Walter Waters: A Leader of the Bonus Army Movement

Walter W. Waters was an American veteran who played a significant role in the Bonus Army movement of 1932. He was born on July 21, 1898, in Portland, Oregon, and was one of the many World War I veterans who struggled to find work and support their families after the war. In this article, we will explore the life and legacy of Walter Waters, his role in the Bonus Army movement, and the importance of this historical event.

Walter Waters 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.
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.
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.

Waters and other Bonus Army leaders met with members of Congress to discuss their demands. They requested the immediate payment of their bonus, but their demands were not met. Despite the government’s response, the Bonus Army movement brought attention to the struggles of World War I veterans and paved the way for future veterans’ benefits.
Walter Water continued to be an advocate for veterans’ rights throughout his life. He remained active in the American Legion and worked to improve the lives of veterans in Oregon. He also became involved in politics, running for office as a Democrat in the Oregon State Senate in 1934 but was unsuccessful. He passed away on September 13, 1959, but his legacy as a leader of the Bonus Army lives on.

In conclusion, Walter Waters played a significant role in the Bonus Army movement. As a veteran himself, he understood the struggles that his fellow veterans faced and was determined to fight for their rights. The Bonus Army definition refers to the group of World War I veterans who marched on Washington D.C. in 1932 to demand early payment of their promised bonus. Despite the government’s resistance, Waters continued to advocate for veterans’ rights throughout his life. His legacy lives on as an inspiration to those who fight for social justice.