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When Hemingway Took the Government to Task for a Hurricane Disaster that Cost Hundreds of Lives

On September 2, 1935 what became known as the Great Labor Day Hurricane ravaged the Florida Keys with winds of 160 miles per hour and gusts up to 200 miles per hour.

Soon after the clouds had cleared, leaving a crystal blue horizon, the dead were counted. Between 400 and 600 people perished. What made this storm all the more tragic was that among the dead were 265 World War I veterans. At the height of the Great Depression these veterans had been sent to build a road on the low lying islands of the Florida Keys as a part of the Public Works for Veterans programs. While working, they were housed in inadequate tent-like structures provided by the Roosevelt administration. When the National Weather Bureau issued warnings for a hurricane they were not evacuated.

Shortly after the natural disaster had occurred, writer Ernest Hemingway was contacted by the editors of New Masses to write an account of the storm from an insider's perspective. Hemingway's response was the article, "Who Murdered the Vets?: A First-Hand Report on the Florida Hurricane," published September 17, 1935, just weeks after the event. Although billed as a personal account, in reality it was an outraged demand for accountability for the needless death of the veterans.

A hostile tone was established within the first few lines. "Whom did they annoy and to whom was their possible presences a political danger?" Hemingway asked. "Who sent them down to the Florida Keys and left them there in hurricane months?"

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.

Hemingway continued by pointing out that the men in charge certainly knew the possible consequences of being in Florida during hurricane season, let alone in insufficient shelter.

The writer of this article lives a long way from Washington and would not know the answers to those questions. But he does know that wealthy people, yachtsmen, fishermen such as President Hoover and Presidents Roosevelt, do not come to the Florida Keys in hurricane months.... There is a known danger to property. But veterans, especially the bonus-marching variety of veterans, are not property. They are only human beings; unsuccessful human beings, and all they have to lose is their lives. They are doing coolie labor for a top wage of $45 a month and they have been put down on the Florida Keys where they can't make trouble. It is hurricane months, sure, but if anything comes up, you can always evacuate them, can't you?

By making these statements Hemingway was not only making an argument that the government was ineffectual; he was also stating that class distinctions had played a major role in the disaster. Not only had the government failed to save its veterans, officials had felt the veterans were disposable. Hemingway went on to illustrate the experience common to most Floridians preparing for a coming hurricane in a pre NOAA, pre Weather Channel era. His account reinforced to non-coastal readers the reality of hurricanes with which coastal residents were familiar.

Hemingway's anger at what happened was palpable on every page:

It is not necessary to go into the deaths of the civilians and their families since they were on the Keys of their own free will; They made their living there, had property and knew the hazards involved. But the veterans had been sent there; they had no opportunity to leave, nor any protection against hurricanes; and they never had a chance for their lives. Who sent nearly a thousand war veterans, many of them husky, hard-working and simply out of luck, but many of them close to the border of pathological cases, to live in frame shacks on the Florida Keys in hurricane months?

After making the argument that the veterans had no business being sent to build a road on a narrow low-lying island during hurricane season, Hemingway turned to the aftermath of the storm.

The railroad embankment was gone and the men who had cowered behind it and finally, when the water came, clung to the rails, were all gone with it. You could find them face down and face up in the mangroves. The biggest bunch of the dead were in the tangled, always green but now brown, mangroves behind the tanks cars and the water towers. They hung on there, in shelter, until the wind and the rising water carried them away.

Hemingway's ability to ask questions while simultaneously and subtly pointing fingers throughout the article stimulated public discussion. Though Hemingway later refused to admit that he had purposely written the article to instigate political change, his account helped stimulate vigorous debate. The article in particular drew attention to the issue of class, raising awareness of inequities between the upper and lower classes.

Hemingway ended "Who Murdered the Vets?" with the final questions, "Who left you there? And what's the punishment for manslaughter now?" The first question was officially answered privately behind the closed doors of politicians. The second went unanswered. No person was ever formally charged with the neglect of the veterans. But one result of the tragedy was that the public began to demand that in the future government leaders had to be careful not to be careless with other peoples' lives.