by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we observe this Veterans Day and thank all of those who have served their country in the military, we revisit the rather remarkable Sydney R. Flowers, who was highlighted in a post three years ago after he was subjected to two trials and faced a third, before jumping bail and fleeing Los Angeles, on a charge of criminal syndicalism because of some of the contents of his fledgling veterans monthly magazine, The Dugout. As that post noted, Flowers went through a federal trial and then a county proceeding, both with hung juries, and faced a second local trial when he left, but he later returned with his wife and son and lived quietly until his death in 1950.
The Flowers saga was complicated and involved his left-wing politics running afoul of a postwar “Red Scare” environment in which his views, otherwise to be accounted as protected free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution (this, for example, is why the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] was formed in 1920), were considered criminal. For this post, we look at, from the Homestead’s collection, a portion of the first issue of The Dugout, which appeared in April 1919 and was named after the trench shelters that became widely known during the late war, within a half-year of the end of the conflict, and we will revisit more contents of the magazine in future Veterans Day posts.
The journal was published by the War Veterans Publishing Company with Flowers, who had an advertising background, as editor. He also was somewhat involved in the film industry and was able to tap into connections for some advertising. The magazine had the general motto as “The Voice of the Veterans” and also noted that it was “By Veterans, For Veterans, To be of Benefit Materially, Physically, and Financially.” Flowers noted that “will be pleased to consider Short Stories, Novelettes, and all articles dealing with problems of Reconstruction, also matter dealing with legitimate grievances of ex-service men and their dependents.” While “Reconstruction” usually means the post-Civil War era, it is clear that the post-World War I period was thought of along the same lines by the editor.
In an editorial on “Our Policy,” Flowers stated that the magazine was formed “to stand back of and support all organizations of returned soldiers throughout the country” and to that end, it “wishes to learn of any legitimate grievances of any soldier, or sailor, or their dependents” so that their causes could be taken up properly. He added that the magazine was non-partisan but “will at all times be ready to further the cause of the fighting man” in anything that would improve his situation. It was also declared that The Dugout would “stand against sedition” and “counteract Bolshevism,” this latter returning to the recent Communist takeover of Russia.
Moreover, the publication “will stand at all times for freedom of speech” and would engage on “all subjects that it deems will be of interest to its readers,” including positive and negative reactions. While it would provide free advertising to any enterprise “in which honorably discharged men from any of the Allied Armies,” Flowers having fought for the Canadian Army after being nabbed for theft in Los Angeles in 1915 and having been wounded and gassed on the battlefield during the war, “may be engaged.”
Tapping into rising anger about the inability of veterans to readjust to civilian society, especially when it came to employment, the editorial continued that
It is the friend of any friend of the soldier or sailor, it will throw down the gauntlet of publicity to any party, sect, organization, or power that in any manner seeks to disparage or hinder the cause of the fighting man . . . Whenever necessary it will justly criticize all employers everywhere who failed to live up to their promises to take back their former employees; men that left their service at the call of their country, and now that their duty is completed. return again to take up the threads of their lives where they had left them.
Flowers then contributed “The Returned Soldier Question,” which started with what he stated occurred in April 1918 on the battlefield at Kemmel Hill in the Flanders region of Belgium as a Private Samuel Bundy “flattened his big frame into the mud . . . to resist the shower of clods and mud thrown by [a] bursting shell that he was almost certain had his name and number inscribed in German script upon it” and then exclaimed, “Gee! if I ever get out of this alive, the whole universe can’t hand me a sufficient jolt to make me squeal—damned if it can!”
Writing with intensely descriptive language of machine gun fire, the mud and smoke, dismembered bodies of soldiers and other aspects of the horrors of battle, Flowers added that, like based on his own wartime experiences, Bundy, “from the chaotic jumble of his mind a tentacle reached out into the ether, registered, and conveyed an alarm that shocked his scattered faculties into the sanity of quick action; and as the fear sweat broke afresh from his tortured body, his nerves responded to his brain warning and with a bound like a startled dog as he flattened behind a shattered log just as the shell struck.”
This visceral scene was then contrasted with Bundy’s April 1919 situation as “with a cheerful smile on his face and the remainder of this $60 grant in the pocket of his tunic,” he walked three miles to a train station from the camp from which he was demobilized. After crying out, “Gee! but it’s sure good to get back” and startling a passerby, Bundy settled in on the train and reflected on his return to civilian life, but also noted that there were other soldiers “like himself with no particular place to go to.” Yet, when the train came to his stop and he saw some of his fellows reuniting with family, Bundy again uttered his feeling about being home, “ready and eager to embrace the opportunities of civilian life, and to take his place again in the beehive of industry.
The tale then turned to the harsh reality awaiting the veteran as he confronted a return to work only to be told “sorry, old man, we can’t do anything for you, but, you see, work has been so slack, and we have lost so much money that we really can’t take you back . . .” Yet, Bundy noted that a woman sat at his old desk and several men who did not fight in the war had their jobs in addition to seeing new work stations, as he reminded his boss of the promise made to hold his position for him upon his return. Under his breath, he said “there’s something darned rotten about this system” as he left.
As for his employer, Johnson, he was described as “one of those portly, sleek individuals that mouthed patriotism” and promised to “keep the places open for all the brave boys who have left our employ and have gone forth to fight for those splendid principles that are the very foundation of our beloved country—’Liberty and Democracy.'” Yet, the story continued, Johnson turned out to be more interested in having “cheaper labor” than the plight of the “returned rejected” soldier.
The following day, Bundy met up with old friends and business associates and, while he was “received by much handshaking and back-patting,” there was no work to be found and he was resentful of “those able-bodied makes whose pedal extremities were so cold that it prohibited them from ever experiencing anything more exciting than an occasional shot at a dummy duck with a toy popgun.” When he met fellow veterans, he “was not surprised to learn that their experiences were similar to his own.” One suggested their only way to get a job was to “beat up some of these ‘conscientious objectors,” and work on a prison rock pile, while another lamented that he only had $3 left of his “Government grub-stake.”
Flowers then added,
The Government Replacement Bureau, in spite of its well-meaning efforts, could not cope with the sudden demand for employment, at least in a community whose most noticeable characteristic had been the enthusiasm with which the boys had been sent away, and was only excelled by the lack of enthusiasm and assistance rendered them upon their return.
This may have been a dig at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Replacement Bureau, with which Flowers was involved before becoming disenchanted with how the powerful Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association used returning vets as strikebreakers in “open shop” (non-union) Los Angeles. Bundy’s stress increased as he reflected that there was “room rent to pay, and two bucks left to eat on—a fellow was a darned sight better off in the Army—at least he got three ‘squares’ [meals] a day.” After a fellow soldier advised that it was pointless to remain at the bureau hoping against hope for a job, Bundy kicked the floor with a “disgust in which there intermingled an alien undercurrent of revolt” against the conditions he experienced.
After a meagre dinner of doughnuts and coffee, Bundy reflected on being back on the front lines of the war, where “in spite of the every present spectre of death” there was “more of hearty cheer, of true comradeship” than at home. On his return, instead, he felt, “it seemed the people had quite lost sight of the fact that they [veterans] were human beings, and in the hide-bound selfishness were content to putter along, patting themselves on the back because they had grudgingly purchased a Liberty Bond of a few W.S. [War Savings] Stamps.”
Bundy wondered whether his fellow Americans would do well to see what Europeans went through in four years of sacrifice of “blood and treasure” and who “had seared marks of indelible suffering on their poor faces,” but who possessed “more love and respect for their friends who had aided them” through military service “than had been shown by many of their friends to whom they had returned.” These ruminations brought the brooding Bundy to a strange, new mental domain, “a state in which bitterness had begun to supplant reason, and clear vision was being fogged by the miasma and misunderstanding and disappointment.”
As the veteran continued his odyssey in search of work, “the low rumble of discontent became louder and the inevitable ‘hot-heads’ began to voice their opinion in no uncertain terms.” Moreover, Bundy began to hear that “ominous mutterings came from even the saner class who could visualize better the intolerable conditions that confronted the returned men; conditions that had already brought some of them to the verge of starvation, dependant [sic] upon charity for the bare necessaries to ‘carry on.'” He recalled that hard time before the war “bred discontent and revolt,” but now there was “a rapidly waning patriotism and grasping selfishness on the part of some employers,” like Johnson, who reneged on their commitment.
While Bundy pondered the false promises of business owners, he also recalled that “unwise legislation had closed many sources of employment” and “another extreme was the radical element . . . whose insidious propaganda had caused vast uneasiness . . . and uncertainty and irritation upon the business world.” Beyond this, he felt, politicians were not doing their part “and already their ranks had been swelled by disgruntled soldiers, whose misfortunes had blinded their true perspective.”
With these reflections, this first part of Flowers’ editorial concluded with the observation that
sad to relate, the first germs were injected into [Bundy’s] system with hardly a resistant kick, and the virus obtained loyal support from the poison of discontent in his body, and left poor Bundy in a frame of mind diametrically opposite to that which had driven him forth as a crusader to wage a fight against an autocracy, for a democracy which, he bitterly told himself, contained as little liberty of the subject as the erstwhile empire he had helped to smash [during the war].
While this tale continued with the May issue, which the Homestead collection doesn’t have, it only possessing this inaugural number, it is clear what Flowers was aiming at, when this essay is coupled with the policy statement for The Dugout. That is, the plight of returning veterans in finding work was sowing seeds of anger and breeding bitterness that he and his magazine intended to address, whatever the outcome may have been expected to be.
In fact, when the May edition was published, it generated an immediate legal rejoinder as officials from the War Department (later the Department of Defense), Los Angeles Police Department, and the League of Community Interest, a group of prominent Angelenos organized earlier in the year to check Bolshevism among the unemployed, went to the offices of The Dugout and warned Flowers and Circulation Manager Capt. Allan Watt about the cover image which showed veterans pushed off a cliff by bayonets marked “broken promises” and “underhanded methods.”
A police officer with a department “war squad” then delivered a copy of the periodical to a special agent of the Justice Department, who initiated an investigation, while the officer also told the Los Angeles Times that “the war squad had to order The Dugout publishers to call in a number of men in uniform who were soliciting for the magazine.” The representative from the League of Community Interest denounced the journal as “a profiteering enterprise” and the War Department official declared that, if there was no city ordinance that could be used against the publishers, the federal Justice and War departments could act. It was stated that one of The Dugout staff was amenable to removing the cover image, while the other wanted to think it over for a day—which was Watt and which Flowers was not specified.
The aforementioned post on Flowers picks up much of the story from there, including the protracted legal battles that ensued, but we’ll look to return in future Veterans Days with more content from this very rare magazine.