Most Americans know Veterans Day is the day of the year we set aside to attend picnics and parades as a way of honoring the veterans who have answered the call to military service for our country.
Fewer Americans are aware of the history behind it, and that it all started at the Anacostia Flats – which is part of what is known today as Joint Base Anacostia – Bolling (JBAB).
In 1924, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act which entitled World War I veterans to receive $1.25 for every day they served overseas during the war. Many of the veterans were awarded those bonuses in the form of certificates that would earn compound interest, but were only redeemable after 1945.
It seemed logical to Congress in the 1920s to make such a promise because of the booming economy during the “roaring 20s.” However, in 1932, America was quickly plunging into the Great Depression, and unemployment was running high among the veterans.
An estimated 43,000 marchers came to Washington, D.C. to demand payment for their bonuses earlier than 1945. The men brought their families and whatever they could carry with them and set up camp on the southern banks of the Anacostia River. Within a short period of time, their encampment became
a shanty town known as Hooverville - named after President Herbert Hoover.
The organizers of the movement named the group the “Bonus Army,” to reflect the American Expeditionary Force that fought in World War I, known as the Bonus Expeditionary Force.
Led by former Army Sgt. Walter W. Waters, the Bonus Army marched on Washington to have their demands for immediate payment heard. Almost immediately after the camps were established, Attorney Gen. William D. Mitchell ordered the veterans to be removed from all government property.
Police were dispatched to enforce the eviction but were met with resistance from the veterans. Police fired into the crowd killing two of the veterans. President Hoover then ordered the Army to take command of the eviction and clear out all of the veterans. Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, led the infantry with fixed bayonets, cavalry and tanks, driving the camp dwellers from their shelters while also burning all of the possessions brought by the veterans and their families.
Upon hearing of the overuse of force, President Hoover ordered the operation to be stopped. MacArthur, however, continued the assault, stating he believed the veterans were attempting to overthrow the U.S. Government. Supporting MacArthur during the incident was his general's aide, Army Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Army Maj. George Patton. Scores of veterans and family members were injured during the incident and more than one hundred arrested. That moment has gone down in American history as the lowest point in our military's history.
In 1938, as a way to unofficially make amends with the veterans, Congress passed an Act known as Armistice Day, that would be celebrated Nov. 11 every year, to recognize the Armistice signed on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” officially ending “the war to end all wars.”
Congress intended to replace the word “Armistice” with “Veteran,” but the hostilities of the time, which ultimately led to the outbreak of World War II, delayed the change. It wasn't until 1954, that President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially recognized the veterans' sacrifices by signing HR7786, changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day.
Since that signing, Veterans Day has been celebrated across the country, and it all started right here on the premier grounds of, now, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, nearly 80 years ago.
By Eric Ritter
Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling
Provided through DVIDS
Author's note: The Ghosts of DC organization and the Library of Congress contributed information to this article.
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