Historian returns to Bridgeville with news of 'Bonus Expeditionary Force'
The Bridgeville Area Historical Society's May program meeting was an excellent return visit by historian/author Todd DePastino. This time, his subject was the ill-fated march on Washington by the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” in 1932.
The early years of the Great Depression were difficult ones for our country, spawning extreme protest groups on both sides of the political spectrum. In January 1932, an activist priest from Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood, Father James Cox, led 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians to the nation's capitol, hoping to encourage the federal government to initiate a public works program and to raise the inheritance tax rate to 70 percent.
Although the Cox's Army March did not achieve its goals, it showed the way for other protest groups to express their displeasure with the government. Most prominent was the “BEF“ (Bonus Expeditionary Force), led by Walter W. Waters, of Portland, Ore.
In 1924, Congress had passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act, legislation that established certificates, due to mature in 1945, awarding veterans $1 per day for service domestically and $1.25 per day for service overseas during World War I. In 1932, Texas Congressman Wright Patman introduced a bill to permit the certificates to be redeemed immediately, as an economy-boosting measure.
Destitute veterans across the country voiced their support of the bill. A particularly active group in Portland was led by charismatic ex-officer Walter W. Waters, who had served with the Idaho National Guard against Pancho Villa in 1910, and had gone to France during the war, where he was wounded and gassed. After the war, he eked out a living as an itinerant fruit picker and cannery worker.
Noting the success that special interest lobbyists had influencing legislation, he persuaded 300 veterans to join him in a march on Washington, following the example of Cox's Army. Waters was able to attract massive media attention and soon gained support from sympathetic railroad employees and local American Legion Posts as his “Bonus Army” made its way across the country. By the time they reached Washington, their ranks had swollen to perhaps 30,000 veterans and family members. They occupied empty buildings and established “shanty towns” in public areas.
Patman's bill passed the House of Representatives but was defeated by opponents of deficit spending in the Senate. This did not dissuade the marchers. When they vowed to stay in Washington until their demands were met, the District of Columbia police were instructed to evict them from vacant housing that was scheduled for demolition.
The ensuing struggle ended with two veterans dead, killed by police. Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur then commanded a contingent of 600 troops, supported by mounted cavalry and six World War I era tanks, to drive the squatters out of their shanty towns. Major George S. Patton commanded the tanks.
This ended the Bonus Army March, but not the controversy. After Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, the new Congress passed the Patman Bill, only to have the president veto it. This occurred three more times, until Congress over-rode his veto in 1936 and made the bonus available to the deserving veterans – an influx of nearly $4 billion into the economy.
On a personal note, my father would have been eligible for this bonus, about $750. I wonder if that might have served as a down payment on the new home on Lafayette Street that my parents decided to buy that year.
I am impressed with the fact that my personal memories of the depression years in Bridgeville are not as negative as the picture the historians present of that era. The 1940 Census reports that 55 percent of the families in Bridgeville were living on incomes below the poverty level established by the federal government that year.
Nonetheless, we managed to get along just fine, thanks to supportive families and neighbors, in an environment that lacked social the problems that pervade our current affluent society.
The next society program meeting is scheduled for June 25 at 7:30 p.m. in the Chartiers Room at the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department. Michael Kraus, curator of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, will discuss “Gettysburg.” The public is cordially invited.
• Also, the next presentation in the “Bridgeville Remembered” series will be made today, Thursday, at 7 p.m. in the Community Room at the Bridgeville Public Library.
John Oyler, a columnist for Trib Total Media, can be reached at 412-343-1652 or firstname.lastname@example.org.