“At Last Receiving the Relief Too Long Denied Them”: A Program for a Victory Banquet of the Disabled Emergency Officers of the World War Retired, Los Angeles, 6 July 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On this Veterans Day, there are many reasons, of course, to be grateful for the service to the country given by the men and women who wore the uniforms of the several branches of the military, as well as to always be mindful of the many issues facing veterans returning to civilian life after completing their service. Among these are those who became disabled in battle or in other ways during their tenure in the military and today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is particularly notable in this regard.

A previous post here featured a December 1930 letter from The Disabled Veterans of the World War, now the Disabled American Veterans, as the organization sought financial contributions to its cause. This post looks at another like-minded group, The Disabled Emergency Officers of the World War Retired (shortened here to DEOWW), and its efforts for most of the 1920s to secure legislation that would provide its members benefits akin to those officers already serving in the Army at the time the United States joined the conflict in spring 1917.

Los Angeles Times, 27 February 1920.

The featured object is a program for a Victory Banquet held by the DEOWW’s Southern California chapter covering the Los Angeles and San Diego areas at the Elks Temple, completed in 1924 (and slated to reopen in 1923 as The MacArthur performing arts center) across the street from the northwest corner of Westlake, now MacArthur, Park. While the item included the listing of the giver of the invocation, Navy Chaplain William E. Edmonson; Toastmaster Buron Fitts, the lieutenant governor and later district attorney of Los Angeles County and who was a veteran of the world war; and special guests Joe Crail, William E. Evans and Phil D. Swing—all members of the House of Representatives, along with the menu and list of DEOWW officers, the executive committee, chairs of standing committees and advisory council members, it does not specify what the victory was that was being celebrated.

While it might be thought that the occasion was for the tenth anniversary of the war’s conclusion, holding the event in early July rather than around Armistice Day, the 11th of November and what eventually was renamed Veterans Day, meant there was clearly some other victory to commemorate. It turned out that this was the culmination of eight years of a hard-fought battle, a domestic one, that was the reason for which the DEOWW was established back in 1920.

Los Angeles Record, 10 June 1920.

In June of that year, the Los Angeles Record briefly reported, as it usually did with its format, that “to safeguard the interests of the temporary officers of the world war, and to eradicate the discrimination of the emergency officer regarding disability compensation,” the DEOWW was founded in Washington, D.C. These emergency officers were given what were considered temporary commissions and distinguished them from those officers already serving in the Army when America entered the war.

Yet, those that were injured and suffered disabilities that affected at least 30% of their bodies were not provided for in terms of pensions in the way that the other officers were and this led to the formation of the DEOWW and the aggressive lobbying for legislation that would provide them the relief sought. Efforts prior to the group’s establishment included bills in the House for the discharge of disabled officers from the permanent and temporary classes, but the legislation for the latter failed to advance in the chamber. Another effort was made in 1921 and this, too, did not get very far in the House.

Times, 2 September 1921.

First-term Representative Walter F. Lineberger, a resident of Long Beach and elected from the 9th California Congressional District, then took up the cause and wrote a new bill, while Senator Holm O. Bursum of New Mexico, an appointee in March 1921 after the resignation of Albert M. Fall to become Secretary of the Interior in the Harding Administration and who won a special election that September, drafted legislation for the upper house. Not long after this third effort, the regional chapter of the DEOWW was established, with the Los Angeles Times of 12 March 1922 reporting,

Disabled emergency officers of the World War met last night and formed a local post with the special object of trying to get early and favorable action from the members of the House of Representatives on the Bursum bill recently passed in the Senate by a vote of 50 to 14. This bill provides for the retirement of all disabled officers of the Army who have a disability of 30 per cent or more on the same basis of Regular Army officers . . .

Those gathered at the meeting determined to visit representatives of other veterans’ organizations, such as the American Legion (formed after the war), the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association, Employment Managers’ Association and others, seeking their commitments “to urge upon the California Congressmen support looking to the early passage of the bill.” Lt. Martin V. Cook, who was on the executive committee in 1928 was elected the first post commander.

Times, 12 March 1922.

Besides the long, tough political slogging with the eternally slow-moving Congress, there were occasional protests from the public, though it seems likely there was a general sympathy for the cause. For example, a spring 1924 diatribe from George Weaver of Santa Barbara and published in the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, who called disabled veterans “mollycoddles,” that is, those being overindulged and overprotected, and demanded they leave their hospital beds and go out and find jobs, generated enraged reactions.

A physician, who asked to be unidentified because of professional ethics, wrote that Weaver’s letter was “brutal” and reminded him and readers of the paper that

These men slept in muddy trenches, were gassed, mutilated and are now physical wrecks . . . I have seen and cared for thousands of our wounded men in France. They came to us blood-smeared, dirt-covered, vermin-infested and exhausted; many died of their injuries in hospitals, but I failed to find any mollycoddles among them.

Anne Holter, who served as an Army nurse during the terrible conflict, added that if Watson had been on the battlefield “he would realize their great patience and cheerfulness” and would not so label these veterans “leaving the hospitals with much of their vitality gone and handicapped in many ways.” She simply inquired, “is it too much for them to ask help from their country in the economic struggle in competition with able-bodied men?”

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 6 April 1924.

Several veterans also responded, with one challenging Weaver to go to the hospitals at Sawtelle, where the home for disabled soldiers was founded some four decades before for veterans of the Civil War, or San Fernando, and experience what it would be like to see a fellow vet die of his injuries and another noting that he’d been trying for three years to get reimbursed for $856 in bills for shrapnel wounds he’d suffered.

A third wrote,

Mollycoddles who lay in the blood of their buddies in France should not be given even the right to groan when the raw stump of what was once a leg grinds against the cork, nor the right to cough when lungs, torn by gas, become inflamed, according to Weaver. He reminds one of a certain animal with a ringed tail, white stripe down its back and a strong scent.

Cook of the local DEOWW chapter also weighed in by thanking the newspaper’s publisher Cornelius Vanderbilt IV for bringing Weaver’s comments to the attention of the public, “and suggests that the Santa Barbara American Legion post investigate George Weaver and publish his war record.”

Times, 12 November 1924.

In November 1924, the chapter held its annual meeting, electing a new commander, Charles E. Chenoweth (who was the resolutions and program chair in 1928), and discussed the fact that the legislation they sought to get enacted, “was reported [on] favorably at the last session” of Congress,” but was not acted on, even though it was said to have the support of the Secretary of War John W. Weeks and President Calvin Coolidge, who was elected to a full term after succeeding Harding after the latter’s death in August 1923.

Two months later, the Times reported that the Senate did not reach a vote on Bursum’s version of the bill because of determined opposition by senators James Wolcott Wadsworth, Jr. of New York, chair of the military committee, and David A. Reed of Pennsylvania (co-author of the 1924 immigration bill), who chaired the investigating committee of the Veterans Bureau, forerunner of the Veterans Administration. The two were said to believe that Bursum’s bill “would work an inequality by greatly increasing the compensation now being paid to those partially disabled.”

Times, 19 June 1926.

That fall, another effort was attempted by the former Army officers, with the endorsement of the state American Legion convention, for new legislation “to remove the alleged discrimination between disabled emergency naval and marine corps officers, army provisional second lieutenants, who have already been retired on the same basis as regular officers and disabled emergency army officers of the World War who have not been retired.”

In April 1926, the Record noted that the American Legion pushed yet again for support of new bills, introduced in the House by Ohio’s Roy Fitzgerald, a World War I veteran who was commissioned a captain, and Tennessee Senator Lawrence Tyson, a West Point graduate who served in both the Spanish-American War and First World War, in which, as a brigadier-general, he commanded a regiment that broke the crucial “Hindenburg Line” for which Tyson was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross.

Times, 4 May 1927.

It was noted that the Legion’s weekly bulletin opined that “Congress is urged to render long-delayed justice to disabled emergency officers” by passing the Fitzgerald and Tyson bills and it was added that the local post of the DEOWW, with Captain Joseph T. Watson as commander, “is having a marked copy of the publication containing the editorial mailed to every member of congress in Washington.”

In June, the Times quoted Perry W. Weidner, head of the Reserve Officers’ Association of the United States, concerning his endorsement of the latest legislation and who said,

It appears to me that such disabled officers should have been retired on three-fourths pay instead of being discharged at the end of the World War. They have been unjustly discriminated against for seven years, and have had to take a back seat while legislation has been passed for the majority of disabled men . . . it is time for Congress to pay what is regarded as a legal debt of the government to such disabled officers.

Finally, by May 1927, momentum was building for passage of the bills, with the Times of the 4th reporting that “an intensive campaign” was planned for the local post following the most recent failure in Congress, earlier in the year, due to a filibuster.

Record, 13 April 1928.

At the end of the year, post commander Edward Z. Collings, was quoted in the 7 December edition of the paper that President Coolidge mentioned, in his message to Congress, that he supported legislative efforts by the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars and added, “the major item in this program is the Tyson-Fitzgerald bill which would give retirement privileges to 2000 badly disabled emergency officers.”

Collings expressed enthusiasm that Congress would finally act to end the injustice, concluding that, with Coolidge’s remarks, “there is little doubt but that it will do so at this session.” Four days later, vice commander C. C. Bayless, reported that new bills by Fitzgerald and Tyson were introduced and called for 75% of the wage paid while in the service for those who were permanently disabled on the 30% basis.

Times, 13 May 1928.

In its issue of 13 April 1928, the Record recorded that, Tyson’s bill having passed the Senate, the rules committee for the House approved moving Fitzgerald’s legislation to the floor for a vote, the first time that this had happened after the two previous Senate votes. A month later, the Times noted the passage of the House bill, adding that 200 local disabled emergency officers were affected.

Watson, also a principal figure with the local American Legion and a Hollywood resident who lost his leg during the war was at Walter Reed Memorial Hospital in 1919 recovering from his injury when he became involved in the disabled emergency officer movement and he urged those eligible to file their applications as soon as Coolidge signed the legislation.

Times, 16 May 1928.

On 16 May, the Times published an editorial called “Victory in Sight” in which it declared

At last the Tyson-Fitzgerald bill . . . has emerged successfully from its long Congressional struggle for recognition . . . All that remains now to consummate this simple act of justice is the attachment to the bill of the President’s signature.

No one who knows the President’s sense of justice for all on equal terms and the suffering the long delay in receiving their deserts has inflicted on these—perhaps unintentionally—discriminated against heroes, need doubt for a moment the last act in the struggle will be as speedy as the preliminaries were protracted.

Adding that only something quite extraordinary would prevent the signing of the legislation in short order, the paper concluded that, if such was to happen, “the Representatives in Congress who fought for the bill can be relied upon too [sic] see that nothing so inopportune happens.”

But, it did, as Coolidge decided to veto the bill, arguing that it was discriminatory against enlisted soldiers and those officers whose injuries were under the 30% threshold, while also compensating officers by rank not disability. Despite this, Congress voted on 24 May to override the veto by totals of 245-101 in the House and 66-14 in the Senate.

That day, Representative Joe Crail, a Spanish-American War veteran and first-term member of the House from the 10th Congressional District, dispatched a simple telegram to DEOWW post commander Collings: “Tyson’s bill passed over the President’s veto. I voted ‘aye.'” Presumably, Evans, who succeeded Lineberger in representing the 9th District, and Swing, another veteran of the war and who was the 11th District representative, did so, as well, as they obviously would not have been invited to the Victory Banquet!

Buron Fitts, the toastmaster at the event and the state’s lieutenant governor in the administration of C.C. Young, was wounded at the Battle of Argonne Forest and had a notable limp. His political support included a major push for his various candidacies by the American Legion and his tenure as district attorney included prosecutions of theater mogul Alexander Pantages and his wife Lois, both covered here in this blog.

Fitts had his own trial in the mid-Thirties on charges of bribery and perjury, though he was acquitted and won a third term, serving through 1940, when he lost the election to John F. Dockweiler. Fitts returned to active military duty during World War II as a major in the Army Air Corps and was wounded in action. In later life, he practiced law and then retired to the Sierra Nevada Mountains where he died by suicide at age 78 in 1973.

This artifact, though it has no content about why the event was held, is an important one for the long fight of disabled emergency officers serving their country during the First World War to get the same financial benefits as regular Army officers and represents the ongoing battles veterans have always had and continue to have to secure proper support in peacetime for the sacrifices they made while in the service.

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