March 24-25, 1935: Washington Post Story Portrays Vets as Living in Island Paradise

NOTE: This post is the second in a series observing the 75th anniversary of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which struck the Florida Keys on September 2, 1935.

By late March 1935, the Roosevelt Administration had for months been quietly sending hundreds of jobless World War I veterans to oceanfront work camps in the remote Florida Keys to work on a New Deal construction project. The vets were building a highway from Miami to Key West.

The work program had been out of the national spotlight but that changed on March 24 and 25, when the Washington Post published a two-part series about the down-and-out vets' presence in the Keys. The Post headline for the story of March 24 said the vets were partying in their island paradise.

Post reporter Edward T. Folliard's stories had a decidedly sarcastic and patronizing tone. His story of March 24 said the vets were "encamped on a pretty little coral island as working guests of Uncle Sam." The men had recently gone on a "booze rampage," Folliard wrote.

The 600 or so men in the Keys camps were casualties of the Great Depression. Many of them also had been psychologically scarred by combat in World War I. Today, their condition is known as post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1935, it was called shellshock.

For many of the vets in the Keys camps, life had been a constant struggle since they'd been discharged from military service after World War I ended in 1918. Even during the booming economy of the 1920s, they were troubled. They'd been plagued by depression and a sense of alienation. They'd had trouble holding down jobs, staying married, and raising families. Many of them drank far too much.

The economic catastrophe of the Great Depression had made their troubled lives even more chaotic. In 1932, about 40,000 desperate veterans gathered in Washington, D.C. seeking help from the federal government. The vets had been promised a $1,000 bonus -- about $15,500 in 2009 dollars -- for their wartime service, but payment wasn't due until 1944. The veterans who came to Washington in 1932 wanted Congress to pay them half of the bonus immediately.

President Herbert Hoover opposed the early payment, and in July 1932 he ordered General Douglas MacArthur to evict the men from federal property. MacArthur exceeded Hoover's orders, however, and used troops to chase the men out of the District of Columbia and set fire to their ramshackle camps.

Photos of the eviction were published in newspapers across the country. The incident helped turn public opinion against President Hoover and contributed to Franklin Roosevelt's landslide victory in the November 1932 election.

Roosevelt had campaigned on a pledge to help the "forgotten man," and after his inauguration in March 1933, jobless vets again assembled in Washington to urge early payment of their bonus. The vets were the epitome of the men Roosevelt had promised to help. Like Hoover, FDR also opposed paying the bonus early, but recalling Hoover's public relations blunder, he sought a way to help the vets while simultaneously getting them out of the nation's capital.

When Key West -- once one of the nation's most prosperous cities -- declared bankruptcy in 1934, Roosevelt Administration officials saw a chance to showcase the New Deal, put the vets to work, and get them far away from Washington. They decided to remake Key West as a tourist town.

In August 1934, the Roosevelt Administration's efforts to restore Key West were showcased in a New York Times editorial written by Julius Stone, who was in charge of the federal government's emergency relief operations in Florida. The federal government would use Key West's natural beauty and the labor of its residents to return the city to prosperity and demonstrate the effectiveness of the Roosevelt Administration's policies to pull the nation out of the Depression.

But in 1934, getting to Key West by car wasn't easy. Motorists had to use a combination of secondary roads and ferries. The journey was slow, and the ferries didn't operate during rough weather.

The solution was to build a major highway down the islands so tourists could easily drive from Miami to Key West. And the jobless vets were the ideal labor force for the project.

When the Washington Post reporter arrived, about 600 men were living in the camps and more were arriving every day. Their meals were provided at no charge, and they were being paid $30 a month for their work -- about $465 in 2009 dollars.

But Folliard had little sympathy for the vets' plights. His March 24, 1935 story focused on the "debauchery" in the work camps and said almost nothing about the construction work the vets were doing. The story of March 25 -- 75 years ago today -- briefly mentioned a bridge construction project the vets were working on, but again focused on politics and described the primitive work camps in terms that made them seem comfortable.

Folliard did not mention, however, that only a few months earlier, conditions in the camps had been so bad that two vets died from meningitis.

The photo at the top of this post shows one of the work camps in the Florida Keys that housed World War I veterans working on a highway construction project in 1935. The camp was destroyed by a hurricane that struck the Keys on September 2, 1935.

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