When Patton Rolled Tanks Over Veterans in Washington, D.C.
The White House wanted thousands of angry former soldiers gone
by MATTHEW GAULT
Every generation of soldiers has problems, but most haven’t left the military only to later be attacked by it. But that’s what happened to thousands of veterans who served in the trenches of World War I.
In 1932, 17,000 former soldiers marched on Washington, D.C. to demand wartime pay owed to them. The Great Depression ravaged the country, and a president took desperate measures to disperse the angry veterans.
Tanks rolled down the streets. Soldiers held people at bayonet-point. Veterans and their families took lungs full of tear gas. People died.
The fight between veterans and the White House had been brewing for more than a decade. Since the Revolutionary War, American soldiers received a bonus for serving during wartime.
Basically, this was some extra cash to make up the difference in pay the soldiers would have made as civilians during the same period. But in 1917 and 1918, while American soldiers fought and died in Europe, the Woodrow Wilson administration increased government employees’ salaries to help compensate for a rising inflation rate. It didn’t increase soldiers’ pay.
When the troops returned home, they were angry. So the American Legion organized the vets and helped push bills through Congress legislating a commiserate increase in pay. Opponents of the payment called it a bonus. Veterans called it compensation.
“This measure is known as the Adjusted Compensation Bill,” American Legion representative John Herbert explained. “It cannot be made, by the enemies of that bill, ‘bonus,’ because bonus has come to mean ‘full payment plus,’ and there has not yet been full payment, or anywhere near full payment, so there cannot be any plus.”
Pres. Warren G. Harding fought the bill with tooth and nail. He even visited the Senate in 1921 and argued against it — arguing the government didn’t have the money and that it would set a dangerous precedent. Harding’s impassioned arguments succeeded and the bill died on the floor. He vetoed a different version of it in 1922.
Harding’s successor Calvin Coolidge vetoed the bill again in 1924. Congress overrode his veto four days later and the bill passed. World War I veterans would get their pay … but there were a few catches.
Instead of just paying out each veteran, Washington awarded each soldier a credit based on the amount of time they served in Europe. Troops received a dollar for every day stateside, and $1.25 for every day in Europe for a maximum of $500.
Anyone set to receive less than $50 could cash out immediately. Everyone else had to wait … until 1945. Washington allowed veterans to use the credit as collateral in loans and millions did, racking up debts of more than a billion dollars.
It wasn’t a great system for the veterans, but they would eventually get the money they felt the country owed them. Then came Black Friday in 1929. America’s economy collapsed, the Great Depression savaged the world and threw many veterans into unemployment.
And they remembered that Washington owed them back pay.
The depression worsened, and legislators in Congress pushed to allow the veterans to cash out their credits immediately. But the Herbert Hoover administration opposed the measure on the grounds that paying out billions of dollars to veterans would further weaken the economy.
Walter W. Waters would have none of that. The Oregonian veteran had served during the Pancho Villa Expedition before shipping out to the war in France. In 1932, he called for a march on Washington and left his home state with 300 men following behind him.
The Bonus Army — as the media now called them — moved east, picking up soldiers and their families. Toll roads and bridges allowed them to pass without paying. When they reached Indiana and Pennsylvania, those states’ National Guard units volunteered trucks to help shuttle the protesters across.
Waters and his army — now 43,000-strong — arrived in the nation’s capital in March. But only 17,000 of that number were veterans seeking compensation, the rest were family members and supporters.
The protesters camped on the muddy Anacostia Flats and assembled a shanty town. They repeatedly marched on the U.S. Capitol building, but ran short of food in early July. In an attempt to halt the brewing crisis, the White House offered the crowd $10,000 to leave Washington.
Some of the soldiers took the money and left, but most stayed behind. Waters saw tensions growing between the army and the government, so he agreed to lead his irregular troops out of Washington, so long as they could leave in stages and remain unmolested by the police.
In late July, Attorney General William Mitchell ordered D.C. police to clear out the protesters. Waters felt he had been double crossed.
When the police arrived at the shanty town, the veterans fought back. The police drew their revolvers and fired into the crowd, killing World War I veterans Eric Carlson and William Hushka.
The situation had spiraled out of control.
Hoover ordered the military to remove the protesters from the city at once. Gen. Douglas MacArthur — then the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff — led the 12th Infantry Regiment and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment into the fray.
The cavalry regiment contained six Renault FT tanks commanded by Maj. George Patton. The Army troops, with bayonets affixed to their rifles, charged into the shanty town and launched tear gas into the crowds.
“Cavalrymen and infantrymen jerked gas masks out of their haversacks,” the Baltimore Evening Sun reported. “The spectators, blinded and choking with the unexpected gas attack, broke and fled. Movie photographers who had parked their sound trucks so as to catch a panorama of the skirmish ground away doggedly, tears streaming down their faces.”
Patton’s tanks crushed the makeshift buildings.
The veterans fled across the Anacostia River, and Hoover ordered the assault to stop. But MacArthur saw the protesters as communist agitators intent on overthrowing the U.S. government, and continued the operation.
More than 1,000 injured veterans ended up in area hospitals. One veteran died and a veteran’s wife miscarried.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was then MacArthur’s junior aid. He didn’t approve of the action. “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there,” he said during a later interview. “I told him it was no place for the Chief of Staff.”
The catastrophe further sank Hoover’s re-election chances, already badly damaged by the economic crisis. Sending in soldiers to crush a veterans’ protest didn’t help his public image, and he lost his re-election bid to Franklin Roosevelt later that year.
The veterans organized another smaller Bonus Army in 1933 and Roosevelt — though he didn’t want to pay money to the veterans — treated the men and their families with respect. He established a camp site for them, fed them and sent his wife to discuss their concerns.
In 1936, Congress passed a bill freeing up the veterans’ pay. Roosevelt vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode it. The federal government then paid out more than $2 billion to the veterans.
The former soldiers got their due. But they had to fight their own country and its military to get it.