- 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
Another reporter, Thomas R. Henry, was more alert. He was on hand to see the police clear the road to Anacostia and the troops move in, while spectators collected at the bridge which separated the city from the camp. “A better ordered crowd never gathered to witness a battle,” Henry reported. Their sympathies, he noted, were with the bonus marchers. The crowd dispersed quickly at the first whiff of tear gas. Nobody was hurt.
“The infantrymen go down into the open field,” Henry wrote. “A truck of the District Fire Department goes just behind them, throwing its floodlights as far as the first row of tents and hovels. There is no sign of life in them … The infantry advances cautiously. They move in single file along the river bank. There is a line of hovels which have been erected for veterans with families. They are deserted now. The soldiers apply the torch to them. They are like tinder.”
The cavalry rode up behind the foot soldiers with “little relish for the job ahead of them.” When a drunken veteran staggered out of the darkness and chided the men on horseback for turning against their “buddies,” his taunts were taken good-naturedly. A delegation from the Anacostia camp was met with sympathy and cigarettes and, after a pleasant chat, escorted to General MacArthur, who granted the veterans time to collect their belongings.
It was nearly midnight when the women and children, evacuated to an embankment above the camp, saw flames suddenly burst from the center of the ebony bowl below. The platform where they had gathered with their men for vaudeville shows and the windy oratory of visiting spellbinders had been put to the torch. The flames, fed by fires the marchers began to set themselves, spread slowly, engulfing the big gospel tent, the packing boxes, egg crates, automobile bodies, and pup tents.
Silhouetted in the flickering shadows of the burning camp, the routed army began to regroup, stunned families reunited, fathers taking the smaller children into their arms as they drifted off. Some stumbled toward the Virginia border, only to find it blocked by soldiers. The Maryland line was guarded by state troopers. Some of the veterans wandered aimlessly; others dropped to the roadside, dabbing their eyes with damp handkerchiefs to ease the sting, while the children coughed and whimpered from the tear gas they had drawn into their lungs.
It was nearly four o’clock in the morning when, as rain began to fall, they were permitted to enter Maryland on the condition they keep moving toward Pennsylvania, where Johnstown’s Mayor Eddie McCloskey, in a speech delivered at Anacostia only a few days earlier, had offered them sanctuary if they were ever driven out of Washington. Transportation to Johnstown was cheerfully provided by Maryland authorities eager to rid the state of this human refuse.
Driven out of Washington, herded across Maryland, the dazed men, women, and children of the B.E.F. huddled in trucks, clutching the sideboards, staring blankly at the Pennsylvania countryside. State troopers were waiting for them at a Jennerstown traffic signal nineteen miles from Johnstown. The trucks were directed west over Laurel Hill and Chestnut Ridge instead of north toward the abandoned amusement park on the outskirts of Johnstown, where stragglers were already being sheltered by Mayor McCloskey. Once the men in the trucks realized they had been duped, they stopped the trucks, clambered down, and headed back toward Johnstown. Malcolm Cowley of the New Republic gave two of them a lift in his car: One was a man gassed in the Argonne and tear-gassed at Anacostia; he breathed with an effort, as if each breath would be his last. The other was a man with family troubles; he had lost his wife and six children during the retreat from Camp Marks and hoped to find them in Johnstown. He talked about his service in France, his three medals, which he refused to wear, his wounds, his five years in a government hospital. “If they gave me a job,” he said, “I wouldn’t care about the bonus.”
While the remnants of his routed army were converging on Johnstown’s Ideal Amusement Park, a filthy, fly-ridden weed patch suddenly burgeoning with lean-tos, bough huts, and pup tents, Commander Waters was frantically trying to establish “some sort of semi-permanent shelter for those in the B.E.F. who were completely homeless.” A woman in Catonsville, Maryland, offered him twenty-five to fifty acres as a camp site, but the state’s attorney general warned Waters that no such encampment could be established without the approval of the Board of Health. And no such approval would be given.
The Governor of Pennsylvania dispatched a committee of trained social workers to the Johnstown camp. They found the men well-disciplined (“no begging or panhandling”), and their leaders “courteous and considerate.” In the teeth of intemperate new charges that most of the B.E.F. had never served in the United States Army or Navy, the Pennsylvania report stated, “There can be no question whatever that almost all of them were war veterans.” This jibed with the statement just issued by the Veterans’ Administrator that ninety-four per cent of the members of the B.E.F. had seen military service, two-thirds of them overseas.