By Kevin Leonard
After six years of lobbying by the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, Congress passed legislation in 1924 that provided for a bonus, based on length and place of service, to World War I veterans. Recipients who were due $50 or less were paid immediately, but, according to the legislation, the rest were to be paid in 1945, 21 years later. Once the Great Depression set in, the bonus due them was becoming more and more vital to the veterans.
The idea for a march on Washington to speed up payment began in Portland, Ore., led by World War I veteran Walter Waters. Waters called his veterans the Bonus Expeditionary Force, or BEF, a play on the original American Expeditionary Force that fought in the Great War in Europe.
The movement quickly caught on among destitute veterans. With nothing left to lose, the veterans packed their few belongings and, with their families in tow, joined the ragtag, unorganized BEF.
Led by the young, zealous director of the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, a campaign was waged in the media claiming that the Bonus Army was crawling with Communists. President Hoover shared the belief. Time magazine reported that Hoover told the American Legion "that it was his 'impression' that 'less than half of them ever served under the American flag.' "
In their book "The Bonus Army," writers Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen disproved that theory, "There were, in fact, radicals and Communists among the bonus seekers, but they were an ineffective minority disdained and dismissed by the main body of the BEF." Dickson and Allen make the persuasive case that one of the reasons the Bonus Army was relegated to the historical dustbin was this effective campaign by the government that tainted the public perception of the BEF. Even the Laurel News Leader characterized the veterans as "Communists and criminals."
On July 28, 1932, after days of fighting and rioting between veterans and Metropolitan police who were trying to evict the Bonus Army from squatting in government buildings, the Army was called in to restore order. Under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the military, wearing gas masks, marched down Pennsylvania Avenue with more than 200 mounted cavalry and 400 infantrymen, bayonets fixed. Five tanks, under the direction of Maj. George Patton, followed the infantry.
Using tear gas and the menacing advance of the mounted cavalry, the Bonus Army veterans, along with scores of civilians who were watching the spectacle from the sidewalk, were prodded and pushed by the bayonets down Pennsylvania Avenue. In the melee, two veterans were killed.
Having driven the Bonus Army back across the river, MacArthur ignored a command from President Hoover to stop at the bridge. MacArthur ordered his troops across the bridge to burn down the Bonus Army's ramshackle camp, causing the veterans, and their wives and children to flee.
Many Bonus Army members went home, but thousands wanted to continue the fight. The mayor of Johnstown, Pa., offered land for a permanent camp. But Waters, determined to keep the fight alive, wanted a location closer to Washington.
Maude Edgell, who owned a nursing home in Catonsville, came to the rescue. According to the New York Times, "A woman in Maryland presented to him a wooded gully near Laurel, where Waters dreamed of a permanent cantonment for his followers."
The Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail quoted Edgell as saying she "was horrified when I saw how these men who fought for our country only such a few years ago were prodded with bayonets and gassed by bombs in the hands of American soldiers. There will be no bayoneting in this haven. … I voted for Hoover. A lot of us who did are hanging our heads in shame, too; he's been a Frankenstein ever since."
The location of the 25 acres is believed to be in Anne Arundel County next to Fort Meade. Waters announced grand plans for the camp, which he envisioned as a self-sustaining, permanent colony for thousands.
Then-Maryland Gov. Albert C. Ritchie responded to the idea, telling the New York Times: "… the proposed site is totally unsuitable for the purpose. … It is principally scrub woodland, with no agriculture upon it possible, no food of any kind, nothing like an adequate water supply, and, of course, no sewerage facilities."
While hundreds of veterans began to clear the site, Waters met with Ritchie to discuss the Laurel camp. After a three-hour meeting, Waters told the Baltimore Post that "he is prevented by legal technicalities from establishing his camp" at Laurel.
Apparently the locals were pleased. After Waters announced he was foregoing the Laurel Camp, the News Leader agreed with the decision, "Governor Ritchie is entitled to much credit … in convincing and persuading the bonus seekers to abandon their plans."
It wasn't until 1936 that the veterans were paid their bonus.
Jeff Leonard contributed to this article
History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Contact Kevin Leonard at email@example.com or 301-776-9260.