How A Protest Led To The GI Bill When World War I veterans returned from overseas, they were promised a cash bonus for their service — but they wouldn't get their money until 1945. Then the Great Depression struck. Desperate for relief, in 1932 a group of veterans from Portland, Ore., went to Washington to demand early payment. The protests led to violence — and eventually the GI Bill.

The Bonus Army: How A Protest Led To The GI Bill

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Guy Raz.

Occupy Wall Street protests have sprung up in cities across the U.S. and around the world. The common denominator among them all is protesters' commitment to stay, to camp out. They've pitched tents and built large, impromptu communities. It's a form of protest that echoes throughout American history.

SIEGEL: In 1932, another group of protesters set up encampments and vowed to stay until their voices were heard. They were World War I veterans. After the war, the government had promised them cash bonuses for their service, payable in 1945. But then, the Depression struck and veterans, desperate for relief, descended on Washington, D.C., demanding payment immediately.

Producers Joe Richman and Samara Freemark, of Radio Diaries, have the story of what came to be known as the Bonus Army.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: People were selling apples on the corners everywhere, knocking on doors asking for food.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The living conditions were horrible. The kids, they were lucky to eat. But that was life, life in those days.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And there were thousands of veterans, they're broke and they don't have a job, just wandering the country aimlessly, just trying to find something to do.


PAUL DICKSON: My name is Paul Dixon.

TOM ALLEN: My name is Tom Allen.

DICKSON: And we wrote "The Bonus Army: An American Epic."

ALLEN: In Portland, Oregon, 1932, a group of veterans got together, saying let's go to Washington because the way you get things from the government is to convince the government to give it to you. We can lobby for the bonus now. And a bunch of them went down to the railroad yards, with a bugle and an American flag, and got onto freight trains and headed to Washington, D.C. And that's how it started.


ALLEN: As they move eastward, it catches on. Radio stations pick it up, newspapers pick it up. Veterans start jumping on freights. Suddenly, out of the whole Depression comes guys doing something. There was hope there. It was a magnet for veterans and their families who had nothing, and they wanted to be part of it.

LILLIE LINEBARRIER: And so we just packed up a tin tub and a washpot, and what few clothes we needed, and my banjo. Put our instruments up and we lit out, playing our music.

ALLEN: They come down from Maine and they come from Florida, Los Angeles, coming from the Deep South, they were coming from everywhere.

FRED BLACHER: The trucks came and old buses. They came in hanging on freight cars. Some had those old dilapidated Fords, with 20 people hanging on them, you know.

ALLEN: They have a mission, they have a destination, and it's called Washington, D.C.


DICKSON: The first guys arrive May 25th of 1932. Within two or three weeks, there were probably around 20,000 veterans in town.


ALLEN: They set up camps in vacant lots, abandoned buildings and in an Army-style encampment along the Anacostia River. At one end of the camp was a dump and that's where they found stuff they could make their houses out of - car wrecks and chicken cages and pieces of wood.

LINEBARRIER: We got our place fixed up, got our washpot out and had it cleaned up good, and got set up and started playing our music.


LINEBARRIER: People was coming out and they'd stand there and listen. They'd stop and drop money in Steve's hat. He had his uniform on. We had a good time.


ALLEN: I mean, there were people in Washington who'd go down there on a Sunday with their kids. People came down and brought them sleeping bags and tents and brought them cigarettes, brought them food, brought them big bags of potatoes and sacks of turnips and a piece of pork or something. And they'd throw everything in the pot, turn it into a monstrous communal stew.

LINEBARRIER: We ate better than we did at home. Steve would go out into town and they'd load him up on vegetables and on honey buns, doughnuts. Well, we never had the money to eat such as that at home.

ALLEN: There was a library and there was a post office. They had their own barbershops; produced their own newspaper, the BEF News. It had streets with the names of states. You know, there's Mississippi Street and New Jersey Street over here.

DICKSON: It's a shantytown. It's the biggest Hooverville in the country, probably around 20,000 veterans. And they are determined not to be bums.



DICKSON: The rules are: No alcohol, no weapons, no fighting, no panhandling, and you are not a communist. There was an absolute ban on anybody being a communist.


ALLEN: And all along, the public was very much on the side of these guys.





DICKSON: The veterans' arrival puts the pressure on Congress.

ALLEN: On June 15th, the House of Representatives passes the bonus, 211 to 176, it passes.

DICKSON: And it looks like good news. All that has to happen is the Senate has to pass it.



ALLEN: Several thousand veterans go up to the Hill and they're waiting for the news. And they're full of joy and happy. They're going to get their bonus.

: Three cheers for the bonus that we're going to get.


ALLEN: And the Senate turns it down. And it's all over. So that's the end of the Bonus Army in the view of official Washington. Everybody expects they're all going to go home, but they won't go home.


ALLEN: The numbers drop, but the hardcore stays. And there's no indication they're ever going to leave.



ALLEN: And there's a little panic that starts at the top of government. They want to get this thing over with.


DICKSON: It all starts sort of peacefully and everything seems okay and somebody throws a brick. And all of a sudden, two guys are shot.


DICKSON: This is now the moment in which the Army can take over. That's when they bring in Douglas MacArthur.

BLACHER: My name is Fred Blacher. I was 16 years old and I was standing on the corner waiting for a trolley. By God, all of a sudden I see these cavalrymen come up the avenue and then swinging down to The Mall. I thought it was a parade. I asked a gentleman standing there, I said, do you know what's going on? What holiday is this? He says, It's no parade, bud. He says the Army is coming in to wipe out all these bonus people down here.

JOHN DIJOSEPH: I'm John Dijoseph. I was photographer, worked for wire service. And when I got up there, I was amazed. MacArthur coming down Pennsylvania Avenue on horse and all these tanks behind him.



ALLEN: As night begins to fall, soldiers crossed the bridge and they'd go to the camp at Anacostia and MacArthur gives them 20 minutes to get out.

LINEBARRIER: Here come a cop down there. I said, oh, boy. And he said, you all get out of here.

ALLEN: One soldier takes a torch and applies it to one of the tents and they start torching anything that's still standing.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: And to make sure the men will really stay out, the soldiers have orders to burn down the unsanitary and illegal camp.

BLACHER: That night, they burned everything. The sky was red, you know, and you could see the blaze all over Washington.

ANNOUNCER: And the roaring flames sound the death knell to the fantastic Bonus Army, in the shadow of the capitol of the United States of America.

ALLEN: Within a week, these pictures, these images, were all over the country, every little town, the newsreel comes on. The people see MacArthur and Patton driving out the troops that had won the first World War for us, burning them out, tear-gassing them, tanks in the streets. It was unthinkable.

: The reaction to it is, we can't let that happen again.

ALLEN: No more treating the veterans like we did in the last war. No more bonus armies.


LINEBARRIER: I always thought I liked General MacArthur, and I still do, but what they did that night to those soldier boys, I'll never forget that.


RAZ: Four years later, in 1936, the veterans did receive their bonuses. And, in 1944, Congress passed the G.I. Bill to help military veterans transition back to civilian life and to acknowledge the debt owed to those who risked their lives for their country.

SIEGEL: The voices you heard include the late Fred Blacher, John DiJoseph and Lillie Linebarrier. She played banjo in the Bonus Army String Band, which we're hearing now.

Our story was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark and edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Special thanks to Alexis Gillespie.

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