Hollywood 1932. What a town. Fantasyland. Eternal summer.
Great Depression? Not here, at least not as reported by the local press. Hollywood was where Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Douglas Fairbanks, Gary Cooper, Lana Turner, Errol Flynn, and Ginger Rogers frolicked at the Coconut Grove. Hollywood was where Busby Berkeley made extravaganza movies with long-legged showgirls sashaying down curving, white staircases with hats the size of chandeliers balanced on their heads.
So who gave that Depression much thought? In Los Angeles, veterans of World War I did; veterans all over America did.
With 25 percent unemployment nationwide, many vets and their families were homeless, riding the rails or huddled in Hoovervilles. They sold apples on street corners and scrounged for food. They were hungry, and it didn’t make sense–because in 1924 Congress had passed the Adjusted Service Certificate Act, under which World War veterans were awarded a bonus for their wartime service.
Many desperate veterans needed the money, but the bonuses weren’t due to be paid out until 1945. In early 1932, U.S. Representative Wright Patman of Texas introduced a bill to pay the veterans’ bonuses immediately, but President Hoover threatened a veto. Hoover, a Quaker, believed that the soul’s salvation depended on hard work and self-sacrifice, and, as he put it, “paying an enormous sum of money to a vast majority of those who were able to take care of themselves would break down the barriers of self-reliance and self-support of our people.” The bonus bill stalled in the Senate, although the biggest banks, thanks to bailouts, did all right.
That spring, a small group of destitute veterans from Oregon, impatient with Congress, began a march across the country to lobby peacefully for payment of their wartime bonuses. They called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, the BEF. News of the event rocketed through the country. More than 22,000 veterans, many with their families, joined them.
In Hollywood, a sometime actor, Royal Robertson, a disabled veteran with a steel brace to support his neck, made the rounds of the Veterans of Foreign Wars posts to promote a dramatic plan to lead a delegation of fellow vets to Washington. He knew nothing moved Tinseltown like high drama and called his plan a “hero’s journey.” All the veterans who were now out-of-work bit actors, cameramen, writers, electricians, and best boys ate it up. Robertson became their leader.
On the morning of June 10, more than a thousand Los Angeles veterans gathered at the corner of Washington and Hill and eventually assembled into a ragged parade line. Four Los Angeles motorcycle cops pulled out in front to escort them. Robertson, behind the wheel of a car, led the parade. A drum and bugle corps set the cadence, stepping out smartly, and the parade moved out onto Hill Street. Behind them came a Disabled American Veteran color guard, two ambulances, a commissary truck, and an old hearse festooned with picks, shovels, spare tires, and cans of gasoline.
Fourteen men marched in step with a large American flag stretched between them, spread open so that donations could be thrown upon it. Behind the flag bearers, 200 men marched in close formation. A caravan of 104 sputtering cars and trucks farting exhaust fumes brought up the rear.
Thousands of Angelenos clogged the sidewalks along the parade route; they cheered and applauded, shouting, “Good luck!” and “Go get ’em!” and “Godspeed!” The marchers, ballsy, full of hell, strutted along, gave thumbs-up, waved their American flags. Confetti and ticker tape showered down from high windows.
Mayor John C. Porter, standing on City Hall steps with a bunch of cronies, waved them on and shouted, “Good luck! Do us proud!”
The L.A. heroes were on their way.
My father was one of those marchers. Two weeks after he left, my mother and a friend hitchhiked across the country to join their men in Washington. They all were there six weeks later, when an ill-advised President Hoover, convinced that the bonus marchers were communists out to overthrow the government, ordered General Douglas MacArthur to use U.S. Army troops to evict the veterans. On the afternoon of July 28, the troops assembled at the Ellipse. Thousands of Bonus Marchers, many with their families, jammed Pennsylvania Avenue to watch what they thought would be a grand parade, never suspecting that the U.S. Army would attack American veterans.
MacArthur personally led the assault. At his side were his aides, Majors George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower. At MacArthur’s order, 200 mounted cavalry soldiers charged into the crowd with swinging sabers. Then they launched tear gas canisters. Five Whippet tanks followed close behind to keep the crowd at bay. Four hundred armed infantrymen and machine gunners brought up the rear.
The veterans, lost in clouds of tear gas, ran. The attack ended that night, after the Army torched the veterans’ camps along with all their possessions. Two veterans were killed, and dozens were injured. Also dead were two children, from tear gas inhalation.
During the weeks that followed, the L.A. heroes limped home. Some, including my parents, moved in with family. Some slept on the beach, picked oranges, and scrounged for jobs. That fall, after newsreels showed the attack of the veterans in graphic detail, shocked American voters ousted Hoover and elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a landslide.
My parents stayed with my grandmother in Hermosa Beach until 1936, when a new bonus bill finally passed. They moved to Glendale in 1940, where I grew up. They never forgave President Hoover and the Republican Party for the Great Depression, nor did they forgive Douglas MacArthur, who had swaggered in his bemedaled uniform as he led the attack against American veterans. And, one April day in 1945, I came home from school to find them at the kitchen table, holding hands, both of them in tears. FDR was dead, an era ended.
Georgia Lowe is the author of The Bonus, a novel based on her parents’ experience as Bonus Marchers.
*Photo courtesy of Georgia Lowe.