To achieve greatness, armies require a strong, organized and charismatic leader, and the Bonus Army of 1932 was no exception. Born in Burns, Oregon in 1898, Walter W. Waters would eventually assume this lofty position, mobilizing over 20,000 veterans in the fight to obtain what they thought to be rightfully theirs—an immediate cash bonus for the successful military efforts which helped resolve World War I.
After moving to Idaho with his family as a teenage boy, an eighteen-year-old Waters joined the Idaho National Guard in 1916, obtaining his primary military experience as a soldier on the hunt for the infamous Mexican vagabond, Pancho Villa. 1 When his enlistment ended in 1917, Waters joined the Oregon National Guard, a military unit that would eventually head to France—as part of the 41st Infantry—during the Great War. Eventually becoming a part of the army of occupation, the 41st Infantry did not return to the United States until June 1919, five long months after the highly venerated and greatly acknowledged “doughboys”. 2 Waters, and his fellow army men, received no warm welcome, no grand Armistice parade—they were thrust back into civilian life, immediately forced to deal with a drastically altered society, all on their own.
In Oregon, Waters, like so many other veterans, could not find work. Desperate for the money his meager military salary failed to provide, he hitchhiked to Washington state under the pseudonym Bill Kincaid, gaining employment as a superintendent of a fruit cannery, and finding love with cannery worker Wilma Anderson, whom he would later marry. 3 Yet, in December 1930, Waters once again found himself jobless, and by March 1932, he and his wife, now living in Portland, were “penniless...[still] earnestly trying to find any job that would provide just the necessities of life.” 4
After the 1931 veto of the Patman Veteran’s Bill, most ex-patriots gave up hope in immediate cash payment of their deserved bonuses; Waters, however, was not one of them. Realizing large corporations involved in the war effort had received their government advantages through the work of relentless lobbying, Waters fixated upon the notion that instant payout was, indeed, possible—yet, hundreds of signed petitions would not do the trick. According to Waters, the veterans’ voices would be readily heard, so long as they travel to Washington D.C. to raise them. 5
On March 11th, 1932, Waters and 300 Oregonian men—calling themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force”, after the American Expeditionary Force sent to France nearly two decades prior—did just that, arriving in Washington D.C. on May 29th to find thousands of disillusioned men wishing to join their ranks. 6 Waters took charge, organizing the Army into meticulously operated camps, establishing a system of rules to prevent disorder—because of Waters, the Bonus Army’s stay in Washington D.C. was relatively peaceful, for it was he who stated that amongst occupants, there was to be no drinking, gambling or communist conspiring. 7 Moreover, Waters even urged cooperation with General MacArthur and his troops during their violent July 28th attacks on the veterans’ camps. 8
Waters’s Bonus Army never achieves their ultimate goal— but, Waters never admits to failure. Drunk with power, Waters, the morning after the MacArthur attacks, declares himself the leader of the Khaki Shirt Movement, set forth in the hopes of “returning the government to the masses”. 9 The Khaki-Shirts—undoubtedly due to their eerily fascist beliefs—rapidly dissolved, and Walter W. Waters’s moment of national prominence quickly followed suit. 10
1 Allen, Thomas B. and Paul Dickson, The Bonus Army: An American Epic. Walker Publishing Company, New York, NY, 2005.
2 Allen, Thomas B. and Paul Dickson, The Bonus Army: An American Epic.
3 Allen, Thomas B. and Paul Dickson, The Bonus Army: An American Epic.
4 Waters, W.W. and William C. White, B.E.F.: The Whole Story of the Bonus Army. The John Day Comany, New York, 1933.
5 Allen, Thomas B. and Paul Dickson, The Bonus Army: An American Epic.
6 Allen, Thomas B. and Paul Dickson, The Bonus Army: An American Epic.
7 Allen, Thomas B. and Paul Dickson, The Bonus Army: An American Epic.
8 The American Experience: MacArthur, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/macarthur/peopleevents/pandeAMEX89.html
9 Allen, Thomas B. and Paul Dickson, The Bonus Army: An American Epic.
10 Allen, Thomas B. and Paul Dickson, The Bonus Army: An American Epic.