21 Jun 2022


Lost Capitol Hill: A Local remembers the Bonus Army

Many moons ago, I asked my readers what they would like to know more about. One query was about the Bonus Army of 1932, and where in DC, exactly, had they encamped while trying to convince the government to pay the bonuses they were to receive for their service during World War I. I came across this question while researching something quite different, and am happy to share my results today.

As a boy, Capitol Hill resident William Boswell experienced the Bonus Army firsthand. He described what he had seen almost 70 years later in an interview with Nancy Metzger for the Overbeck History Project. He was talking about Chinese restaurants on the Hill in the 1930s, including one that was located on 11th Street SE, just below G Street. Right next to it was the office of a newspaper written and published by the Bonus Marchers.

Members of the Bonus Army camping in sight of the Capitol. (LOC)

Boswell became well acquainted with a number of the marchers, as his father met and supported a number of them:

My father “adopted” a group of Bonus Marchers from Youngstown, Ohio. He ran into them the day they arrived in town. They were looking for material to build their camp and he was able to help them. The leader of it was a judge—Judge Heffernan, the leader of the Youngstown group. He was able to get a lot of material for them to build and he helped them out tremendously. Every evening he’d go over; my brother and I would go with him to visit the old Bonus March camp on the Flats. It was very entertaining because every night they had entertainment. They had a huge platform up there where performers would get up and perform for the entertainment. It was all amateurs.

In fact, “Judge Heffernan” – full name Joseph L. Heffernan, and to be seen above – was also the publisher of The B.E.F. News, the newspaper of the Bonus Army. As an aside, B.E.F. stands for Bonus Expeditionary Forces, which was how the marchers, who had been members of the American Expeditionary Forces during the war, called their organization.

Heffernan began his career in a rolling mill, managing to save enough to attend college and then travel the world. When he returned, he became a newspaperman, first in the US, then later in Europe. He joined the US Army in 1917, and spent his time back in Europe reporting for Stars and Stripes. Along the way, he had also passed the bar, and after a brief stint in Washington D.C., he returned to Ohio and worked as a lawyer. Not long thereafter, he was first appointed and then elected to the bench, and used that as a springboard to being elected mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, in 1928. It was just after he had lost his re-election campaign that he led a group of veterans to Washington as part of the bonus army.

Heffernan’s men lived just across the 11th Street Bridge from Capitol Hill, and just as Boswell would cross the bridge, so would Heffernan and others cross it, then turn left onto M Street and visit the Boswell’s for dinner. This state of affairs continued for June and most of July of 1932.

Next week: Boswell witnesses the end of the Bonus Army

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