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World War I Veterans
Were Killed in Storm,
Victims of Neglect
April 2, 2007; Page B1

They were troubled souls -- misfits, roughnecks and roustabouts, many of them psychologically damaged and alcoholic. They were World War I veterans who couldn't find their place in American society. In 1934, in the depths of the Depression, the federal government shipped hundreds of them to isolated work camps in Florida, out of sight and, thus, out of the newspapers.

But the government inadvertently had sentenced many of these men, who had survived artillery shells, sniper fire and poison gas, to death in the Florida Keys.

The story of how some 260 World War I veterans were killed by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 is also a sorry tale of bureaucratic arrogance and bumbling -- part of a long and continuing series of controversies surrounding the treatment of soldiers by Washington once their duty is done.

In this case, the chain of responsibility for what Ernest Hemingway described as "manslaughter" began in Franklin Roosevelt's White House and extended to the Florida statehouse, the National Weather Bureau and administrators of the three island work camps.

The veterans' jobs, as part of a government relief program, were to help build an overseas highway that would connect the Keys to the mainland. They were paid $1 a day, plus food and housing -- flimsy shacks and tents without plumbing or electricity. And they were a handful of trouble. On payday, many were accused of drinking too much, swearing in public, picking fights and then passing out. Time magazine called the work camps "playgrounds for derelicts."

But for most of the 600 veterans who ended up in Keys work camps, there was little choice. "The intense, prolonged strain of combat had permanently altered their perception of the world and their place in it," wrote Willie Drye in "Storm of the Century." Some had been camped out in Washington, D.C., as part of the so-called Bonus Army's protest over delayed payments, and were driven out in 1932. "They got through the war all right," Julius Stone, a director of Florida's Emergency Relief Administration, told Congress. "But peace was too much for them."

The weather bureau knew a storm was brewing on Aug. 31, but its crude instruments and poor communication made the predictions confusing. The government was supposed to have a plan for evacuating the vets, but it had never been tried and officials were reluctant to order an evacuation until they were sure the storm would hit the Keys.

No one knew who was in charge -- federal or state officials. The Florida East Coast Railway was supposed to have a train ready to evacuate the vets at a moment's notice, but it took 2½ hours to get one moving out of Miami. Before the train reached the vets, it was swept off the tracks by one of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history.

In the camps, the men's shelters were blown away, as were most other buildings. Those who survived the flying debris were washed into the ocean by a massive tidal surge. Many bodies were never recovered. More than 160 permanent residents of the Keys also were killed.

Within a week, the federal and state governments and the American Legion had launched separate investigations. The finger-pointing began. Many people wanted to fix the blame on the Weather Bureau for its vague forecasts. But why hadn't camp officials, who had been told by some longtime Keys residents that the men were in danger, ordered a train earlier? Why had the director of Florida's work camps taken a two-hour lunch on Labor Day, during which he couldn't be reached? Whose idea was it to put jerry-built camps in low-lying areas during hurricane season?

Harry Hopkins, director of the Works Progress Administration, immediately sent a team to the Keys. "Washington bureaucrats may be mixing a viscous vat of whitewash," commented a Miami newspaper. As one of the investigators, John J. Abt, later wrote, "We were on a political mission to defend the administration against charges of negligence. The investigation took all of a day."

The report, based on interviews with 16 people, ended: "To our mind the catastrophe must be characterized as 'an act of God' and was by its very nature beyond the power of man ... to permit the taking of adequate precautions."

Investigators from the American Legion came to a different conclusion. The vets died because of the "inefficiency, indifference and ignorance" of camp administrators, they said.

Congressional hearings in 1936, headed by John Rankin, a Democrat loyal to President Roosevelt, were a charade. Over a period of six weeks, only carefully selected testimony and facts were admitted to the record, all supporting the contention that everyone in charge of the veterans had been blindsided by nature. "It just happened, that is all," Aubrey Williams, an assistant to Mr. Hopkins, testified to Congress. "It would be a gross miscarriage of justice to say anybody had failed."

But the surviving veterans weren't so sure. One of them, Justus Schadt, told a Veterans Administration investigator, "We thought we were working for the government, and the government ain't going to let us be blown to pieces."


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