Brookline Connection

World War I Veterans Bonus Day
June 15, 1936

The Saga of the Veteran's Bonus Army
and their War Bonus Bonds

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Monday, June 15, 1936, was a highly anticipated day among veteran's of the Great War. It was the day that they were to receive their World War I Bonus Bonds. The long road from Armistice Day in November 1918 until Bonus Day in 1936 for many of these deserving veterans was full of political intrigue, economic hardships, bitter bloodshed and plenty of controversy.

One of the most controversial events that happened in the United States after the end of World War I was the saga of the Bonus Army. It was a protest march on Washington D.C. by 17,000 World War veterans, their families and affliated groups in June of 1932. The purpose of the gathering was to pressure Congress into legislating early redemption of their service certificates (bonds) in order to deal with the effects of the Great Depression.

War Bonus March on Washington D.C. - June 1936    War Bonus March on Washington D.C. - June 1936
Veterans from all corners of the country set out for Washington D.C. in June 1936 to demand early bonus payment.

War Bonus March on Washington D.C. - June 1936    War Bonus March on Washington D.C. - June 1936
War Bonus Marchers on their way to Washington D.C. (left); Veterans and their
families gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on June 15, 1936.

Many of the war veterans had been out of work since the beginning of the Depression. The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 had awarded them bonuses in the form of certificates they could not redeem until 1945. Each certificate, issued to a qualified veteran soldier, bore a face value equal to the soldier's promised payment compound interest.

Each veteran was to receive a dollar for each day of domestic service, up to a maximum of $500, and $1.25 for each day of overseas service, up to a maximum of $625. Amounts of $50 or less were immediately paid. All other amounts were issued as Certificates of Service maturing in twenty years.

Adjusted Service Certificate.

There were 3,662,374 Adjusted Service Certificates issued, with a combined face value of $3.64 billion. Congress established a trust fund to receive twenty annual payments of $112 million that, with interest, would finance the 1945 disbursement of the $3.638 billion for the veterans.

Due to the state of the economy and the hardships faced by many of the unemployed veterans, and their families, opinions around the nation were overwhelmingly in favor of an early settlement on the issue of the War Bonuses. The average veteran would receive approximately $550, a sizeable sum at the time, equal to over $10,000 in 2018.

The government refused the request, and in June the veterans marched on the Capital. Led by Walter Waters of Oregon, the so-called Bonus Army set out for the nation's capital from all parts of the country. Hitching rides, hopping trains, and hiking brought the Bonus Army to the nation's capital. Although President Hoover refused to address them, the veterans did find an audience with a congressional delegation. Soon a debate began in the Congress over whether to meet the demonstrator's demands.

Most of the Bonus Army, also refered to as the Bonus Expeditionary Force and soon numbering in the thousands, camped in vacant federal buildings and in an improvised "Hooverville" on the Anacostia Flats, a swampy, muddy area across the Anacostia River from the federal core of Washington, just south of the 11th Street Bridges.

Veteran's Camp on the Anacostia Flats.
The Hooverville camp of the Bonus Marchers on the outskirts of Washington D.C.

Veteran's Camp on the Anacostia Flats.
The camp along the Anacostia Flats grew in size each day as more marchers arrived.

The veterans, women and children lived in the shelters that they built from materials dragged out of a junk pile nearby, which included old lumber, packing boxes, and scrap tin covered with roofs of thatched straw. The camps were tightly controlled by the veterans, who laid out streets, built sanitation facilities, and held daily parades. To live in the camps, veterans were required to register and to prove they had been honorably discharged.

In the House of Representatives debate on the bill was marked by high drama. Representative Edward Eslick of Tennessee died of a heart attack on the House Floor while delivering an impassioned speech on behalf of the bill. A day later, on June 15, the House of Representatives passed the Wright Patman Bonus Bill to move forward the date for World War I veterans to receive their cash bonus.

WWI Bonus Army
Bonus Marchers parade in uniform through the streets of Washington D.C. and past the U.S. Capitol Building.

WWI Bonus Army
Daily parades through the city kept the veterans in the minds of the lawmakers debating the Bonus Bill.

When the measure passed, hundreds of veterans celebrated in the House Gallery. The Bonus Army then massed at the Capitol on June 17 as the Senate voted on the Bonus Bill. To the dismay of the ex-soldiers, the bill was overwhelmingly defeated by a vote of 6218. This prompted more veterans to join the protest. By July the Bonus Army had swelled in numbers to 43,000 and they were camping out right in front of the Capitol Building.

Something had to be done. On several occasions, the veterans were urged to leave peaceably. At one point, they were even offered cash, and instructions to leave town on the first available train. Very few took up the offer. It was rumored that those who did, did so only in order to recruit more men.

WWI Bonus Army
Veterans camping in front of the U.S. Capitol Building.

On July 28, President Hoover ordered the Secretary of War to disperse the protesters. Police Chief Pelham Glassford, who had served as a brigadier general in World War I and had donated food and lumber to the Bonus Army, ordered the area around Pennsylvania Avenue evacuated. The vacant buildings were to be demolished and wrecking cranes stood nearby. Police roped off the area.

The evicted veterans began leaving quietly, then an angry group burst through the ropes, hurling rocks and bricks. One hit the police chief in the chest. Upon hearing of the incident, truckloads of veterans began streaming across the 11th Street Bridge from the encampment. Five hundred police officers were mobilized to counter the threat.

Veterans and Police scuffle - 1936
World War I veteran's scuffle with Washington D.C. police on July 28, 1936.

In the melee that followed, one veteran grabbed a policeman's nightstick. The officer, George A. Shinault, drew his gun and fatally shot two veterans, William Hushka and Eric Carlson. As ambulances carried away the fatally wounded men, General Douglas MacArthur was massing Army troops on the Ellipse.

Troops from Fort Myer and Fort Washington, along with a contingent of cavalrymen and tanks, positioned themselves to quell the disturbance. At 4pm, more than 200 soldiers on horseback, sabers drawn, descended on Pennsylvania Avenue from 15th Street and headed toward the Capitol Building.

The infantry with fixed bayonets followed, donning gas masks and lobbing tear gas. The tanks rolled along behind the cavalry. With brutal efficiency, they cleared Pennsylvania Avenue. Tanks rolled over the shacks while the occupants set fires, then ran with their belongings.

General MacArthur directs the attack.    Cavalrymen and Tanks on Pennsylvania Avenue.
General Douglas MacArthur directs the attack on the veterans, as tanks and cavalry move down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Troops use tear gas to disperse marchers.    Troops use tear gas to disperse marchers.
Troops with fixed bayonets use tear gas to forcefully disperse the veterans.

At 9pm, General MacArthur ordered his men to march on the main encampment at Anacostia. Ignoring direct orders from the president to stand down, the general sent his tanks to block the bridge and troops to raise the drawbridge, cutting off the veterans.

A National Guard unit turned a searchlight on the pitch-dark camp. As people panicked, infantrymen entered and lobbed tear gas. Moving down the rows of huts, the soldiers lit folded newspapers and systematically torched the camp.

With the camp destroyed and the veterans dispersed, the troops stood down and the incident came to an end. Casualties amounted to over one hundred, including the two dead veterans. In a news conference later that evening, MacArthur defended his actions on the grounds that the Bonus Army was guilty of subversion, and that they were a threat to "take over the government in an arbitrary way or by indirect means."

Burning the veteran's encampment.    Burning the veteran's encampment.
The encampment at Anacostia burns with the Capitol Dome and Washington Monumnent towering above in the distance.

In addition to General MacArthur, other notable U.S. Army personnel involved in the intervention was the general's junior aide, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower and tank commander Major George S. Patton. In a story full of bitter ironies, these officers had undoubtedly attacked veterans who had served honorably with them during the war.

With the rout of their main camp, the Bonus March had come to an end. Their shantytown burnt to the ground, the veterans left the Capital City and went back to their homes, without their war bonuses. Despite the overwhelmingly negative public response to the actions of the Army, the officers involved were not reprimanded.

The veteran's camp - 1936
The ruins of the veteran's encampment on August 8, 1936.

President Hoover, however, did not escape judgement. His handling of the marchers was a political disaster, and was a contributing factor in his crushing election loss in November 1932, despite Franklin D. Roosevelt's opposition to granting the War Bonuses.

A second Bonus March was organized in May 1933. This time the protestors were treated respectfully, provided with a campsite and three meals a day. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the site daily. Despite the good will, the president continued to oppose granting the bonuses. Instead, he offered 25,000 veterans jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Signing the Bonus Bill - 1936
Congressman Edwin A. Halsey signs the Adjusted Compensation Act of 1936.

Finally, in 1936, Congress passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act, authorizing the immediate payment of the $2 billion in World War I bonuses, payable in interest bearing government bonds, then overrode a presidential veto of the measure. Ironically, President Calvin Coolidge also vetoed the original World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924, only to be overridden by the Congress.

Bonus time had come, and veteran's around the country eagerly awaited its arrival via U.S. Mail.

BONUS DAY HERE IN PITTSBURGH

The Pittsburgh Press on Tuesday, June 16, 1936, reported that veteran's were jamming official pay stations for their bonuses. The former soldiers swarmed into the district centers, twenty-three of which were set up throughout the city. Postal workers, who were in charge of the distribution process, worked into the late hours to handle the volume of requests.

The postal service reported that 95% of the War Bonus bonds, varying in amount based on the individual serviceman, were delivered the previous day.

War Bonus Delivery - 1936
Fifteen month old Carroll Ann Letzkus holds the
envelope that holds several hundred dollars
of bonds for her daddy, John Letzkus,
of 1119 Chelton Avenue, Brookline.

Fearing a rush on cash reserves, authorities advised the veterans not to cash the bonds right away unless necessary. These cautionary warnings did nothing to stop a large number of the vets from demanding payment in full on the spot. False propaganda fueled the rush by claiming that the service certificates awarded were non-transferable, even in case of death.

Other leaflets warned bonuse recipients to be wise and cautious with their windfall. "A whole horde of financial sharpers is loose, anxious to induce veterans to 'invest' their bonus money in all sorts of schemes."

Redeeming Bonus Bonds in Pittsburgh - 1936
The Gold Rush of 1936 began on June 16. This photo shows a group of veterans and postal workers at the certification
station in the old Post Office Building in Pittsburgh. These ex-servicemen were surrendering their bonds for a check.

To receive the money, the veteran had to present himself and his bonds, be identified by his postal commander or someone known to the certifying officer, obtain a receipt and await a treasury check that would be mailed to his place of residence.

As easy as it sounded, the certifying process was cumbersome. Each bond presented, and that could be up to thirty per person, had to be signed by the veteran, the identifying witness and the certifying official, with the receipt signed by the official. As the day went on, the lines of anxious vets grew longer. Despite the heavy volume of bond redemption, well into the thousands at centers across the city, the anticipated cash drain did not materialize.

War Bonus delivery - 1936
Mailman Howard J. Hardt knows how Amico Iannacchione feels when he receives his bonus bonds. Mr. Hardt,
shown with Amico, his wife and three children, was also a serviceman and a bonus recipient.

BONUS DAY HERE IN BROOKLINE

In the same June 16, 1936 edition of the Pittsburgh Press, correspondents around the South Hills reported on the enthusiasm shown by veteran's and their families upon receipt of their bonds. "Here Comes Bonus Man' - And There Goes Gloom!" was the headline as millions of dollars poured into the laps of city veterans to be used to pay debts, buy clothes, finance homes and other needs or desires.

Postmen made special rounds with their sacks stuffed with square brown envelopes containing adjusted compensation certificates (bonds). In neighborhoods like Mount Lebanon, Dormont and Brookline, men and their families sat on front porches awaiting the arrival of the postal worker. With most veterans expecting more than $500, it was well worth the wait. Many took the afternoon off work so that they would be there when the package arrived.

Mailman John Slayton and John Hoelle.
The whole Hoelle family, of 1509 Creedmoor Avenue, turned out yesterday to greet the mailman, John W. Slayton,
as he delivered bonus bonds to John H. Hoelle. Mrs. Hoelle and her six children were delighted.

Nearly 100,000 packages were delivered, and the delivery men, although working overtime, found it a joyous affair all around. Many said they got as much pleasure from the experience as they would playing Santa Claus to the families on their routes.

Here in Brookline, Postman John W. Slayton, had approximately $35,000 worth of bonuses in his pack. Slayton knew most of his customers and spent a few moments with many of them, listening to their families talking about how they were going to spend their money. The phrase he heard most was "Don't think I can't use this. Things have been pretty tough!"

Mailman John Slayton and Fred Backer.    Mailman John Slayton and Charles Haas.
Mailman John W. Slayton stops at the Creedmoor Avenue home of Fred E. Backer (left), whose wife and daughter
were also on hand to greet the "Bonus Man." Slayton later met with Charles Haas, of 1127 Creedmoor Avenue.

A group of small boys accosted Postman Slayton, as he made his rounds through the streets of Brookline, asking for their bonus packets.

"You'll have to join the Veterans of Future Wars," advised the carrier. With a touch of bitter irony, some of these boys may well have gone on to serve in the next World War, or in Korea.

CLOSER TO HOME

My great-grandfather, father of my mother's mother, Jayson Patrick Ferns, was a Corporal in Company A 11th Regiment of the United States Marine Corps who served in France during the Great War. An electrician by trade, he returned home and worked as a Electrical Inspector for the City of Pittsburgh. Known by his middle name, Patrick suffered from the debilitating effects of an enemy gas attack in October 1918.

Only a few months before the Bonuses arrived, In March 1936, Inspector Ferns was one of those men in the boats that moved through the streets of Pittsburgh during the Great St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936. He was taken around town checking the flooded building's electrical systems.

Jayson Patrick Ferns

Grandpa Ferns was not part of the Bonus Army, but he did receive over $500 worth of bonds on June 15, 1936. He promptly cashed in his bonds and purchased, among other things, an ornate dining room set, including a sleeved extendable table with six chairs, china closet and buffet table. He passed away on October 1, 1955. My great-grandmother brought it with her when she moved in with my grandmother.

This beautiful set has been in the family now for over eighty years and currently resides in my dining room. Along with his veteran's gravesite marker, the dining room set is a constant reminder of the sacrifice made by my great-grandfather and all of the other veterans who went "Over There" to help free the oppressed and restore liberty.

* Most information and photos from the Pittsburgh Press - June 16, 1936; Updated - November 24, 2018 *

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