Flames Over Anacostia Flats by Lee Conrad

Friday, March 31, 2017
Lee Conrad's dramatisation of the shameful Bonus Army conflict of 1932.

Patrick O'Brien stepped out of the slapped together shack on the Anacostia Flats. The July morning was already hot and steamy. The Flats, situated between Washington DC and the Anacostia River, muddy even in dry times, added to his misery. His denims and cotton shirt, loose on his wiry body, were soiled and sweat seeped through. He looked around the encampment as the 10,000 strong remnants of the Bonus Army in their makeshift city called Camp Marks roused from an uneasy slumber.

O'Brien, like the rest, was a veteran of the Great War. They came to Washington DC a month ago from all over the country to pressure Congress to give them the veteran bonus that was due to them. It was two years into the depression and people were desperate. They were out of work, out of their homes and out of hope, except for the promise of the bonus. The bonus though wasn't payable until 1945, and now in 1932, many felt they would be dead from hunger if they waited much longer. They wanted the money now and the Bonus Army and its leaders came here to make sure they got it.

"Hey Patrick, want some corn mush? It ain't much but it is tasty. Might cheer you up some."

The voice was his friend Sean Ryan. They served and fought together with the 1st infantry in France and survived. Many of their comrades didn't.

"Thanks. Don't give me too much. I don't want to short you."

"When we get our bonus you can buy me a fine meal at a fancy restaurant," said Sean.

"You know Sean, this Congress and this President Hoover ain't going to give us anything. You've been out of work for a year and I've been looking for work for a year and a half. The 'good citizens' of those towns we passed through on the way here called us tramps and bums. They didn't call us tramps when we marched off to war in 1917."

"Patrick, when the Senate voted not to give us the money in June I thought it was all over. But look around you. Even though many have left there are still thousands here in our own Hooverville and more inside DC. How can they ignore us?"

"We and the thousands of others are here because we got no homes to go back to Sean, and they will ignore us or worse."

They finished their corn mush, cleaned up and walked towards the center of the camp.

Camp Marks was orderly, with streets laid out like a regular city. Kitchens were set up to feed people, even though the food donations were running out. A library was set up by the Salvation Army. At night bands would play music and the people would dance their cares away. The dwellings of the people were everything from scraps of wood and metal found at the rubbish dump nearby to canvas tarps and tents. Some even built small replicas of the homes they no longer had. Signs on the shacks showed where they were from. "Racine, Wisconsin to DC!" said one. Another said "Washington or Bust - Bonus We Trust". Still others flew state flags and American flags. This was their city and their country.

The people looked like the millions that were out of work and living in tent cities all across the country. Gaunt, sallow faces from too little food and too much worry. Veterans who brought their families looked worse off. Their children had distended bellies and no shoes. Mothers kept clothes together with scraps of sack cloth. White and black veterans shared food and dwellings. The segregation in the military and even in their home states was ignored here. They all had a common purpose and it kept them going.

"Hey Sean, seems to be a gathering over there. Let's see what is going on."

On the back of a truck a leader of the Bonus Army was speaking.

"Men, you have a right to lobby Congress just as much as a corporation or those corrupt Wall Street bankers. Let us march, but keep your sense of humor and don't do anything to cause the public to turn against us."

With that he jumped down and mingled with the other veterans as they all began to head to a small drawbridge that led to the capital district. Sean and Patrick joined them as the mass of people chanted, "The yanks are starving, the yanks are starving!"

Thousands of veterans were also camped inside Washington. They had taken over the many abandoned buildings that were all over the capital. There was an uneasy peace between them and the police. The Chief of Police was a veteran and sympathized with their plight.

President Hoover and Attorney General Mitchell did not. They considered the ex-soldiers a 'communist mob' who illegally occupied the nation's capital. They gave the order to clear out the veterans.

By the time the thousands from Camp Marks made it to the capital district the police were on the move. Buildings were being cleared out of veterans.

Patrick and Sean watched with dismay as police stormed an abandoned building filled with veterans.

"Sean, did you hear gun shots?"

Veterans poured out of the building.

"They killed two of our fellows," yelled one.

"I didn't survive the war to get shot here," a disheveled vet said to Patrick as he passed by him. "Bill Hushka and Eric Carlson were both shot dead. Now the poor bastards will get their bonus."

The two friends nodded their heads in understanding. The bonus was paid early on one condition, if you were dead.

The police pushed the ex-soldiers away from the abandoned buildings and towards a line of trees along Pennsylvania Ave.

At 4:45 pm as veterans mingled with government employees leaving work, 400 soldiers and 200 cavalry with 8 small tanks behind them moved down Pennsylvania Ave led by Army Chief of Staff General McArthur, who vowed to clear out the "reds and insurrectionists". The cavalry was led by Major Patton. The veterans thought the military display was to honor them as ex-soldiers of the Great War. They cheered them as they approached.

Suddenly Patton's cavalry drew their sabers and charged veterans and government workers alike. Cries of "shame, shame" echoed from the crowd.

"Come on Sean, let's get out of here. Head back to the camp."

Soldiers wearing gas masks and with fixed bayonets on their rifles threw tear gas canisters at veterans and onlookers alike. The vets, having tasted war before, threw the gas canisters back and fought with whatever they could pick up.

"Sean, we went through worse than this in the war. Remember your training and we will get through ok," said Patrick, barely able to talk as he choked and coughed on the gas.

"Patrick, they are coming this way," yelled Sean.

A soldier in a gas mask advanced through the haze of gas and lunged at Patrick with his bayonet. Patrick's mind was now in 1918 France, not 1932 Washington and he reacted with force. The soldier in front of him was the enemy and Patrick side stepped and took him down easily. As the soldier lay on the ground, Patrick's clouded mind reached over for a large rock, held it above his head with two hands and prepared to smash the gas masked face in.

"No, Patrick!" shouted Sean above the din of shouts and horses charging.

Patrick shook his head and his mind cleared. He ripped off the gas mask of the prone soldier. In front of him lay a soldier with a young face.

"Sweet Jesus boy, how old are you, 12?" said Patrick.

"No, I am 18," said the soldier with contempt.

"Right lad, and when we were in France fighting, you were in shorts hanging on to your Mama's knee. Now stay there. Don't follow us. And maybe you should be thinking you are on the wrong side in this fight," said Patrick as he moved away.

Sean glared at the young soldier. "You're lucky we don't have guns. I guarantee I am a better shot than most of you." With that he turned and joined Patrick and other vets making their way back to the vet's city.

The trek back was a battle in itself. Hundreds of veterans fought back as Cavalry slashed at them with their sabers and soldiers jabbed at them with bayonets. Tear gas wafted over the area, burning faces and searing lungs.

Off to the side Sean saw a soldier bayonet a black vet in the back. He walked quickly over to the injured man with Patrick close behind. As Sean knelt down to help the injured man the vet said, "Go on suhs, just leave me."

"We aren't doing that, are we Patrick," he said looking over to his friend who was eyeball to gas mask with the soldier. "We were in it together over there and we are in it together here."

With that they helped him to his feet and took him to a group that was taking care of the injured. They sat him down. He winced with pain. "Thank you fellas," he said. A vet next to him coughed violently. "Gassed at the Argonne and gassed in Washington. Don't that beat all," he said as another coughing spasm shook his body.

They left the wounded in the care of an ex-battlefield medic and joined the routed vets making their way to Camp Marks. When they reached the drawbridge to the flats they looked back at the carnage and mayhem taking place. They couldn't believe that soldiers had attacked ex-soldiers in the nation's capital.

General McArthur, in violation of President Hoover's orders to leave Camp Marks alone, decided to remove the "red" vets once and for all. Standing at the drawbridge, hands on his hips and chin thrust in the air, he gave the order to his soldiers to clear them all out.

Soldiers moved into the camp with bayonets and torches. One by one they lit shacks and tents on fire. Scraps of wood, possessions, flags and the homemade signs of the Bonus Army lit up the darkening sky. The books in the Salvation Army library added to the conflagration. Families were forced out of their pitiful dwellings, barely retrieving the little possessions they had.

As the flames rose above Anacostia Flats the camp looked like hell on earth - a nightmare come to life.

Patrick and Sean moved through the camp, helped people when they could, but knew they had to get out the back way.

Panicked thousands, some in cars, many on foot, once again moved as one.

When they reached the outskirts of Anacostia Flats, Patrick and Sean looked back at the flames that rose above Camp Marks. Shacks were burnt to the ground, as well as the possessions of people who came to Washington with the hope that someone would listen to their plight. Smoke billowed towards the capital district. There was a curtain of blackness between the capital and the veteran's city.

"Well, Patrick where to now?" said Sean wearily.

"Outta here. And I don't think we will be getting our bonus," said Patrick angrily. "This was the last straw for me. It was bad enough they killed the economy and our jobs. Now they want to kill us. If that's what they do to veterans who just want what is owed them, what are they going to do to the rest of the country? I think what I'll do is put one foot in front of the other and where I go I will tell people what I saw happen here today."

"If you don't mind, I'll tag along with you. After all I got nowhere else to go right?"

The two friends turned their backs on the capital district, leaving flames, tear gas and chaos behind. They joined the dispossessed veterans and their families, a stream of refugees in a country lost and adrift.


  1. What changes? Be careful who you trust. A powerful story, thank you, Ceinwen

  2. Hard to believe how government treated its own people. Horrifying!
    And as Ceinwen said, powerful.
    Mike McC

  3. A moving drama based on a real life event which stimulated me to look up and find out more. Issues explored are; common cause which overcomes racial segregation, and 'eyeball to gas mask' - the relationship of Sean & Patrick with the hapless 18 year old soldier doing his duty just as they (the 'vets') had done 15 years previously but in an ironically different context. I could have done with more 'immediate scene' and less information drop on Patton, McArth.. Hoover etc. but the writing paints vivid images. Well done!
    B r o o k e

  4. Really its difficult to believe that people are treated like this . All humans are same we should respect each other and should spread humanity.