Detail from the cover of 'Thirteen Seconds.' The iconic photo was splashed across U.S. newspapers after four students were killed by National Guard members at a protest on campus in 1970.
Writer Philip Caputo returns to Kent State, 35 years after he covered the shootings there as a young Chicago Tribune reporter. His new book, Thirteen Seconds, searches for meaning in the violence.
See interviews from the film, '13 Seconds: The Day the War Came Home.' A DVD of the documentary accompanies Caputo's book.
© 2005 Partners in Motion
Read an Excerpt
Driving I-76 through Akron, in the heart of the heart of the Midwestern rust belt, I am trying to remember which route I followed from the Cleveland airport nearly thirty-five years ago. It isn't important, but I want to withdraw even the small details from the vault of memory. I don't recall taking an Interstate – I'm fairly sure there was none linking Cleveland and Akron back then. My recollection is of a two-lane blacktop bending through the Ohio countryside, past barns and farmhouses and plowed fields and dogwoods sprouting white blossoms in the soft light of early May.
The exit signs read: KENT - RAVENNA - KENT STATE UNIVERSITY. I turn off to drive north on Route 43, which could be the highway I took in 1970, but from the opposite direction. There are no dogwood blossoms today. It's late October, the trees blaze like fireworks. The countryside has changed, is indeed no longer countryside. Most of the barns and farmhouses have been razed, subdivisions grow where corn once did; fast-food franchises, car dealerships, shopping malls, muffler and brake shops sprawl across former pastures. For all practical purposes, once-rural Kent now belongs to exurbia, the "urb" being gritty Akron, ten or fifteen miles away.
The car radio crackles with news of the 2004 Presidential race. The campaign is in its final, frantic week, and the two candidates are storming Ohio – a "key battleground state" in media shorthand. President Bush will be speaking in the Cleveland suburbs and in Dayton, challenger John Kerry is in Toledo before heading on to a rally that will be led off by The Boss, Bruce Springsteen. I cannot help but think of the news that Monday in May, the bulletins that interrupted regular programing. That was how I'd heard about it, on the car radio, and I remember stepping on the gas, racing down the two-lane blacktop toward the campus where the Ohio National Guard had opened fire on a crowd of student demonstrators.
Like the countryside, the campus has changed dramatically. It is bigger, with more buildings and more roads. Blue-and-white signs direct visitors to the North, South and East campuses. I am not sure which one to go to, until I spot a sign that says "May 4 Memorial," with an arrow pointing to the right. There is another farther on, then no more and I am soon lost. Parking near the Ice Arena, a low, almost windowless building of pale brown brick, I check a campus map in a glassed-in box on the corner. The key alongside the map informs me that the memorial is near Taylor and Prentice Halls, some distance from the Ice Arena.
Taylor Hall – that flips a switch in my memory. I return to my car, stepping over the words "Celebrate Responsibly" painted on the sidewalk at regular intervals. I assume this is an admonition not to get drunk and rowdy after a hockey game, but it may mean something else.
At any rate, the students appear admirably sober and responsible on this fair autumn morning as they stroll to and from their classes in baggy clothes, backpacks stuffed full of books. A security guard directs me to a visitor's parking lot. I get out, walk up a dirt path, and see Taylor Hall, an imposing concrete structure atop a hill. It was one of the newer buildings on campus in 1970; now it has attained venerable status, though its architecture – nondescript, 20th-century modern – belies that description. It still looks new.
The hill slopes down in a sweep of green to a green field. That must be the practice field where the Guardsmen knelt and fired with their World War II M-1 rifles. It is quite peaceful today, empty, banal. Below, I spot what appears to be a marker, walk to it, and discover that it's merely a piece of sculpture. Somewhat frustrated, I climb back up and ask a student, "Is the memorial around here?"
"Right over there," he says, pointing at a clump of trees.
It is unobtrusive to say the least, almost covert, hidden under a grove of oaks and maples: a marble tablet set in the ground near some marble slabs that, I guess, serve as benches. The sole decorations are a few artificial flowers bound with pink and purple ribbon, a foil pinwheel that turns lazily in the breeze, the blades silver on one side, painted with the stars and stripes on the other. Its modesty seems deliberate, as if it commemorated a dark secret, like the gravestone of a relative who shamed the family. The tablet is covered with dead leaves, which I brush off to read the chiseled legend:
IN LOVING MEMORY
For all its uninspiring nature, it is a kind of war memorial, honoring the casualties of the day when the Vietnam War came home.
There are four other markers in the Prentice Hall parking lot near Taylor Hall, one each for the dead. I have a vivid memory of the parking lot, stained with their blood and the blood of the wounded, and I carry it with me as I leave the campus and drive through Kent, its business district, like most in American small towns, half-ghost-town, half-museum, vitality sucked out by WalMarts and Home Depots, then head down Route 43 for the Interstate, my brain reeling back in time while the car rolls forward.
In the spring of 1970, I was a 28-year-old general assignment reporter for the Chicago Tribune, three years out of the United States Marine Corps, with which I had served a tour of duty in Vietnam. In March, the paper had sent me to cover a student protest at the University of Illinois in downstate Champaign-Urbana. The campus demonstration had become a fixture of American college life, replacing the pep-rally and the panty-raid. Compared with those that had occurred in previous years at such incubators of anti-war rage as the University of Chicago, the University of Wisconsin, Columbia and Berkeley, the one at U. of I. was fairly tame. A leftist student group calling itself the Radical Union staged a sit-in to protest military recruitment on campus as well as recruitment by corporations with ties to the defense industry, most notably General Electric. The demonstrators were also expressing their disagreement with a decision by university authorities to bar William Kunstler, the celebrity lawyer who'd defended the "Chicago Seven" after the Democratic Convention riots in Chicago in 1968, from speaking at the school.
On March 2, some eight hundred students ranged through the campus, breaking windows in the armory and the electrical engineering building, and then proceeded to the business district of Champaign-Urbana, where more windows were sacrificed to the cause. On a scale of one to ten, damages rated about a three: $15,000 to $20,000. Richard Ogilvie, Illinois' governor at the time, ordered National Guard units on standby, state police were called in to assist the campus and city law enforcement departments. A curfew was imposed.
Over the next two days, two to three hundred members of the Radical Union and their followers occupied the third and fourth floors of the Student Union building, where the corporate recruiters had been extolling the virtues of their companies to prospective graduates. National Guardsmen were then summoned to the campus, while state troopers cleared the floors of protestors, who marched out peaceably to chants of "Power to the people," though a few took a moment to kick the doors of the rooms in which the recruiters had barricaded themselves. There was a night-time demo at the armory and in front of the home of David Henry, the University president. Police arrested a hundred and forty seven people, all but two for curfew violations, and University chancellor Jack Pelatson later announced the suspensions of nine students.
That was pretty much it. By March 5, the whole thing was over and I returned to Chicago to cover the city's routine mayhem – murders, fires, battles between and among street gangs with names like Blackstone Rangers, Vice Lords, Latin Kings.
The life of a news reporter in a city like Chicago did not, and I'm sure still doesn't meet even an elastic definition of normal; but in those years, almost no one's life in America was normal, however it might have appeared to be so on the surface. That some people today manifest a nostalgia for the Sixties ( which actually covered the last half of that decade and the first of the next) amazes me. It was a dreadful time. American society had come to resemble a shattered mirror still in its frame, the fissures between hawk and dove, left and right, old and young, black and white threatening to widen until the pieces fell out and broke into bits. The worst year was 1968: the Tet Offensive, one hundred thousand U.S. casualties in those twelve months; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the convention riots in Chicago, which had been rocked just months earlier by the race riots set off by King's death, with half the west side destroyed in orgies of arson and looting, accompanied by gunfire.
I had some direct contact with both events. During the racial upheaval, I had to speed down the Eisenhower Expressway through the west side's smoke to deliver my sister from her city apartment to our parents' house in the suburbs. Six months later, when the Democratic convention came to Chicago, I was living in a third floor walk-up not far from Lincoln Park, marshaling grounds for the anti-war legions composed of Abbie Hoffman's Yippies and the more clean-cut but more militant Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. There was dissension and anger inside the convention hall. Mayor Richard J. Daley, his broad, red, meaty face the face of the city that was hog-butcher to the world, rose up to curse the elegant Senator Abraham Ribicoff, who in his speech had condemned the actions of the Chicago Police, which the Kerner Commission would later describe as a "police riot." Outside, the situation approached anarchy – mobs of cheering, jeering, window-smashing protestors, club-wielding cops bloodying skulls while National Guardsmen lobbed tear gas grenades, the whole wild scene illuminated by the stroboscopic pulses of squad car and ambulance lights.
I had been with the Tribune for three months, assigned to the suburbs to learn my craft. Coming home from my placid beat in the sticks, I parked near my apartment in a no-parking zone and propped my press card on the dashboard to avoid getting a ticket – though the police were far too busy cracking heads to bother with such trivialities. This press card was about a foot long and several inches high with white letters on a blue background that read: "Cook County Sheriff" at the top and below that, "Press."
The apartment was not air-conditioned, and I had left the windows open – Chicago in August can feel like Saigon – so the whole place stunk of tear gas. As I was closing one of the front windows, a band of militants, wearing motorcycle helmets and armed with baseball bats, came running down Sedgewick street. The words "Cook Country Sheriff" on the press card behind my car's windshield must have caught their eye. One yelled "Pig car! Pig car!" and smashed both headlights with his club. Before I had a chance to react, he and his friends fled, pursued by a squad of Chicago's finest, whose motto was "We Serve and Protect." Because the media, in editorials and commentaries, had sharply criticized them, the cops hated reporters almost as much as they hated the demonstrators. Running past my Triumph Spitfire, one of the servant-protectors also noticed the card, but I assume the word that caught his eye was "Press." He spun around, cracked my windshield with his night-stick, then resumed pursuit of the protestors.
A police riot, sure enough.
I mention this minor incident to give some idea of what those times were like. Cops had become vandals, the forces of disorder and those of order had fused, things were spinning out of control. And the engine driving the centrifuge was the war. You could not escape it. It was on the TV news every night, on the radio, in the headlines, on people's lips and in their minds. Foremost, it was on the minds of every male under the age of twenty-six. With an unlucky number drawn in the random lottery of the draft, you could be sent to the other side of the world to kill or be killed (or maimed or driven insane) in a war that only the deluded believed to be anything but senseless and unwinnable. Richard Nixon, that glowering man with the soul of Lear, a man fully capable of causing or suffering a tragedy - and he did both – had won the 1968 presidential race. He proclaimed himself the leader of and spokesman for what he called the "Silent Majority," and had pledged to extricate the U.S. from the Asian quagmire.
Almost two years later, we were still there. True, American troops were being withdrawn, "Vietnamization," i.e. turning the war over to the South Vietnamese, was in progress, but the bombs continued to fall, the body bags were still coming home, if in diminishing numbers, and the draft continued to pluck young men out of small towns, neighborhoods and farms. The American people were fed up with the war, but most – that Silent Majority – were willing to give Nixon the benefit of the doubt and a chance to work things out. Meanwhile, America's noisy minority had gotten noisier and nastier. At their fringes – or was it their leading edges? – the civil rights and anti-war movements had embraced a cult of violence. On the civil rights front, the hymn-singing Freedom Riders of the early sixties had given way to the Black Panthers and other militant groups who weren't the hymn-singing type. On the anti-war front, there had been an evolution from the candlelit peace marches of earlier years to the sort of riot that had afflicted Chicago in 1968 to, finally, protest by bomb and arson.
The New Left, as it was called, was led by the SDS, and the SDS had been hijacked by its most extreme elements. They emerged at the SDS national conference in the summer of 1969. Formed in 1960 at the University of Michigan as the student arm of an old-Left organization, the League for Industrial Democracy, the SDS had been involved in civil rights causes and in inner city community organizing projects during the early sixties. Tom Hayden, a leader of the Democratic convention protests, later a California state assemblyman and one of Jane Fonda's husbands, had been among the SDS's founders. It might have remained a small, obscure band of quasi-socialist idealists had it not been for the galvanizing effect of the Vietnam War. By 1969 it had grown to one hundred thousand members in three hundred chapters across the country.
At its national conference – another Chicago event, by the way – a factional fight erupted among the SDS mainstream, a Marxist group called Progressive Labor, and the Revolutionary Youth Movement, putative revolutionaries from middle and upper-middle class backgrounds and with long histories of student activism. In love with romantic rebels like Che Guevara, these white, disaffected undergraduates issued a manifesto called "You don't need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind blows," a title borrowed from a line in Bob Dylan's counter-cultural anthem, The Subterranean Homesick Blues.
The manifesto expressed disdain for the SDS's policies of peaceful protest (though we have seen that their demonstrations were not always peaceful), rejected Progressive Labor's call for an alliance with the white working class, which the authors considered too conservative and pro-war, and called for a campaign of "exemplary violence" by planting bombs in symbolic targets like the Pentagon, ROTC buildings, military bases, and other "imperialist" bastions.
The idea – or perhaps notion is the better word – behind these tactics was to "bring the war home," in the words of a prominent RYM leader, Mark Rudd, and to provoke a violent overthrow of the U.S. government, which in the RYM's view was the only way to change the system. Utterly divorced from political reality, they believed America was ripe for such a revolt.
Reading an account of the conference in the Chicago papers, I recall thinking that as a political theory, "exemplary violence" was the sort of rubbish one would expect from privileged white youth who had no experience of real violence and its effects – ragged bullet wounds, headless torsos, dismembered and eviscerated corpses, pain and grief.
The group changed its name to "Weathermen," and led by charismatic and photogenic figures like Bernardine Dohrn, William Ayers, Kathy Boudin, David Gilbert and Bill Flanagan, staged its first example of exemplary violence in Chicago in October, 1969. It was called the "Days of Rage."
The Weathermen's intent was to transform themselves from bourgeois kids into revolutionary street fighters by taking on the Chicago police in hand-to-hand combat, and through their actions rally others to their flag. In the event, they proved no match for Irish, Italian and Polish cops who had learned street-fighting in first grade. Things got off to a rousing start on October 6, when Ayers ( prep-school graduate, son of a utility company executive raised in the affluent suburb of Glen Ellyn) and a few others blew up a statue in Haymarket Square dedicated to police killed and injured in the 1886 Haymarket Riot.
The "official" Days of Rage protest began two days later. I was on the re-write desk and took dictation from Tribune reporters on the street. The Weathermen had expected thousands to show up, but mustered a mere five hundred. They were armed with brass knuckles, clubs, lead pipes and chains, and were garbed in goggles, gas masks and football helmets (thus turning an iconic image of the all-American jock on its head). The inversion was carried further in the stadium cheers they yelled as they ran down the streets: "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! NLF is gonna win!" and "What do you want? Revolution! When do you want it? Now!" A bank window was shattered, and that started a bacchanalia of glass breaking. The cops waded in, and in less than an hour had shot and slightly wounded six Weathermen, arrested seventy more, and clubbed an unknown number.
The next day, those Weathermen not in jail or too seriously hurt to continue tried again. This time the battle lasted only half an hour. Some two hundred were taken in, bloodied and bruised. The only casualty on the-establishment side was an over-eager city official who was paralyzed from the neck down when he dove to tackle a protestor and crashed head-first into a brick wall.
Thus ended "The Days of Rage." It was almost comic. Mike Rokyo, the great columnist for the Chicago Daily News, told me over a beer in the Billy Goat tavern that the Weathermen weren't capable "of fighting their way out of Polish wedding." He used the line in his column the next day.
It seemed the Weathermen agreed with Rokyo's assessment. The drubbing they'd suffered gave them second thoughts about engaging in direct combat. They decided that their strategy would be more effective if carried out underground, and began to build a clandestine network that would blow things up and burn things down. They became terrorists, providing an example of how passionate convictions can mutate into a nihilistic murderousness.
Bernardine Dohrn issued a "Declaration of war on the United States government"in December, when the Weathermen returned to Chicago to take part in demonstrations protesting the death of Fred Hampton, a young, spell-binding leader of the Black Panthers. The Weathermen had been seeking an alliance with the Panthers, which spurned them as dangerous dilettantes. Hampton had said "these kids are going to get people massacred," a bitterly ironic comment because it was Hampton who got massacred in a gun-battle with Cook County State's Attorney's officers. Actually, it was questionable if a gun-battle had taken place. State's Attorney Edward Hanrahan declared that his men had been fired on when they stormed Hampton's west-side apartment to arrest him, but there were indications that the two groups of police, one at the front door, one at back, had been shooting at each other. An indiscriminate fusillade from semi-automatic weapons and revolvers ripped through the apartment, killing Hampton in bed.
I had covered the aftermath of the shooting, and wondered if Chicago had become the epicenter of the quake that was cracking the social and cultural soil all across America.
In March, 1970, the Weathermen – now re-christened the Weather Underground – resurfaced in spectacular, if self-destructive fashion. One of their cells, which were called "focos," had hatched a plot to plant a nail-bomb at a dance in the officer's mess at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Had this act of exemplary violence occurred, it would have killed and injured not only army officers but their wives and dates as well. Fortunately for the intended victims, the Underground was as inept at bomb-making as it was at street-fighting. The device blew up in the Manhattan townhouse in which it was being constructed, killing Ayers' girlfriend, Diana Oughten, and two other Weathermen. Ayers, Rudd, Dohrn, et. al. ended up on the FBI's most wanted list and went on the lam.
So far they had succeeded only in killing themselves and in alienating the rest of the SDS. As one SDS member at the University of Wisconsin remarked, "You don't need a rectal thermometer to know where the assholes are." Nevertheless, their aura of outlaw glamor had drawn some flattering profiles in the press, while their violent rhetoric and actions had won them a number of admirers and copy-cats in the anti-war movement, among whom an idea, a feeling took hold that no anti-war demonstration could be authentic if it wasn't violent, that civil disobedience should be as uncivil as possible. The Apollonian had surrendered to the Dionysian.
The old karma was at work. Violence begets violence begets more violence. The unprovoked gunfire poured into Hampton's apartment was a preview of things to come. Federal law enforcement agencies were also of a mind to take extraordinary measures. In its pursuit of the Weather Underground fugitives, the FBI broke so many laws that, when they were finally brought to trial, the cases against most of them were thrown out of court.
The atmosphere in the country had grown toxic with hate. The Black Panthers hated whites, the white Weathermen hated American society, the cops hated them all, and each Friday night Walter Cronkite announced the weekly toll in Vietnam, which everyone hated. The tension was more than palpable – you could practically smell it, hear it in the pop music of the day – the angry, jarring riffs of Jimi Hendrix's amped-up guitar, in the death-haunted lyrics of songs like Fortunate Son and Bad Moon Risin' .
Don't go out tonight, it's bound to take your life
There's a bad moon on the rise.
And there was – a bad moon, a bad mood, one of ominous expectancy. There seemed to be a yearning in the national psyche – if there is such a thing – for a catharsis. America was ready for a tragedy, and on May 4, 1970 it got one.
Whoever directed this production picked an odd venue – the campus of a little-known, mid-size state college in northeastern Ohio. The curtain was raised five days earlier and far away in Indochina, where twenty thousand American and South Vietnamese troops, under President Nixon's direct orders, invaded Cambodia to destroy major North Vietnamese and Viet Cong bases across the border. Nixon announced the invasion – it was called an "incursion" – in a televised address on the night of April 30. As described by Stanley Karnow in Vietnam: A History, the President's mood at the time was consonant with the mood in the country: tense, paranoid, ugly. Public reaction to his decision varied. Most of the Silent Majority, exhibiting their traditional loyalty to the Chief Executive, registered support by remaining silent. Opinion makers, however, raised their voices. As Karnow notes, "Educators, clergymen, lawyers, businessmen, and others protested." Karnow might have added that so did a number of more ordinary citizens, organizing peace marches in comfortable bedroom communities like Scarsdale, N.Y. There was dissent even in the Administration. Walter Hickel, Nixon's Secretary of the Interior, openly objected to the invasion, for which he was fired. Two hundred members of the State Department expressed their disagreement in a public petition. The New York Times editorialized that the action was a "virtual renunciation" of Nixon's promise to end the war. The conservative Wall Street Journal warned against a deeper entrapment in Southeast Asia.
The unrest simmering on university campuses burst into angry demonstrations all over the country the next day, a Friday. I wasn't paying close attention to the one at Kent State, if I was paying any at all. At the time, my first wife, Jill, and I were living in the old, shady suburb of Oak Park, our rented flat a couple of blocks from some fine examples of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and Hemingway's birthplace. I have no memory of what I did that weekend. Probably I'd spent the mornings working on the manuscript that would become A Rumor of War and the afternoons either watching football games or fixing up a spare room as a nursery for our first child, expected in August.
Before reporting in to the city room Monday morning, I got a call from the day city editor. The disturbances in Kent had grown serious over the weekend. Store windows had been smashed in town, radicals had burned down the ROTC building, firemen had been driven off by mobs slashing hoses and throwing stones, and the Kent city police were unable to cope with the situation. The Ohio National Guard had been ordered in and were now occupying the university. The national desk wanted me to get there immediately. Evidently my coverage of the University of Illinois demonstrations the month before qualified me as the paper's campus protest correspondent.
My first question was, "Where the hell is Kent State?" I had never heard of it. Informed of its location, I booked the next available flight to Cleveland, packed a bag, said goodbye to Jill and drove to O'Hare airport. During the hour-long flight, I read a wire-service story to bring myself up to date. Ohio's governor, James A. Rhodes, had blamed the disturbances on "outside agitators." I had learned to be skeptical about such claims, but was willing to set my skepticism aside. The burning of the ROTC building was right out of the Weather Underground's handbook. Except for that – and it was no small exception – the protests appeared to be like those at Illinois. Maybe there was one other difference. Illinois Governor Ogilvie had taken pains to calm the situation at Champaign-Urbana. Gov. Rhodes adopted the combative approach. At a press conference on Sunday he'd compared the protestors to Nazi brown shirts, describing them as "the worst sort of people we harbor in America," and promised to "use every weapon possible to eradicate the problem." A bit of political grandstanding perhaps – Rhodes was then involved in a tough primary fight for the Republican Party's senatorial nomination – but it struck me as an inflammatory statement.
My memory is patchy. I believe the shootings took place while I was flying to Cleveland and that the report I heard on my rented car's radio was an update. My immediate reaction was the one you would expect: I was stunned. The next was also one you would expect from a newsman, though it now makes me cringe to recall it: This is one helluva of a story and I'd better get on it. Doing at least twenty over the limit, I arrived in Kent.
When a horror occurs in a commonplace setting the horror is magnified. Kent could have been any college town in any part of the Midwest: the usual girdle of motels and restaurants on the outskirts, the usual elm-shaded streets lined with clapboard and shingle-sided houses, the usual student beer halls with the usual names downtown. It was at the gate to the university that the unusual appeared: an armored personnel carrier, the unit's designation stamped in white on its olive green steel, 107CAV. Rhodes had sent in the cavalry, as if the demonstrators had been hostile Sioux. Further on, I encountered a barricade manned by Ohio state troopers, their patrol car windshields taped to prevent shattering in case they were hit by rocks. A trooper asked for identification, I showed my Tribune press card, and was waved through.
Driving on, the atmosphere of unreality thickened. The campus was deserted, the university having been closed, students and faculty sent home. In their place were National Guardsmen in full battle dress, rifles loaded, bayonets fixed. Some troops were lined up for chow at the mess area, near the gutted ruins of the ROTC building. Others marched in formation down the sidewalks. Closer to the scene of the shooting – Taylor Hall and the practice field below it – soldiers had taken up combat positions, squatting behind trees or lying prone, scanning the field and the parking lot as if looking for snipers. The overall impression was of an occupied town in some as yet unnamed war.
No problem finding a parking space. I walked to the practice field, where I'd spotted a civilian, the only one around. He was young, in a jacket and tie. Not a student, in other words. I went up to him, thinking he might be a faculty member. He turned out to be another reporter, John Kifner from the New York Times. A newspaper super-power then as it is today, the Times did not regard a regional power like the Tribune as competition. Still, I thought Kifner was quite generous to give me a thorough fill-in on what had happened. That will be described in more detail later in this narrative. For now, I'll confine myself to a summary of what Kifner told me.
Several hundred demonstrators had gathered on the Commons at noon for a scheduled anti-war rally. Several hundred more were cheering them on or merely watching them and a troop of National Guardsmen posted nearby. The Guardsmen were ordered to disperse the crowd and did so, firing tear gas canisters.
After clearing the Commons, the Guardsmen marched to the practice field. Protestors were gathered in the Prentice Hall parking lot, others stood in front of Taylor. More tear gas was fired, to which students responded by throwing stones and shouting obscenities.
The action was over in five or ten minutes. Protestors and spectators began to straggle off. An officer ordered the soldiers to return to the Commons area. As they did, some students continued to hurl rocks and four-letter words. Suddenly, a line of Guardsmen wheeled, and making no distinction among active demonstrators, bystanders and students merely walking to class, knelt and fired, killing four, wounding nine.
I have given the dry facts Kifner gave me then, and the dry facts alone were shocking. The response to a provocation cannot always be proportionate, but to answer stones and bad language with a random volley of .30-caliber bullets was not imaginable in America. Or maybe it was, because America had changed.
I mentioned hearing on the radio that the Guard's adjutant-general had said that the troops fired after they had been shot at by a sniper. Kifner shook his head. No witnesses had heard a shot, nor had he, and he'd been with the students. Nevertheless, Guard officers had seized on "evidence" that there had been a sniper on the roof of Taylor Hall. This was a bullet hole in an abstract steel sculpture at one end of the field. We went over to look at it – a bullet hole, all right, but you didn't need ballistics training to see that the round had been fired from ground level. It had come from a soldier's rifle.
Alone, I went to the parking lot, and in the clean spring light, saw still-distinct blood stains in the asphalt. Whose? I wondered. Which young life had leaked out to soak into this dull pavement? I heard an echo from the Days of Rage. What do you want? Revolution! When do you want it now! Well, this is what revolutions look like, this is what they come to – bayonets, bullets, and blood, the blood of innocents, and do you still want it, now or at any time?
The next day, I went to interview the wounded, and I reproduce here one of their stories.
Wounded Kent Student Says Troops Erred
By Philip Caputo
[Chicago Tribune Press Service]
Kent, Ohio, May 5 – Douglas Wrentmore is a 20-year-old sophomore who has studied psychology at Kent State university for the last two years.
In the space of about five seconds yesterday he learned about things he never learned during those two years of reading textbooks: violence and death and how it feels to be shot by a rifle. It was an experience he said he will carry with him all his life.
Wrentmore was wounded in the leg yesterday when Ohio national guardsmen fired into a crowd of student demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine others, two of whom are in critical condition in Robinson Memorial, Ravenna, Ohio.
Wrentmore was struck in the knee. He is in fair condition and considers himself lucky.
Tells his story
"I was in the parking lot near Taylor Hall just watching the demonstration," he said. "The guardsmen, about 50 to 75 of them, had just had a confrontation with the students in the practice football field, and they were marching away. All of a sudden I heard a volley of shots. Girls started screaming. I saw people fall, and I started running and then I fell. I didn't feel anything. One minute I could run and then I could not. Then I saw blood coming from leg."
Wrentmore said that as he lay on the asphalt, he looked up and saw a line of about 10 guardsmen kneeling and firing into the mass of students, who numbered between 500 and 600.
"The volley wasn't preceded by a sniper's bullet. I heard later that there was supposed to have been one from the roof, but I never heard it. Anyhow, if it came from the roof, I just don't understand why the troops fired into the crowd," he said.
He added that prior to the shooting, the guardsmen were pelted with rocks and sticks by the demonstrators. However, those throwing the objects amounted to no more than a dozen, Wrentmore said. He described the rocks as "just pebbles, with a few maybe the size of a golf ball." Brig. Gen. Robert Canterbury, the guard commander, said baseball-sized rocks and concrete slabs were thrown at his troops.
Taken to Hospital
Wrentmore is not embittered by the experience. After some students helped him into a car, he was taken to the hospital, where he saw the other casualties brought in – the wounded moaning with pain, the dead wheeled in beneath blankets.
Wrentmore shifted in his bed saying, "my leg is starting to hurt now; it is stiffening up." Then he looked at the cast, tapping it with his finger as though to convince himself that it was really there, and that all he saw and heard the day before had really happened.
At a press conference later in the day, Brigadier General Canterbury, seemingly impervious to doubt and incapable of contrition, reiterated his statements about rocks as big as baseballs and concrete slabs being thrown at his troops. He said that some protestors were as close as three feet to the Guardsmen. This was curious, as it had already been determined that some victims had been as far as seven hundred feet away. A major-league center fielder could not have thrown a rock that distance. The closest student, who was wounded, had been sixty to seventy feet from the line of fire, a long way to heave a concrete slab. Nevertheless, Canterbury, who had been with the troops, insisted that their lives had been in danger and that they had fired in self-defense. "The situation was dangerous," he said. "I felt I could be killed."
The press conference over, I went to the mess area, found a lieutenant who had commanded a platoon on the hill by Taylor Hall, and asked for his version of events. I have a vague recollection of a man of about twenty-five, with reddish hair and freckles, but my memory could be wrong. He granted an interview on condition I not use his name. I have a clipping of the story I wrote, and this is what he told me:
"We were surrounded and outnumbered ten to one. You should have seen those animals. They were trying to take our rifles away. Someone in the crowd yelled that we were only carrying blanks, so the students assaulted up the hill while others tried to outflank us by going around the rear of Taylor hill."
Viewing their situation as desperate, he went on, seventeen Guardsmen turned, some dropping to one knee, the rest standing, and without orders loosed a thirty-five-shot volley. It would be determined later that the actual figures were twenty-eight soldiers and sixty-seven shots, but the lieutenant's statistical inaccuracies could be overlooked. What struck me was his choice of language: "surrounded and outnumbered ten to one," "assaulted up the hill," "tried to outflank us." It almost sounded like a scene from the movie Zulu – the thin red line attacked by hordes of spear-carrying savages.
I recall thinking, "This is complete crap." No one else I'd spoken to had seen students attempting to disarm the Guardsmen – they weren't close enough even if they'd wanted to. No one had heard a yell that the soldiers had blank rounds in their rifles. And the picture of college kids conducting a complex military maneuver, some making a frontal assault while others conducted a flanking movement, was pure fantasy.
I knew something about real combat and what it was like to fear for your life, and felt angry. If the Guardsmen had perceived themselves to be in danger, then something was seriously wrong with their perceptions or, more likely, with their training, discipline and leadership. The lieutenant was lying to me because he was lying to himself, creating a story he could live with, or maybe to protect himself and others from legal action.
As a journalist, I had to keep my opinions to myself, but to my mind, the Guardsmen had panicked. Before they were dispatched to Kent State, they'd quelled a Teamsters Union strike in Akron. Teamsters are more formidable adversaries than undergraduates, and the strike had been marked by deadly violence, including gunplay. Thrust from that to a campus in turmoil, seeing the ROTC building burned to the ground, the part-time soldiers had been tired and on edge. Nor can one ignore the effect Gov. Rhodes's vow to "use every weapon to eradicate the problem" must have had on them. I thought the Kent State faculty had it right in a resolution passed on May 5 condemning the shootings: "We hold the guardsmen, acting under orders and under psychological pressures less responsible than are Gov. Rhodes and Adjutant General (Sylvester) DelCorso, whose inflammatory indoctrination produced these pressures."
Kent townspeople generally supported the Guard's actions. As in most college communities, there was a "town-gown" conflict between Kent's 27,000 citizens and the university's 21,000 students, but it was warped into outright hostility by the events of the previous week and by the temper of the times. Many Kent citizens hated the students, regarding them as an alien race. You could hardly blame them for their anger – stores and businesses downtown had been vandalized for no reason. That said, some townsfolk went far over the top with comments like, "They should have shot more of them."
On May 6, the inspector general of the Ohio national guard announced that his office was investigating the shootings. So was the U.S. Department of Justice, while on the local level the Porter County coroner had opened an inquiry into the four deaths. These would be the first of many probes into what soon became known as the Kent State Massacre. Like the Boston Massacre almost exactly two hundred years before (March 5, 1770), which it resembled, it was called a massacre not for the number of its victims but for the wanton manner in which they were shot down. Its anthem became the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song Ohio, its iconic emblem the photograph snapped by John Filo, a Kent State student and free-lance photographer, in the Prentice Hall parking lot. It shows Mary Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old runaway, screaming with upraised hands as she kneels over the body of Jeffrey Miller.
The 107th cavalry withdrew from Kent State and so did I, summoned back to Chicago to cover still another protest at Northwestern University in suburban Evanston. Border to border, sea to shining sea, hundreds of student strikes and demonstrations had sprung up in reaction to the shootings.
When I got to Northwestern, barely having had time to say hello to my pregnant wife, I found red flags of revolt hanging from the windows of dormitories, frat houses and classroom buildings. At strike headquarters, on the third floor of Scott Hall, coeds were painting signs calling for an end to the war – as their mothers or older sisters might have painted signs urging the NU Wildcats to beat Wisconsin. Sound trucks blared rock music. In front of the Technological Institute, physics professors sold black armbands to symbolize mourning for the dead in Ohio. One, Dr. Martin Block, hawked them with a sense of humor: "Armbands. Armbands. Any contribution will do. Help a physics professor." The light-hearted pitch belied his emotions. "The protest movement in the academic community got going again with the Cambodia involvement," he told me. "The Kent State incident was like a bomb going off, and the echoes of that explosion are being heard across the country."
Across the street, the less politicized had taken advantage of the strike to play tennis. Looking at the tanned players in their crisp whites, listening to the thwack-thwack of the ball, I felt that I was squinting through a telescope turned backward to the past. It was a picture of what college campuses had been like only a few years before, but that tranquil time now seemed as distant as the days of racoon coats and rumble seats.
A brief walk through the handsome campus brought me back to the troubled present. The scene could have been lifted from a Delacroix painting of the French revolution. A young man stood atop a barricade of furniture and cars and saw-horses, his long hair tousled by the Lake Michigan wind, one hand grasping a pole flying a red flag and an upside-down American flag (a distress signal) as he exhorted some twenty-five hundred students massed behind him to "Strike! Strike!"
Suddenly, he was interrupted by a burly, black-haired, middle-age man dressed in a workingman's khaki trousers and a flannel shirt. Mounting the barricade, he tried to wrest the flag pole from the student. "That's my flag!" he yelled. "I fought for it. You have no right to it."
The young man jerked it away and leaped into the crowd. The older man jumped after him and a tug-of-war took place, accompanied by shouts and epithets. Some dissenters threatened to break his jaw, others urged, "No, no. Don't sink to that level."
After some struggle, a few students managed to take the angry man aside to engage him in a dialogue. He said something about fighting on Iwo Jima and that he was an electrician. One undergraduate said, "We can talk to you, man. We can talk to each other." It soon became apparent that they could not. The students argued that the man, as a member of the working class, was a victim of capitalism. Students and blacks were also victims of capitalism. Therefore, he should join their movement.
The Marxist language sounded incongruous, if not absurd in that setting – Northwestern was the most affluent school in the Big Ten, Evanston an aviary for capitalists – and the member of the working class was having none of it.
"The hell with your movement," he said. "There are millions of people like me. We're fed up with your movement. You're forcing us into it. We'll have to kill you."
"Like they did at Kent!" screamed several students, almost in unison. "Like they did at Kent! You want to kill us all."
"Kent is the logical outcome of what you've been doing for the last five years," he shot back. "What else did you expect?"
I stood taking notes. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought this bit of street theater, so illustrative of the passions dividing America, had been staged for my benefit.
The electrician put his hands on his hips, shook his head, and started to walk away. Then he turned abruptly, pointing his finger at the crowd pressing around him. "It's time for action," he declared. "I'm through arguing. I came here to resist your movement."
One student opened his mouth to say something, but another motioned for him to be silent and cried out, "Oh, fuck him. You can't talk to him."
"And I can't talk to you. All I can see is a lot of kids blowing the chance I never had."
Then the representative of the Silent Majority, having broken his silence, spun around and walked off, his back to the wildly dressed protestors and the scarlet banners fluttering from the barricade separating two worlds that spoke the same language but could not understand each other.
There is a postscript to my experiences with the Kent State massacre and its aftermath. Sometime later in May, I covered a meeting of university alumni at the Sheraton-O'Hare hotel on the far northwest side of Chicago. It was a strained gathering. The alumni, old, young and in between, sipped martinis and talked about football games won and lost, about former professors and campus pranks, and it was obvious they were trying extremely hard to pretend that this was just another get-together of former classmates. It didn't work. There was something artificial in their voices, some note of insincerity in their laughter, like the tinkling of glass that is being passed off as crystal. They knew what they were going to hear from the featured speaker, and it wasn't going to deal with honors day or graduation day or how much new construction was taking place at their alma-mater.
At the appointed time, they sat down to listen as Dr. Donald Roskens, vice-president of administration, rose to the lectern.
"That violence begets violence was no more dramatically illustrated than during those first three days at Kent State, a prologue to the armed tragedy that took place on the fourth," he said. "And on that day, the victory bell tolled sadly as a postlude to death." He went on, telling the alumni how those at Kent State had lived for the entire world an experience of what it means to find academic freedom extinguished, to live in a military state, to know what results from "terror, threats, and violence." It was plain that he meant that not all the terror and violence had come from the Ohio National Guard. He wound up with a call to alumni, students and faculty to rebuild a sense of community at the university, and with a plea for moderation: "We must draw from the cacophony of both extremes the chords of harmony."
It would be a long time before anyone heard those sweet, harmonious chords.
Reprinted by permission of Chamberlain Bros. a member of Penguin Group (USA)