ talk.

When Waters and his Bonus Army arrived in late May 1932 they were twenty thousand strong.  The veterans and their families camped in buildings abandoned during the Great Depression and in giant shantytowns. Communists showed up at the shantytowns and agitated for their cause among the veterans.  In reply, Bonus Army veterans seized the communists, held trials and sentenced them to fifteen lashes.  More than two hundred communists were expelled from the Bonus Army camps.  But supporters who were not communists showed up at the shantytown with material support.  Among them were eight German soldiers, each having fought against US soldiers, each wounded twice or more in World War I, all naturalized citizens and bearing a total of eight tons of food and supplies for the Bonus Army.

On 29 June the US Government announced it would not meet the demands of the Bonus Army and that the Bonus Army had to leave by 15 July.  By 5 July there was no food remaining.  On 7 July congress offered $10,000 to the Bonus Army if it would simply leave Washington DC.  Some did take the money and leave, but many more took the money and stayed while other veterans joined for the first time.  One thousand more veterans and their families had joined the Bonus Army in Washington and more were on their way.  On 17 July 1932 Congress voted down the bonus and then adjourned.  President Hoover went on a vacation.

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Waters on steps of Congress

Waters, meanwhile, announced the formation of ‘shock troops’ within the Bonus Army to be called the Khaki Shirts.  “Inevitably such an organization brings up comparisons with the Facisti of Italy and the NAZI of Germany. The Khaki Shirts, however, would be essentially American.”  Waters demanded “complete dictatorial powers” of the Bonus Army.  Like many of Waters’ demands, this did not come to pass.

Communists tried once more to force a confrontation with the US Government on 20 and 25 July by rushing the White House.  The Government responded by ordering Waters to evacuate several of the Bonus Army camps.  Waters agreed to leave with the promise the Bonus Army could leave in stages and would not be forced by fellow soldiers or police to do so.  Waters told his followers: “When you start defying the federal government, which don’t take any consideration of the human element, you’re going to get licked.  We can’t lick the United States Government, but when the United States troops are called to escort me out, I’m going out.”  After making this speech, Waters was informed that all of the Bonus Army needed to leave Washington immediately.  “There you are!  You’re double crossed!  I’m double crossed!”  The Bonus Army ceased all evacuation.

President Hoover later described the attack on the Bonus Army in this way: “A challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met, swiftly and firmly. After months of patient indulgence, the Government met overt lawlessness as it always must be met if the cherished processes of self-government are to be preserved. We cannot tolerate the abuse of Constitutional rights by those who would destroy all government, no matter who they may be. Government cannot be coerced by mob rule.”  Hoover’s Attorney general William D. Mitchell described the Bonus Army as “the largest aggregation of criminals that had ever assembled in the city at one time.  A very much larger proportion of the Bonus Army than was realized at the time consisted of ex-convicts,  persons with criminal records, radicals and non-servicemen.”  MacArthur later described the attack on the Bonus Army in this way: “If there was one man in that group today who is a veteran, it would surprise me.  The mob down Pennsylvania Avenue looked bad.  They were animated by the spirit of revolution.  The gentleness and consideration with which they had been treated had been mistaken by them as weakness and they had come to the conclusion that they were about to take over the government in an arbitrary way or by indirect methods.”  The day after the eviction, a veteran approached Patton.  When Patton saw the veteran he said “Sergent, I do not know this man.  Take him away, and under no circumstances permit him to return!”  When the man left, Patton said this: “That man was my orderly during the war.  When I was wounded, he dragged me from a shell hole under fire.  I got him a decoration for it.  Since the war, my mother and I have more than supported him.  We have given him money.  We have set him up in business several times.  Can you imagine the headlines if the papers got wind of our meeting here this morning?  Of course, we’ll take care of him anyway.”

The Bonus Army veterans and their families scattered.  Some returned to their home states, whether or not they had a home there.  Some stayed in or near Washington.  The Bonus Army marched again, some of the men in the Bonus Army marched or petitioned under other names, but their back had been broken.

Hoover was not re-elected.  Franklin D. Roosevelt became the next President of the United States.  Roosevelt established the Civil Conservation Corps, the G. I. Bill, the Works Progress Administration and in 1936 he paid the bonus.  On average, $583 per soldier.

Adapted from: OVO: http://ovo127.com/2010/07/25/trevor-blake-the-bonus-army/

 

They used to tell me I was building a dream and so I followed the mob.
When there was earth to plow or guns to bear I was always there, right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream with peace and glory ahead.
Why should I be standing in line just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done, brother can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower to the sun, brick and mortar and lime.
Once I built a tower, now it’s done, brother can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell, full of that yankee doodle de dum.
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell and I was the kid with the drum.
Say don’t you remember, they called me Al, it was Al all the time.
Say don’t you remember, I’m your pal, brother can you spare a dime?

- Brother Can You Spare a Dime? by E. Y. “Yip” Harburg and Jay Gorney, 1931

Al Jolson sings the song that has become the anthem of the great depression.