Like most Americans, I was ignorant of the history of our involvement in WWI until a set of random events set me on the path to discovering an episode so shocking, so unbelievable, that it seemed at first to be fiction. But it is not. The events described below did happen, but have been forgotten by all but the locals of the area. On so many levels, this is wrong—not least because the events carry some very instructive lessons for us today.
They happened in Florida, where I was born and raised, not in some unpronounceable Belgian town. A group of desperate, destitute WWI veterans, the grimy face of a war that the country wanted to forget, changed the course of US history. They helped to bring down one President and damaged his successor. And yet, in America today, it’s as if none of it ever happened. Appalled by my ignorance, I wrote ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’ to dramatize the events. On this, the 80th anniversary, it seems like the right time to reflect on them, and what they mean for America today.
On Labor Day in 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, a hurricane more powerful than Katrina, with a storm surge greater than Superstorm Sandy, devastated the little town of Islamorada in the upper Matecumbe Keys. Most of the locals lost their lives, along with hundreds of displaced veterans who were there only because of a government construction project. This unnamed storm still holds the record as the most powerful ever to strike North America.
How these men came to be in the Keys, unprotected in the path of a monster storm, says a lot about the treatment of veterans then—and now. The way they lived, and the way they died, deserve to be better known.
Many WWI veterans slid into destitution after their return home from the war. Today we would recognise the symptoms of PTSD, but in 1918 they were simply left to resume normal civilian life, with no resettlement assistance, no jobs, and no housing. Alcoholism was rife, as were serious psychological problems. Shunned by the society that they had helped to safeguard, they drifted on the backwash of the war. Things worsened still during the Great Depression.
In 1932, 15,000 hard-up veterans marched on Washington to demand early payment of a bonus that they had been promised by the government back in the good times of 1924. The ‘Bonus Army’ march descended into violence and chaos in the center of Washington when President Hoover despatched troops to break up the disturbance (including cavalry commanded by a young Major named Patton). The resulting public outrage contributed to the demise of his administration. The incoming President Roosevelt—stripped of funds by the Depression and keen to avoid another scandal—offered the veterans work on a host of New Deal projects, including hard labor building a road in the Florida Keys.
It’s easy to see why so many jumped at the opportunity for paid work in the sunshine. With no experience of the tropics, they were unprepared for the heat, the mosquitoes—or the weather. Through a combination of indifference and incompetence, the veterans were left unprotected in the storm’s path. All authorities agree that they could have been evacuated. There was time…but no will. And so they died in their hundreds, along with the locals of Islamorada. Ernest Hemingway, a first responder on the scene, wrote a scathing critique, Who Murdered the Vets?’ (New Masses Sept 17, 1935), which effectively accused the Roosevelt administration of manslaughter. Once again, nationwide public anger, and the bungled investigation which followed, damaged the government all the way to the top.
Things have improved since 1935, are improving still, yet there are compelling reasons to remember and learn from these events. Even with all the modern hurricane-tracking technology available today, it has been only 10 years since Katrina pounded the life out of one of our major cities. The last big hurricane to strike Florida was Charley in 2004. Many people have forgotten it already and have a fairly relaxed attitude to hurricane preparedness—much to the anxiety of the meteorological community—because they simply have no idea of how bad it can get. And we are overdue for another big one.
The treatment of damaged veterans has arguably seen less progress than meteorology. Society still struggles to cope with them, to heal their physical and psychological wounds, to reintegrate them into civilian life. Despite increased awareness of PTSD, every day in America approximately 22 former service personnel commit suicide. With mixed public support for the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, it’s even more important to support those who serve, when they return to face a different kind of battle.
As the world commemorates the centenary of WWI and the last of its veterans pass away, it seems that the least we can do for the victims of the Labor Day hurricane and their families is mark that hot September day in 1935, when a town was changed forever and so many lives were destroyed. We can learn the hard lessons of history, and try to do better.
And we can remember.