by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Many of you have seen television commercials for Disabled American Veterans, which exists for the purpose of “empowering veterans to lead high-quality lives with respect and dignity” and works to provide them with the benefits they’ve earned through their military service and sacrifices, lobbying Congress in the myriad interests of disabled vets, and educating the public on what veterans have done for their country and their needs as they move from military to civilian life.
The First World War, which ended after four brutal and horrific years in November 1918, introduced levels of violent warfare far beyond what previously existed, including more lethal guns, shells, and bombs, as well as a variety of poison gases. Of the nearly five million who served in the American Expeditionary Force, more than 53,000 died in combat while 63,000 more died from accidents and the scourge of the flu pandemic (our current COVID-19 pandemic is the worst in world history since that time).
More than 200,000 soldiers were wounded during the two years of 1917 and 1918 in which America participated with the western European Allies in the conflict. As is often the case, demobilization, which often occurs rapidly, proved to be an immense challenge with about half of all American troops released from service within just six months of the armistice, including the economic downturn that followed the end of the war. This posed enormous challenges for veterans reintegrating into civilian life and this especially difficult for those disabled by injuries incurred during military service.
Those who were wounded and faced long-term or permanent disability on returning home faced the problem of social attitudes about what they could contribute to American society and there was no single government agency to administer benefits. At the time, there was a veterans’ bureau, a specific agency for pensions within the Department of the Interior, and the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and Sailors—the main local branch was established at Sawtelle, in west Los Angeles, in the 1880s and a veterans’ hospital was opened in Sylmar (it was referred to as being in San Fernando) in 1926.
Dealing with significant hurdles in gaining assistance, many disabled veterans gave up seeking the help they needed and earned through their self-sacrifice. In Cincinnati, however, Captain Robert S. Marx, a noted Jewish lawyer from that city who was injured in an offensive in France just hours before the armistice was signed and who became a judge soon after we was mustered out from the Army, laid the groundwork for a new advocacy organization at a Christmas dinner, which included many disabled veterans, in 1919.
By the following spring, an informal association was established and it was made official in September 1920 as The Disabled Veterans of the World War with Marx as the first national commander. Not long after, it was decided, with some considerable internal controversy, to exclude “aliens” from membership, under the reasoning that the home countries of disabled vets from outside the United States were responsible for any benefits accruing to them, and the organization was renamed The Disabled American Veterans of the World War.
The organization grew rapidly with chapters formed throughout the country, including in Los Angeles and surrounding cities. One of Marx’s many inspired ideas for the DAVWW was to emulate the American Red Cross and launch a fund-raising drive that used the “forget-me-not” flower as its symbol. This powerful reminder of the sacrifices of disabled American veterans continues to be utilized by the association a century after its formation.
While there was more cooperation with the Veterans Bureau by the mid-1920s, once Brigadier General Frank T. Hines became its administrator, the further removed from the war years the country got the more veterans were being forgotten. Membership dropped steeply and by 1928 a proposal was floated to sell the organization to the American Legion, which was also formed in the aftermath of the world war, though this effort did not succeed.
In this context of struggle for the DAVWW and the onset of the Great Depression after the crash of the stock market in fall 1929, today’s featured artifact from the museum’s collection is noteworthy. It is an appeal letter from William Conley, commander of the Quentin Roosevelt Chapter, No. 5 of the organization and chair of the local committee for the “Forget-Me-Not” campaign. Incidentally, the chapter was named for President Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest child, a member of the Army Air Corps who was killed in action in France on Bastille Day, 14 July 1918 (the Germans even photographed his corpse next to the crumpled aircraft and distributed it for propaganda purposes).
The letter, sent to Walter Tweddell, a streetcar shop electrician who lived in the Highland Park neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles, stated that the numbers of disabled veterans “are constantly thinning,” yet many were “becoming less self-supporting” and hundreds were at the San Fernando hospital and the Sawtelle home. Noting that “our responsibility is to assist these veterans in obtaining from the Government that which is justly due and render aid to them and their families when by reason of their disabilities they are unable to assume the burden.”
Conley added that President Herbert Hoover “realizing that this winter has increased our problems” approved the Forget-me-Not campaign, held from 18 to 21 December, and implored that, as “this season of the year turns out thoughts to our homes and firesides” attention should be directed to “those for whom the war will never cease.” Consequently, the commander asked for a contribution to the organization “as funds are most urgently needed at this time.”
On the left margin of the letterhead are the names of the state commander John J. Hayes and of the local committee headed by Conley. Statements were also provided from local and federal officials, including the proclamation of Los Angeles Mayor John C. Porter stating “I trust that the call of these veterans who responded so nobly in 1917 and 1918, and who came back maimed and scarred as a result of their intense patriotism and devotion to this country in time of national peril, will be met with a generous response from our people.”
President Hoover’s statement was that the work of the DAVWW “in relieving distress amongst those still suffering from the effects of war service is most praiseworthy” and that he hoped for “a generous response from the public.” Hoover’s predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, added that the Forget-Me-Not campaign “is particularly deserving of the most sympathetic attitude on the part of the public” and while observing that the federal government was “endeavoring to alleviate the suffering of those for whom the war still endures,” the DAVWW had “proved one of the most efficacious [of outside agencies] at this task.” Hines noted that he was “glad to give my support to your efforts.”
Local media coverage included the reporting of the issuance of the proclamation by Porter (who was elected in 1929 just as the Depression was underway) at the beginning of December and of a large meeting held, in the run-up to the campaign, by the local chapter at the Elks’ Temple. The chapter also obtained unofficial approval from the Los Angeles City Council to have a lengthy section of Broadway between Temple and Pico streets renamed “Forget-Me-Not Drive” (get it?).
A photo of actor Frances Dee, a Los Angeles native whose first starring role was in the recently released Playboy of Paris starring French singer Maurice Chevalier (and who later married actor Joel McCrea), holding a new street sign at Broadway and 9th, was published in the Los Angeles Record with the caption noting that the four-day campaign was “held for the purpose of raising funds to finance the liaison service of the D.A.V., which provides free assistance to disabled men and women in prosecuting their claims for federal compensation.”
There were, as shown on the letterhead, other DAVWW chapters outside of Los Angeles (committee members, for example, were from San Fernando, the Sawtelle home, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Inglewood and Glendale) and the Pasadena Post reported that “prominent women of this city will direct the sale of forget-me-nots to the public” as part of the campaign. Broadly speaking, observed the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, “thousands of school girls and young women will march into [shopping] districts” throughout greater Los Angeles” to sell flowers. The Record recorded that Ida Baker, known widely as “Mother” for her work with underprivileged children and as an advocate for the local DAVWW chapter, had “screen children” among those assisting her and she was quoted as saying, “if anyone wants work without pay other than the satisfaction of helping those veterans who gave their health for us, let them get in touch with me.”
The Los Angeles Express offered an editorial on the opening day of the drive, noting that “men forget so easily; so much has happened since the boys came home from France, and in the hurry many have lost sight and thought of them.” The paper added that this was not due to “callousness, or want of gratitude for the service rendered the country, but forgetfulness.” So, the idea of the forget-me-not was brought forth and these reminders “offered in the streets to hurrying Christmas shoppers and busy men of affairs, for memory’s sake, by bright, sweet-faced girls.” As the monies were gathered for disabled soldiers, sailors and nurses, the piece concluded by proclaiming “a spray of forget-me-nots will be as a badge of honor” to contributors to the DAVWW.
Yet, the situation for World War I veterans, disabled or not, would only become tougher, as with so many Americans, as the Great Depression worsened considerably. Though Congress granted a federal charter to the DAVWW in June 1932, that month also saw the arrival at the nation’s capital of the “Bonus Army,” a wave of desperate veterans clamoring for an early payment of the bonus awarded them in 1924 but not to be distributed for twenty-one years (no one, of course, foresaw the coming of the Second World War!) These disaffected vets set up tent cities and shantytowns at several sites in Washington, including a 30-acre privately owned site opened to them and dubbed “Camp Bartlett” on the Anacostia Flats across the river of that name from the Capitol.
After nearly two months, with the Senate voting down (and Hoover threatening to veto) a House bill to provide funds to feed the Bonus Army, the president ordered the Army to forcibly disperse the approximately 20,000 people. General Douglas McArthur, the hero of World War II, was in command of the operation and George S. Patton, who grew up next to what became the Huntington Library in San Marino, wound up coming face-to-face with a Bonus Army member who’d saved his life during the First World War.
The sight of tanks rumbling through the capital, tear gas deployed against the protestors, and camps set afire, even at Camp Bartlett, caused considerable consternation, with many decrying and plenty supporting the action of the government and military. Among those enraged by the removal was William Conley, who’d risen to be national commander of the DAVWW. In 1936, over the veto of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who cut veterans’ pensions to reduce federal expenditures, Congress approved early payments of the bonuses, which were dispensed over a period of years.
When we next see a Disabled American Veterans commercial, we can now view the important work this organization does in historical context, knowing that it goes back a century with the pressing and extraordinary circumstances facing mustered-out disabled soldiers as they came home from the First World War and sought assistance in reintegrating into civilian life.