Patrick O’Brien stepped out of the slapped together shack on the Anacostia Flats. The July morning was already hot and steamy. The Flats, situated between Washington DC and the Anacostia River, muddy even in dry times, added to his misery. His denim pants and cotton shirt, loose on his thin body from not enough food, were soiled and sweat seeped through. He looked around the encampment as the 10,000 strong remnants of the Bonus Army in their makeshift city called Camp Marks roused from an uneasy slumber.
O’Brien, like the rest, was a veteran of the Great War. They came to Washington DC from all over the country to pressure Congress to give them the veteran bonus that was promised to them. Almost three years into the depression and people were desperate. They were out of work, out of their homes and out of hope, except for the promise of the bonus. The bonus though wasn’t payable until 1945, and now in 1932, many felt they would be dead from hunger if they waited much longer. They wanted the money now and the Bonus Army and its leaders came here to make sure they got it.
“Hey Patrick, want some corn mush? It ain’t much but it’s tasty. Might cheer you up some.”
The voice came from his friend Sean Ryan. They served and fought together with the 1st infantry in France and survived. Many of their comrades didn’t.
“Thanks. Don’t give me too much. I don’t want to short you.”
“When we get our bonus you can buy me a fine meal at a fancy restaurant,” said Sean.
“You know, Sean, this Congress and this President Hoover ain’t going to give us anything. You have been out of work for a year and I’ve been looking for work for a year and a half. The “good citizens” of those towns we passed through on the way here called us tramps and bums. They didn’t call us tramps when we marched off to war in 1917.”
“Patrick, when the Senate voted not to give us the money in June I thought it was all over. But look around you. Even though many have left there are still thousands here in our own Hooverville and more inside DC. How can they ignore us?”
“We and the thousands of others are here because we got no homes to go back to Sean, and they will ignore us or worse.”
They finished their corn mush, cleaned up and walked towards the center of the camp.
Camp Marks was orderly, with streets laid out like a regular city. Kitchens were set up to feed people, even though the food donations were running out. A library was set up by the Salvation Army. At night bands would play music and people would dance their cares away. The dwellings were everything from scraps of wood and metal found at the rubbish dump nearby to canvas tarps and tents. Some even built small replicas of the homes they no longer had. Signs on the shacks showed where they were from. “Racine, Wisconsin to DC!” said one. Another said “Washington or Bust-Bonus We Trust”. Others flew state flags and American flags. This was their city and their country.
The veterans looked like the millions that were out of work and living in tent cities all across the country. Gaunt, sallow faces from too little food and too much worry. Those who brought their families looked worse off. Their children had distended bellies and no shoes. Mothers kept clothes together with scraps of sackcloth. White and black veterans shared food and living space. The segregation in the military and even in their home states was ignored here. They all had a common purpose and it kept them going.
“Hey Sean, seems to be a gathering over there. Let’s see what is going on.”
On the back of a truck, a leader of the Bonus Army was speaking.
“Men, you have a right to lobby Congress just as much as a corporation or those corrupt Wall Street bankers. The government wants to evict us from here and the camps in the center of the city. We need to show them we are still together on this. The cops have been on our side so far but that can change if they are ordered to clear us out. Let us march, but keep your sense of humor and don’t do anything to cause the public to turn against us.”
With that, he jumped down and mingled with the other veterans as they all began to head to a small drawbridge that led to the capital district. Sean and Patrick joined them as the mass of veterans chanted “the yanks are starving, the yanks are starving!”
Thousands of veterans were also camped inside Washington. They had taken over the many abandoned buildings all over the capital that were slated for demolition. A new Federal Triangle of government buildings was to be built and the old Civil War-era buildings had to go. It was up to a government official on when the evictions would take place and many vets felt it was imminent. There was an uneasy peace between them and the police. The Chief of Police was a veteran and sympathized with their plight but his hands were tied.
President Hoover and Attorney General Mitchell did not sympathize with the vets. They considered the ex-soldiers a ‘communist mob’ who illegally occupied the nation’s capital. After meeting with the Police Chief, Hoover gave the order to clear out the veterans. He also contacted the local Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur and ordered his troops to be mobilized to help clear out the Bonus Army.
By the time the thousands from Camp Marks made it to the capital district the eviction notice had been issued and the police were on the move. Buildings were being cleared out of veterans and fights broke out.
Patrick and Sean watched with dismay as police stormed an abandoned building filled with veterans.
“Sean, did you hear gunshots?”
Veterans poured out of the building almost trampling each other.
“They killed two of our fellows,” yelled one. “The sons of bitches!”
A disheveled vet ran by Patrick. “I didn’t survive the war to get shot here. Bill Hushka and Eric Carlson were both shot dead. Now their families will get the bonus.”
The two friends nodded their heads in understanding. The bonus was paid early on one condition if you were dead.
The police, now with reinforcements, clubbed and pushed the ex-soldiers away from the abandoned buildings and towards a line of trees along Pennsylvania Ave. Patrick and Sean stumbled, fell and got up again along with other vets fleeing the police onslaught. Eventually, they stopped and looked around at the mass of humanity around them.
“Lord have mercy, Patrick.” Sean bent over and took deep breaths trying to recover. “What the hell was that?”
“I think it means we ain’t getting that bonus and we are no longer welcome here.”
At 4:45 pm as the veterans mingled with government employees leaving work, 400 soldiers and 200 cavalry troopers with 6 small tanks behind them moved down Pennsylvania Ave. Off to the side was General MacArthur.
MacArthur walked over to a cavalry officer. “Major Patton, I want you to clear these red insurrectionists out of this city.”
“Yes, sir!” Major Patton wheeled his horse around and led his troops towards the crowd of office workers and veterans.
The veterans thought the military display was to honor them as ex-soldiers of the Great War. They cheered them as they approached.
Patton lined up his cavalry across from the crowd. Horses snorted and pawed the ground with their hooves in anticipation. They had been trained for this. Suddenly Patton’s cavalry drew their sabers and charged veterans and government workers alike. Screams and shouts of “shame, shame” echoed from the scattering crowd.
“Come on Sean, let’s get the hell out of here. Head back to the camp.”
Soldiers lined up behind the cavalry, donned gas masks and fixed bayonets onto their rifles. They moved forward and threw tear gas canisters at veterans, government workers, and onlookers alike. The vets, having tasted war before, threw the gas canisters back and fought with whatever they could pick up.
“Sean, we went through worse than this in the war. Remember your training and we will get through ok,” said Patrick, barely able to talk as he choked and coughed on the gas.
“Patrick, they’re coming this way,” yelled Sean.
A soldier in a gas mask advanced through the haze of gas and lunged at Patrick with his bayonet. Patrick’s mind was now in 1918 France, not 1932 Washington and he reacted with force. The soldier in front of him was the enemy and Patrick sidestepped and took him down easily. While the soldier lay on the ground, Patrick’s clouded mind reached over for a large rock, held it above his head with two hands and prepared to smash the gas-masked face in.
“No, Patrick!” shouted Sean above the din of shouts and horses charging.
Patrick looked at Sean and his mind cleared. He ripped off the gas mask of the prone soldier. The face looked young.
“Sweet Jesus boy, how old are you, 12?” said Patrick.
“No, I am 18,” said the soldier with contempt.
“Right lad, and when we were in France fighting, you were in shorts hanging on to your Mama’s knee. Now stay there. Don’t follow us. And maybe you should be thinking you are on the wrong side in this fight,” said Patrick as he moved away.
Sean glared at the young soldier. “You’re lucky we don’t have guns. I guarantee I am a better shot than most of you.” With that, he turned and joined Patrick and other vets making their way back to Camp Marks.
The trek back was a battle in itself. Hundreds of veterans fought back with rocks and tree branches as cavalry slashed at them with their sabers and soldiers jabbed at them with bayonets. Tear gas wafted over the area, burning faces and searing lungs.
Off to the side, Sean saw a soldier bayonet a black vet in the back. He walked quickly over to the injured man with Patrick close behind. As Sean knelt down to help him the vet said: “go on Suh’s, just leave me.” Sean saw the medals pinned to his chest.
“We aren’t doing that, are we, Patrick,” he said looking over to his friend who was eyeball to gas mask with the soldier. “We were in it together over there and we are in it together here.”
With that, they helped him to his feet and took him to a group that was taking care of the injured. He winced with pain when they sat him down. “Thank you, fellas. I’ll be alright here.” A vet next to him coughed violently. “Gassed at the Argonne and gassed in Washington. Don’t that beat all,” he said as another coughing spasm shook his body.
They left the wounded who were in the care of an ex-battlefield medic and joined the routed vets making their way to Camp Marks. When they reached the drawbridge to the flats they looked back at the carnage and mayhem taking place. They couldn’t believe that soldiers had attacked ex-soldiers in the nation’s capital.
General MacArthur stood at the drawbridge leading to Camp Marks, hands on his hips and chin thrust in the air. He yelled out to an officer in charge of a detachment of soldiers, “clear them out!”
Soldiers moved into the camp with bayonets and torches. One by one they lit shacks and tents on fire. Scraps of wood, possessions, flags and the homemade signs of the Bonus Army lit up the darkening sky. The books in the Salvation Army library added to the conflagration, burnt pages fluttered into the air and returned as ash. Families were forced out of their pitiful huts, barely retrieving what little they had.
Sean helped a veteran clear his family out of one of the shacks. The man had raced by him and yelled to his family, “the soldiers have come to kill us!” Fire swirled around them. Smoke choked them and veterans and the families with wet rags to their faces ran from the marauding soldiers. The camp looked like hell on earth–a nightmare come to life.
Patrick and Sean moved through the camp, helped more people when they could, but knew they had to get out the back way.
Panicked thousands, some in cars, many on foot once again moved as one.
When they reached the outskirts of Anacostia Flats, Patrick and Sean looked back at the flames that rose above Camp Marks. Shacks were burnt to the ground, as well as the few possessions of people who came to Washington with the hope that someone would listen to their plight. There was a curtain of blackness as smoke billowed towards the capital district.
“Well, Patrick where to now?” said Sean.
“Outta here,” said Patrick. “This was the last straw for me. It was bad enough they killed the economy and our jobs. Now they want to kill us. If that is what they do to veterans who just want what is owed them, what are they going to do to the rest of the country? I think what I will do is put one foot in front of the other and where I go I will tell people what I saw happen here today.”
“If you don’t mind, I will tag along with you. After all, I got nowhere else to go right?”
The two friends turned their backs on the capital district, leaving flames, tear gas and chaos behind. They joined other dispossessed veterans and their families, a stream of refugees in a country lost and adrift.
"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act". George Orwell