- Historic Sites
By frieght train, on foot, and in commandeered trucks, thousands of unemployed veterans descended on a nervous capital at the depth of the Depression—and were run out of town by Army bayonets
June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
When the prediction began to prove accurate, no one was more astonished than Waters—except possibly the Communist party leaders in New York City, who had been caught oft guard by the spontaneous movement. They watched with increasing incredulity as reinforcements for the B.E.F. continued to pour into the capital. Fifty men from Minneapolis arrived in boxcars on the morning of June 2, followed soon after by 340 more from Pennsylvania. Nine hundred men in search of transportation had taken over a railroad yard in Cleveland, while 208 were being dumped in a Virginia pasture by a crew that cut its locomotive loose from the freight train carrying the bonus marchers. One ambitious leader of a Colorado contingent had tried to commandeer a United States tugboat on the Missouri River.
Eager to capture the runaway movement, the Communist party leaders announced a parade for June 8. Glassford suggested that the B.E.F. steal a march on them by holding a parade of its own the night before. Eight thousand veterans marched down Pennsylvania Avenue; the next day the “Red Parade” was cancelled when it was unable to muster even two hundred.
The parading veterans were coatless, freshly scrubbed and shaved, some wearing remnants of the uniforms they had been issued fourteen years before; they marched with a setting sun at their backs that seemed somehow symbolic. “There was no heart in them, no hope in them,” one reporter noted, struck by the oppressive silence of the men and of the 100,000 spectators who lined the streets from, ironically enough, the Treasury Building to the Peace Monument. There were lumberjacks from Oregon, ranch hands from North Dakota and Utah, coal miners from Pennsylvania, skilled mechanics from Ohio, stockyard workers from Chicago, cotton pickers from the South, clerks from the Middle West. There were no cheers. It was not that kind of a parade.
“Washington watched,” the Star reported, “sympathized and shrugged its shoulders. The watchers felt infinite pity for these men—wished they could do something for them. But the city wondered why it should be made the dumping ground of the nation’s burden of misery.”
The next day another thousand veterans showed up.
The bonus marchers were spread over more than twenty different camps, ranging from the primitive brick shells of a group of half-demolished buildings on lower Pennsylvania Avenue to the country club elegance of Camp Bartlett, where a tent village with a clinic had been set up on a tract of privately owned land turned over to the B.E.F. by a former governor of New Hampshire, J. H. Bartlett. The largest establishment was Camp Marks—named after a sympathetic Washington police captain—a shack city which had sprung up overnight on the mud flats of Anacostia and sheltered some 10,000 men, women, and children. The site had been selected by Glassford with a view to the strategic advantage of the Eleventh Street bridge across the Anacostia River; in case of trouble it could be raised to separate the bulk of the B.E.F. from the other camps.
“Every scrap of material which can possibly be fitted into a shelter of any kind is being dragged out of the big junk pile on the hill above the camp,” Thomas R. Henry wrote in the Star after a tour of the Anacostia hovels: There are shelters built of egg crates, of paper boxes, of rusty bed springs, of O. D. blankets, of newspapers, of scraps of junked automobiles, of old wall-paper, of pieces of corrugated iron rooting, of tin and bed ticking, of the rusty frames of beds, of tin cans, of rusty fence wire, of straw, of parts of baby carriages, of fence stakes, of auto seats. The man who can salvage an auto top from the dump has a mansion in this strange city.
At Anacostia, one man lived in a barrel filled with grass, another in a casket set on trestles, still another in a piano box which he labelled “Academy of Music.” Some of the men dug caves in the clay embankment, and all trudged through a deep ooze of mud after the summer rains, fighting flies by day, mosquitoes by night. By the end of June there were 220 wives and children attached to the B.E.F. A month later the bonus-army records would list 700 women and 400 children, the roster sheets reporting one morning: “…and the O’Brien family with six children, all redheaded and mean as hell!”
One reporter found in the bonus marchers “no revolt, no fire, not even smouldering resentment.” They were “an inchoate aggregation of frustrated men nursing a common grievance.” Waters noted that Anacostia, “in furnishing some sense of security, even temporary, was answering the very need that had brought these thousands to Washington.” No one, least of all the men themselves, seemed to know why they had come. The bonus, as most of them realized at the start, would not be paid, and even if it were, it would last only a few weeks or months.
“Their real demand was for security,” a Pennsylvania welfare official reported, “and in their bewilderment and confusion they seem to have reverted to the old army ways and to the earlier institutional situation where shelter and food are provided and where leadership is given.” New members lapsed so quickly into the army spirit of the B.E.F. that some asked for passes before leaving camp, and a few even inquired about payday. They griped about the chow and the foul-ups by their leaders, but when they drilled for visitors, they sucked in their paunches and tried to march with something of their old snap, recalling in their shabby middle age the proud days of their youth.