- 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
The evacuation was completed without incident by noon. Ten minutes later a small group of men from the radical camp rushed police lines. A brick battle erupted. Paul Y. Anderson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , standing forty feet away, reported, “Glassford dashed into the heart of the melee, smiled when a brickbat hit him in the chest, and stopped the fighting in a few seconds.” Glassford climbed to a vantage point above the veterans and called down, “Come on, boys, let’s call an armistice for lunch.” The men laughed and cheered. The fighting, which had involved no more than fifty bonus marchers, had lasted less than five minutes.
At 1:45 P.M. , after Glassford returned from a conference with the District commissioners in which, he wrote later, nothing had been said “to indicate that they intended to call upon Federal forces,” a brawl broke out some fifty yards from the scene of the earlier disorder. Four policemen were involved, and two of them fired on the veterans, killing one instantly and wounding another fatally. Three of the policemen ended up in the hospital. Glassford stopped this second disturbance “almost before it commenced,” and then, he continues, “I heard from a newspaperman that the troops were on the way.”
And, in fact, the troops had been called out by the President at the written request of the District commissioners before the two bonus marchers had been killed. They were under the direct command of Brigadier General Perry Miles, but General MacArthur, accompanied by Major General George Van Horn Moseley, his deputy Chief of Staff, personally took the field. (Contemporary accounts virtually ignore the Army’s liaison man with the police department, an amiable West Pointer named Dwight Eisenhower.) A cavalry squadron, an infantry battalion, and a platoon of tanks were to participate in the operation—General MacArthur explained in his official report that in dealing with “riotous elements” a display of “obvious strength gains a moral ascendancy.”
The bonus marchers read in the early editions of the afternoon papers that the troops had been summoned. For nearly three hours they waited in the summer sun, some taking front-row seats in windows of the partly wrecked buildings to be evacuated, others napping in the shade of Pennsylvania Avenue’s sycamores or hawking the B.E.F. newspaper to the gathering crowd of women shoppers, civil servants, and curious passers-by. Street vendors bobbed up with cold lemonade and frozen puddings. As the Star reported next day, “It might have been a crowd at a country fair.”
At 4:45 P.M. four troops of cavalry appeared, sabers raised, with six tanks lumbering behind them, their machine guns hooded. Infantrymen in steel helmets, with blue tear-gas bombs dangling from their belts and bayonets drawn, trotted on the double behind the tanks. The crowd, still in a carnival mood, set up a loud cheer that was echoed from the windows of the old red-brick hulks packed with veterans. “No one in the crowd, any more than the veterans from their high perches, seemed disposed to take the cavalry seriously,” the Star reported. The cavalry might well have been riding to the rescue of an embattled wagon train. Laughter and applause greeted an anonymous wag in one of the tanks who thrust a wire through an opening in the armor and waved a white handkerchief.
In the shadow of the Capitol the cavalry deployed along the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, the infantry column along the south side. “As the soldiers approached more closely, a few brickbats, stones and clubs were thrown,” according to the official report, but Thomas L. Stokes of the United Press saw no evidence of resistance, nor did his colleague Paul Y. Anderson, who heard a command and saw the cavalry charge the crowd with drawn sabers: “Men, women and children fled shrieking across the broken ground, falling into excavations as they strove to avoid the rearing hoofs and saber points. Meantime, infantry on the south side had adjusted gas masks and were hurling tear gas bombs into the block into which they had just driven the veterans.”
Anderson saw a mother pleading with a noncommissioned officer for permission to rescue a suitcase which contained all of the spare clothing she owned, both for herself and her child. “Get out of here, lady, before you get hurt,” Anderson heard the noncom say, and watched him calmly set fire to her shanty. At Third and C streets he witnessed a company of infantry tossing tear-gas bombs right and left. “Some fell in front yards jammed with Negro women and children. One appeared to land on the front porch of a residence. Two small girls fell to the sidewalk, choking and screaming. But the veterans were beyond the street intersection more than fifty yards away. This gas was intended for the spectators…”
By nine o’clock the Pennsylvania Avenue area had been cleared, the veterans routed, and their billets burned, some by the troops, others by the marchers themselves. An exhausted reporter, phoning from the War Department, checked in with his city desk. He said he had been assured that troops would not be sent to Anacostia that night, so he was going home to get some sleep. “You damn fool,” his editor snapped, “the troops are already there!”