History’s Grim Irony: New WWI Memorial Will Stand Where War’s Jobless Veterans Fought Eviction

Eight decades before the Occupy Wall Street movement, another protest of occupation, launched in the shadows of the Capitol, pitted the U.S. Army against its own American veterans from the Forgotten War.

Last week, the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission unveiled design plans for the transformation of Pershing Park, the site for the new National World War I Memorial. The trapezoid-shaped strip of land, cleared of buildings in 1930, eventually became a traffic island. It was converted to a park in 1981 and named for Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in 1918.

Had any American veterans of World War I lived to see it–the last doughboy died in 2011–they might have viewed the new memorial’s setting as bittersweet. In 1932, along that very ground just a few steps from the White House, the federal government launched an attack against several thousand of them. Now these plans have revived memories of that struggle, the only clash between two American armies pledging allegiance to the same Stars and Stripes.

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On a hot day in July of that year, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Army Chief of Staff, mustered a detachment of cavalry, tanks, and regular infantry on the Ellipse, across 15th Street NW from the modern park. Convinced the veterans had been infiltrated by Communists, he donned his uniform to return to action with his reluctant aide, Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower, at his side.

A ragtag host of veterans and their families, estimated by some to number nearly 43,000, had staggered into Washington that summer to plead for jobs and advance payment of their service annuity, popularly called the Bonus. President Hoover opposed the Bonus as a handout. In June, the House of Representatives passed the bill, but the Senate voted it down two days later. Crushed and desperate, many veterans hunkered down in abandoned federal buildings and shanty camps, vowing to stay until the Bonus was passed.

District commissioners and the Hoover administration finally lost patience with the protesters. Late on the afternoon of July 28, MacArthur ordered the advance.

Maj. George Patton led the cavalry and six tanks from the Ellipse and past the present site of the park. Up ahead, veterans and civilians just getting off work lined Pennsylvania Avenue and sang patriotic songs, believing they were about to witness a parade. Instead, the infantry fixed bayonets, tossed gas canisters, and began herding the outraged veterans and onlookers north. Some of the veterans tried to resist, but they were quickly swept away.

Hoover had signed off on a limited law-enforcement operation to be halted at the Eleventh Street Bridge, several blocks southeast of the Capitol. But MacArthur sent the troops across the Anacostia River and into the largest of the camps. By day’s end, the homeless veterans and their families were scattered with their shacks burned. Among those routed was Joe Angelo, an Italian-American from New Jersey who had won the Distinguished Service Cross for saving Patton’s life in the Meuse-Argonne.

Joey Angelo

Four years later, the veterans finally got their Bonus. It came too late for many.

The new memorial is scheduled to open in 2018, in time for the centennial of the nation’s entry into the European conflict. When Americans visit it, they should remember the Forgotten War and its forgotten veterans who suffered there during the Bonus marches of the Great Depression.

In The Yanks Are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army, I recount the events that led to the 1932 confrontation. The historical novel spans three decades and follows the experiences of eight Americans who survived the fighting in France and came together again in Washington fourteen years later to decide the fate of the nation on the brink of upheaval.

This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.

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