A couple of weekends ago I caught the end of a C-SPAN presentation by the authors of The Bonus Army: An American Epic. They described the Bonus Army's ultimate doom at the hands of the Roosevelt administration who stuck them in Florida tent city with no logistical hope of escape when a hurricane hit:
The events in Washington in the summer of 1932 involved men who would become three of the most famous American generals of the twentieth century, acting in roles largely forgotten today. On Douglas A. MacArthur, George S.Patton, and Dwight D. Eisenhower would fall the duty of obeying commander in chief Herbert Hoover, who ordered the expulsion of the Bonus Army from Washington. At the foot of Capitol Hill were tanks, bayonets, and tear gas. Two veterans were killed by a policeman who was murdered less than a month later. Soldiers put to the torch the sprawling main Bonus Army camp. The veterans and their families began a forced exodus.Of course, MacArthur evidently got enough of his walk-on-water yayas out by wielding supreme executive power in Japan for several years to be content to "fade away" subsequent to being dismissed for insubordination to civilian authorities in the conduct of the Korean War.
Most accounts of the Bonus Army end with newsreel coverage of veterans marching off into obscurity. But this is not how it played out in real life. What lay ahead for many of the veterans were futile returns to New Deal Washington, dollar-a-day labor in remote federal work camps, and a hurricane unlike any ever recorded in the United States. Wind gusts estimated at two hundred miles an hour slammed into work camps in Florida’s upper Keys, turning granules of sand into tiny missiles that blasted flesh from human faces. The storm brought death to at least 259 veterans. The final indignity was mass cremation.
In many ways the legacy of the Bonus Army is still being felt. Harry Specter, who had been wounded in the Argonne, had too little money to leave Wichita, Kansas, and march to Washington. He also had a wife and four children to provide for. The youngest child was two-year-old Arlen, who as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania said much later, “In a figurative sense I have been on my way to Washington ever since to collect my father’s bonus—to push the government to treat its citizens, the millions of hardworking Harry Specters, justly.”
What is less explainable is how the Bonus Army has faded away within American history.