The title of Glen Craney’s latest novel, The Yanks are Starving, comes from a Depression-era version of the popular First World War song, Over There. In the original song, the line is, “The Yanks are coming” – meaning that the American Expeditionary Force was on its way to support Britain, France and their allies against Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. In 1932, when out-of-work American war veterans, with families and supporters, marched 43,000 strong on Washington D.C., they adapted the song and sang, “The Yanks are starving.”
The “bonus” in “Bonus Army” or “Bonus Expeditionary Force” refers to the bonus for wartime service, a tradition in the U.S. ever since the War of Independence. A law passed in 1924 during the Coolidge administration stipulated that World War I veterans were to get a bonus in the form of a certificate redeemable twenty years later. In 1930 and 1931, when the impact of the economic downturn following the 1929 stock market crash was making itself felt, unemployed veterans demanded their bonus immediately. President Hoover vowed to veto any bill for immediate payout if it passed Congress, because he didn’t want to pay out billions of dollars during an economic crisis.
The Bonus Bill was coming up for a vote in the late spring of 1932. War veterans from all over the country converged on Washington, D.C., often riding the rails or hitch-hiking to get there. The veterans numbered between 17,000 and 20,000 and their family members and supporters swelled their numbers. Some camped out in vacant government buildings near the Capitol. Most stayed on the Anacostia Flats across the river from the Capitol, in shacks made of scrap materials. The camp, which had sanitation and health facilities, a school and a library, attracted public attention and support in the form of food and other donations. Campers had to promise not to use alcohol, not to panhandle and not to spout radical rhetoric. Pelham Glassford, Washington Chief of Police, appealed in vain to the army to house and feed his fellow-veterans, and treated them with respect and generosity.
Shortly after the Senate defeated the Bonus Bill, Glassford was ordered to evacuate camper-occupied buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue. Protesters threw bricks at police and police shot two veterans. At that point President Hoover ordered the army to surround the affected area and clear it without delay. Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur headed the operation, bringing in a regiment of infantry and one of cavalry, plus six tanks commanded by Major George Patton. At first the veterans thought the army was marching in a show of support for their cause, but then the cavalry charged and tear gas flowed. Against presidential instructions, MacArthur sent troops across the river to the main encampment, which was set on fire.
This confrontation is only a small part of Craney’s 559 page epic. To show the formative experiences of some of the principal characters and to give readers a sense of America in the early twentieth century, he begins his narrative in 1900, with Herbert Hoover as a young Marine in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Pelham Glassford, a talented artist and future D.C. police chief was a student at West Point military academy, as was MacArthur. Walter Waters, who was to lead the Bonus Army, was a boy in Idaho. Much of the novel is about the experiences of the various characters as part of the U.S. Expeditionary Force in France.
Many of Craney’s characters are real people, including Joe Angelo, a coal miner’s son from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, who testified before Congress about the plight of unemployed veterans, and journalist Floyd Gibbons, later a famous broadcaster. Creating the fictional Anna Raber allowed Craney to show the “shameful treatment of Mennonite and Hutterite conscientious objectors” during World War II, and also, the heroic work of war nurses. His research uncovered newspaper references to unnamed nurses accompanying the protesting veterans, so he places Anna at the Bonus Army encampment. The fictional Ozzie Taylor, an African American street musician and war veteran, who plays in a band with the real-life Big Jim Europe, is a composite of two Bonus Army veterans who turned up in Craney’s research.
Included in the novel are maps of the U.S. Army Expeditionary Force’s campaigns in Europe in 1918, and of Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1932. Craney includes photos of Joe Angelo, Wilma and Walter Waters, Pelham Glassford and other real-life people who appear in the story.
Although Craney often shifts from one group of characters to another, each setting is clearly established at the start of each chapter. For the most part, the story is presented chronologically, with a leap of time between Part I, which ends in Paris in May 1919, and Part II, which begins in Washington, D.C. in 1931. The prologue and epilogue serve as book ends. In the prologue, set in 1941, Walter Waters as a middle aged man enters a U.S Navy induction station in Norman, Oklahoma. He wants to volunteer to serve in the Second World War, but comes across to the officer in charge and the new recruits as confused and deluded. The epilogue takes us back to the same scene, after Waters has recounted his Great War and Bonus Army experiences. He has so impressed the officer and men that he is offered a desk job.
Craney includes a number of real-life incidents showing the rigid attitude of the powerful and the gap between rich and poor. Joe Angelo becomes batman/driver to Colonel Patton, and gets the Distinguished Service Cross for saving Patton’s life, but later, in Washington, when he tries to contact Patton, Patton denies ever knowing him and refuses to meet him. Passages from the points of view of powerful figures are particularly fascinating. General Patton, a believer in reincarnation, is convinced that he played major roles in all of the historic battles down through history. Douglas MacArthur reveals himself as a careerist primarily concerned with personal glory. President Hoover exists in a milieu and mind-set far removed from that of everyday people. Generally he follows his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon’s advice not to stimulate the economy by putting more money in circulation. Mellon, whose income was between $300 and $400 million in 1930, was facing impeachment charges for fraud in 1932 when Hoover appointed him Ambassador to Britain.
The novel’s tone is summed up by a version of the Battle Hymn of the Republic as sung by a Bonus veteran:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the tanksThey rumbled down the street between the infantry in ranksThey were out to save the country for the rich men and the banks,And the tyranny of Wall Street lives on.
The Bonus Army has been the subject of a Public Broadcasting System film and at least two non-fiction books, one by Roger Daniels, the other by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen. Historian Howard Zinn writes about it in A People’s History of the United States. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver has an episode concerning the Bonus Army in The Lacuna, but I know of no other fiction writer who has made this brave, tragic protest movement the main theme of a novel, until now. Glen Craney deserves praise for recognizing the significance and dramatic potential of the Bonus Army story and developing it in The Yanks are Starving.