A Dangerous Mix
While numerous celebrations and honors greeted the returning veterans, there was also a troubling aspect to the situation. Thousands of workers had flocked to Portland during the war to work in the booming shipyards and factories. With the end of the war, many of these employers either closed or curtailed their operations, causing a spike in unemployment. At the same time, veterans were streaming home, in need of jobs and with high expectations. The result was a dangerous social mix.
A committee of Portland leaders "became cognizant of the serious spirit of unrest and lack of employment prevalent among exservice [sic] men during the Christmas period of 1918 and 1919. This situation naturally had not yet been experienced in the more remote parts of the state but was being acutely felt in Portland, due no doubt to the intermingling of a large number of industrial workers thrown out of employment by the closing of the shipyards with exservice [sic] people who were being very rapidly discharged from various services practically without funds."
Veterans Face Tough Conditions
Officials had good cause to be worried. Many of the returning men had been processed stateside through large military training camps, some of which were suffering more than 100 deaths a day from the influenza epidemic. Moreover, in the first months after the end of the war, the Army had a practice of releasing men furnished with the "oldest and poorest outfits possible." Discharged in winter, their shoes were in bad condition and many were not given overcoats. Some units were sent off "with but a few dollars per man" leaving many men without enough money to pay for a week of room and board. While on the eve of the signing of the Armistice, the sight of a uniform "had excited the wildest of demonstrations," later "these manifestations on the part of the public had cooled and many of the men, half sick, finding themselves thrown in on this rather apathetic public, were in the frame of mind where the weird and unreasonable teachings of the I.W.W. [Industrial Workers of the World] found ready lodgement."
The situation was complicated by the fact that many returning soldiers had been psychologically and emotionally traumatized by the horrors of trench warfare. The worst, those with "shell shock" and other debilitating conditions, were sent to hospitals for treatment. But other veterans with less severe symptoms returned to a civilian community that didn't understand their suffering. Often, veterans would put on a brave face in an attempt to mask the pain. But over time the results for many included emotional dislocation, violent outbursts, and estrangement from families and the community, leading to more drifting, unemployed men.
Government Leaders Respond
The Federal Employment Service tried to respond to the crisis by setting up a department for placing veterans, but the closing of shipyards and war industries hit harder than expected. City leaders saw "a great number of disabled exservice [sic] people congregating in Portland without means and without work." The increasingly disillusioned men were sometimes greeted by "a gret [great] number of I.W.W.s and other radical elements who were openly and viciously preaching the overthrow of the U.S. Government." One report claimed the I.W.W started to win over the broke and out of work veterans by offering them food and clothing: "'Well come along with us. Our organization will be very glad to give you a meal or two until you get back on your feet and we will buy you a suit of clothes.'"
"Owing to the existing serious condition arising from demobilization," the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 43, which took effect in mid-January 1919. It created the Soldiers' and Sailors' Commission to provide care and financial assistance to veterans and allocated $100,000 to fund it. The goal was to keep those returning from the armed forces out of trouble until they could find a job, at which time they would presumably become stable citizens less susceptible to radicalism.
The commission cooperated with the federal Department of Labor, American Legion, and other organizations to operate employment bureaus, often partially funded by the commission. One bureau, the Liberty Temple in Portland, found 28,721 jobs for veterans during its 16 month run. The commission also funded employment bureaus in Astoria, Eugene, Marshfield, La Grande, Medford, Pendleton, and Salem.
Drumming Up More Jobs
But having employment bureaus wasn't enough if there were no jobs. So, the commission resolved to drum up more jobs for the veterans too. In cooperation with the Portland Chamber of Commerce, it launched a publicity campaign "to reach every employer who might be induced to add to his payroll...." Employers, especially in the timber industry, responded. Many others signed a pledge to hire 10% additional workers to help the unemployed veterans.
The commission cast a wide net in searching for jobs, sometimes placing veterans in far off and unfamiliar environments. One enterprise that cooperated with the Soldiers' and Sailors' Commission was the Cornucopia Mines Company in the remote Wallowa Mountains near the Idaho border. Its representative sent the following letter to the commission:
Less than a month later, the company, which recruited veterans from as far away as New York City, had a change of heart. In a letter to the commission, it cited an improved labor situation but also hinted at problems with the Portland men it recruited, saying that since "...a number of men who have come from Portland object to being so far from the cities and do not care to stay any length of time it would seem advisable to discontinue the sending of men here...."
(Soldiers and Sailors Commission Records, Earl Snyder loan payment case file, 1925. See excerpt (PDF) of commission traking report detailing Snyder's lack of progress.)
A Frugal Commission
Overall, the commission was satisfied with the results of its employment efforts for veterans and "felt itself justified in closing all labor agencies on April 24, 1920...." But its work in other areas of support for returning veterans continued for several years. Much of that work focused on financial aid, mostly in the form of loans for living expenses and education. The commission carefully tracked the use of the money it lent to veterans. And, it was stringent about the qualifications of those who applied. Merle Saxe, a senior at Oregon Agricultural College, found this out when he applied for $200 to finish his college studies. The commission questioned his claimed earnings of $40 per month as too low and it wondered why he didn't sell his Ford automobile to help pay for his expenses. In the end, it rejected his application. View part of his application case file. (PDF)
The commission also spent considerable effort in attempting to collect on long overdue loans. Many of the veterans wrote back with excuses and tales of woe. But after initial assurances of payment "in the near future," others, such as Frank Crawford of McMinnville, simply failed to respond to the increasingly urgent requests for payment of the $50 he owed for nearly five years. In his case, the commission was reduced to asking the question: "How about being patriotic and sending a small remittance to apply on the above [balance due]?" The commission continued on as a legal entity until 1936 when Governor Charles Martin abolished it.
(Soldiers and Sailors Commission Records, Department Correspondence, Box 2, American Red Cross Folder; Cornucopia Mines file; Saxe: 75A-115, Case Files; Crawford: 75A-115, Case Files; Oregon Laws 1919, Ch. 3)
Next: Easing the Shift to Civilian Life >