Today in Military History – May 4th – The Whole Story – Kent State
President Richard Nixon’s May 1st announcement of the American incursion into Cambodia leads to massive anti-Vietnam war protests on college campuses nationwide. At Kent State University students burned the ROTC building and rioted in downtown Kent. The governor of Ohio dispatched Guardsmen from the 1st Battalion, 145th Infantry and several Troops of the 107th Armored Cavalry (at peak strength a total of 1,395 men) to restore order in Kent. These men were already on state active duty in response to a wildcat truckers strike when moved to the campus. Except for some trouble in the town of Kent on Saturday night, in which ten Guardsmen were injured by thrown bottles and rocks, overall for two days the situation remained calm. But on Monday the 4th a planned anti-war rally was scheduled, drawing both students and non-students. The campus authorities tried to stop the rally but the crowd on the Commons kept growing larger, more vocal and belligerent. The sheriff, riding a Guard jeep and with a Guard driver, approached the crowd to tell them to disperse when the jeep was pelted with stones, bottles and other missiles. The Guard driver was hit in the eye from broken windshield glass. It was then decided to have the Guardsmen clear the crowd. At this time the Guard had no crowd control equipment other than CS (tear) gas fired from grenade launchers. They had no batons, face or body shields, no body armor and no non-lethal projectiles. What they did have were steel helmets, gas masks (which greatly restrict vision) and M-1 rifles with fixed bayonets. Since ten Guardsmen had been injured two days earlier the men were now issued live ammunition. After firing a volley of tear gas the troops, totaling 125 men, moved out to push the crowd over “Blanket Hill” surmounted by the Student Center in hopes they would disperse in the parking lot on the other side. As the men moved forward, they came under a barrage of projectiles including chunks of concrete with steel rebar rods which had been stockpiled by protestors. Fifty Guardsmen were hit, some multiple times, as they continued to advance. The line of troops split to move on each side of the Center as the crowd fell back over the hill. Once the men on the right side of the advance crested the hill they found themselves cut off from further advance by a steel fence. As they turned to return the way they came, their tear gas ran out and some in the crowd started to approach them shouting and throwing objects. For reasons no one can fully explain someone fired a shot. Some say it came from a dorm room overlooking the crowd while others say only the Guard fired. Whichever version is right, the Guardsmen fired a ragged volley of 34 shots, hitting 13 people, four of whom were killed. In the aftermath the campus was immediately closed until the next school year. Years of court action resulted in no Guardsmen ever being convicted of a crime in the shooting. While Kent State will remain a dark day in Guard history some good did come from it. As a result of studies made after the event, Guardsmen today have the proper crowd control equipment and non-lethal devices are available. And all Army Guard personnel receive extensive training in crowd control techniques. Perhaps the best evidence of change is that in the more than 35 years since that day, despite numerous calls upon the Guard in many states to control riotous behavior, there has been no repeat of the tragedy.