top of page
The History
1935 Labor Day Hurricane

The Labor Day storm was a category 5 hurricane that killed 408 people in the Florida Keys. People caught in the open were blasted by sand with such force that it stripped away their clothing.

The storm destroyed Henry Flagler's railroad that connected Key West to the mainland and is said to have cleared every tree and every building off Matecumbe Key.

Those who perished in the storm included 259 World War I veterans living in three Civilian Conservation Corps camps while they worked constructing the Overseas Highway. A train sent to rescue them from the storm arrived too late and many died on board when it was swept off its track by the storm surge.

Author Ernest Hemingway visited the Keys after the storm and wrote a scathing magazine article critical of those rescue efforts titled, "Who Killed the Vets?"

World War I - Florida

When the United States entered World War I (1914-1918) on April 6, 1917, Florida was a sparsely populated state, with only 925,641 inhabitants. Florida’s abundance of open, arable land and year-round warm climate made the state an ideal location for military training, technological development and increased agricultural resource production.

Thousands of Floridians joined the millions of other Americans heeding President Woodrow Wilson’s call to make the world “safe for democracy.” Although the United States was involved in the global conflict for only 19 months, the war still impacted the social, economic and environmental conditions of Florida. Of the 4 million American men and women who joined the armed services between 1917 and 1918, 42,030 were Floridians.

The Great Depression in Florida

Florida's economic bubble burst in 1926, when money and credit ran out, and banks and investors abruptly stopped trusting the "paper" millionaires. Severe hurricanes swept through the state in 1926 and 1928, further damaging Florida's economy.

By the time the Great Depression began in the rest of the nation in 1929, Floridians had already become accustomed to economic hardship.

In 1929 the Mediterranean fruit fly invaded the state, and the citrus industry suffered. A quarantine was established, and troops set up roadblocks and checkpoints to search vehicles for any contraband citrus fruit. Florida's citrus production was cut by about sixty percent.

State government began to represent a larger proportion of its citizens. Female citizens won the right to vote in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law. In 1937, the requirement that voters pay a "poll tax" was repealed, allowing poor African American and white Floridians to have a greater voice in government. In 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed a system of all-white primary elections that had limited the right of African Americans to vote.

The Bonus Army

The men who had either volunteered or been drafted into the American Expeditionary Forces in Woodrow Wilson's "War to End All Wars" had received considerably less compensation for their heroic service than the war industry workers on the home front. In response, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act in 1924 to provide veterans with a "bonus" based on their service records.

There was only one catch—the bonus certificates, deridingly nicknamed the "Tombstone Bonus," would only mature and be redeemable in full on each veteran's birthday in 1945. When tens of thousands of veterans lost their jobs and were evicted from their farms and homes as the Great Depression dragged on, many signed petitions pressing for an early payment of the bonuses.

Dubbed the "Bonus Army" by the press, many thousands of ex-servicemen from across the nation—some accompanied by their families—joined the Bonus Expeditionary Forces, hopped trains, hitchhiked, and followed the caravans descending on Washington. Arriving in Washington, D.C., in July 1932, the veterans camped out on the grounds of the Capitol building. As their ranks swelled into the tens of thousands, they established their makeshift camp.

While working in the Florida Keys, the Bonus Army veterans were housed in inadequate tent-like structures. When the National Weather Bureau issued warnings for a hurricane they were not evacuated. Ernest Hemingway presented the veterans not merely as murdered but almost as though they had been assassinated for someone's personal political gain or simply that they were disposed of as an unnecessary burden to the public after courageously serving their country. 

bottom of page