The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Replacement Bureau and Jobs for Returning World War I Veterans, 1919

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the aftermath of the end of the First World War in November 1918, and, as noted in earlier posts here, one of the major issues facing returning service members was finding them jobs.  In Los Angeles, the city created, within a couple of months, The Soldiers and Sailors Replacement Bureau, which was tasked with providing opportunities for employment for these veterans.

Los Angeles Mayor Frederick T. Woodman, in his annual message delivered at the beginning of 1919, stated

Patriotic duty, civil pride, and a desire to keep faith with the men who went to both land and sea service prompted the establishment of an organization for the replacement of the returning soldiers and sailors.

The problems of profitable employment to these men on their return is as colossal as their mobilization into the war service and is universally so recognized.  It can not be left to chance, but must be dealt with definitely.

At my request, the chief executives of the several “war activities” assembled as “The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Replacement Bureau” and operate in conjunction with the United States Employment Service, Department of Labor, being installed in the North Annex of the City Hall.

Woodman observed that there was “an almost unanimous pledge” to guarantee that returning service personnel would have their “old employment” waiting for them and that some firms pledged to not only reinstate these men but find room for those who took their jobs when they entered the military.

Los Angeles Times, 29 January 1919.

Notably, while claiming that “little difficulty has been met in replacing the old employees,” he added that “many men return totally unfitted for the old work by virtue of the training and the change in the trend of thought that military life has inspired.”  In addition to those who’d lived in the area prior to entering the service, Woodman made mention of “the countless thousands who, attracted by climactic conditions, will come this way as rapidly as demobilization camps grant discharges” and that these men would need assistance, as well.

Another task of the bureau was to complete a survey of all Los Angeles residents who went into the military during the war and in over 40% of the city’s precincts, some 21,000 names were compiled.  This roster was “to be of great historic value” added the mayor and he added that an honor roll of the names of those who served would be placed “in the historical room at Exposition Park,” perhaps meaning the exhibit hall for history at what was then the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Despite Woodman’s assertions that employers were generally accommodating in providing old positions to returning service members, a Los Angeles Times article four weeks later noted that a grievance committee, headed by well-known resident Henry W. Keller, was formed at the bureau, the work of which officially began on the 15th, to hear complains from those veterans who were not being returned to their former jobs.

Times,12 April 1919.

The bureau’s chairperson, E.H. Bagby, stated “there are a great many grievance cases to be investigated,” with most being “in business houses, where managers, superintendents or foremen have come in since the returning troops went away to war.  This results in many misunderstandings as to whether or not positions were to be held open for the duration of the war.”  Bagby added that, when grievances were brought up with those in positions of responsibility for companies, “a satisfactory arrangement has been made.”

By the spring, advertisements were taken out that showed the expansion of the bureau’s work, which was noted as being under the auspices of the United States Employment Service, said to be “still in the ring” when it came to finding work for demobilized service personnel.  Interestingly, one such ad noted that

we may have differences of opinion on many matters, but we are all agreed on this: the responsibility of every American citizen today is to do everything possible to secure jobs for our returning fighting men.

Employers were reminded that their part was to keep the local bureau informed of what jobs it had available for those returning service members registered with the national employment service.  By then, there were three divisions within the bureau, for professional and clerical duties (including those involving women), a men’s industrial division and a women’s household and industrial division.

Times, 25 May 1919.

By late September 1919, the achievements of the bureau were touted in the Times, as reflected in a letter by Bagby to Mayor Woodman.  In the missive, the bureau’s chair stated that the mayor’s request for the placement of a veteran in the city’s efficiency department resulted in the selection of a returned soldier for a position.  This, Bagby related, “happens to be the eleven-thousandth job filled by the soldiers’ and sailors’ replacement bureau.”

Bagby concluded by providing statistics of placement since mid-January, with just over 300 completed in the two weeks completing that month, then over 800 in February and 1,700 in March.  Totals of between about 1,300 and 1,600 each month followed through the summer and 800 in the first week of September alone.

Today’s highlighted artifact is a press photograph taken of three bureau staffers with two veterans in dress uniform taken at a table situated outdoors—obviously this was staged for the benefit of the taking of the image.  A caption on the reverse stated:

The Soldiers’ & Sailors’ Replacement Bureau in Los Angeles has just placed its 10,000th returned fighter in a good job.  The young lieutenant in the picture obtained an expert horticulturist’s job on the famous Lucky Baldwin ranch in Southern California . . . The placing of the 10,000th man was made the occasion of a celebration at bureau headquarters.

The caption added that the bureau began its work on 15 January 1919 and was started by the city’s very active Chamber of Commerce.  It was stated that the bureau “lead all similar bureaus in the country in replacing soldiers and sailors.”  Yet, there is a stamp from the N.E.A. (Newspaper Enterprise Association) from 21 November 1923, as well as one from the office of the Chamber of Commerce’s publicity chief, Morris Rathbun.

Soldiers & Sailors Replacement Bureau
This press photograph from the Homestead’s collection was taken, probably in August 1919 though stamped 21 November 1923, to celebrate the 10,000th job placement of The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Replacement Bureau in Los Angeles.  The lieutenant, second from the right, received a job as a horticulturist on the Arcadia ranch of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin.

Because the 11,000th placement took place in September 1919 and the photo was almost certainly taken the month prior, it may be that the image was redistributed for some other purpose, though what they might have been is unknown.

As for the bureau, it remained under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Los Angeles for just about a year.  In the meantime, the American Legion was created, specifically to help returning members of the military get readjusted back to civilian life.  So, on 3 January 1920, while continuing to maintain its office in City Hall, direct management of the bureau was handed over to the Legion.

Chairman Bagby noted that there was, to date, over 15,000 placements of returned service members to jobs and particular mention was made of a fundraiser held in February 1919 at the Army’s balloon school at Arcadia, which led to $10,000 being directed to the work of the bureau.  He added that the cost to the City was only 17 1/2 cents per job, a showing of great efficiency.

Times, 20 September 1919.  This article indicated the 11,000th job placement by the bureau had just taken place, so the 10,000th, as commemorated in the above photo, had to have occurred the prior month.

In 1921, outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Meredith P. Snyder, who had the unusual distinction of serving three separate stints in office (1896-1898, 1900-1904, and 1919-1921), spoke about the continuing need to assist veterans in finding jobs, observing that, if every city acted as Los Angeles did, “the problem of unemployment among former service men would vanish like snow in a hot sun.”

Particularly poignant was that Snyder pointed to a photo on his desk of his only child, Ross, who was killed in battle during the war and for whom a city recreation center in South Los Angeles was named.  The mayor then added that communities could best serve its veterans “to help them to help themselves and do it mighty quick and without a lot of quibbling.”  Snyder continued

It is all well and good for future generations to erect piles of masonry to commemorate what our boys did in France . . . [but] I believe the best monuments the present generation can erect for their ex-service men are in the form of substantial help for the fellows who need jobs, need food, and need money.

The mayor discussed the work of the bureau in detail, adding that, beyond assistance with employment, there were also areas dealing with compensation claims; insurance; claims for Liberty Bonds used as pay and for clothing, travel, and equipment; and free legal advice as well as representation at court.  He noted that in 1920, there were over 17,000 applications by veterans for jobs and not quite half, just under 8,200 led to positions being secured.  Over $6 million in reinstated and converted insurance payments were also obtained.


Times, 13 August 1925.  This article noted that the bureau was replaced by an expanded veterans’ job service open to those who served in all American wars.

In 1925, the bureau was officially shut down in favor of a new agency, referred to as “a central employment bureau for veterans” and which expanded its clientele to serve those from any American war.  This entity was formed under the auspices of the Community Chest, a recently established organization dedicated to all kinds of charitable work in the city, and which operated out of an office in what later became the new Chinatown.

Today, the issue of veterans and employment is still a major concern, especially as a lack of employment can lead to or contribute to many other problems, including drug and alcohol addiction, family breakdown, homelessness and others.  It is interesting, then, to see how a local effort after the First World War looked to address employment and did so with some success for several years after the end of hostilities.



3 thoughts

  1. Excellent post describing another untold story of WWI.

    In reality of course serious demobilization (in industry) and reemployment of returning soldiers did not occur and became the source of the economic depression that occurred in 1921. The booming 20s didn’t really start until after then.

    These were also the same veterans that converged on Washington DC in 1932 to demand payment of their promised bonus. Lots of talk after a war about ‘helping’ veterans but when the war is finished, it is easy to just get on with life.

    The topic of what DOES a nation really owe their returning ex-soldiers can go very deep.

    BUT, for once perhaps somebody learned from history and it was not repeated. The failures and lessons learned after WWI lead directly to the GI bill of rights that significantly aided the veterans of WWII, leading to the economic prosperity of the 1950s.
    For once somebody listened 😉

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