Behind the Photo: Tin Soldiers and Nixon Coming

Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of fellow s
Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of Jeffrey Miller during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, Ohio, May 4, 1970.

John Filo captured the Pulitzer Prize photo on May 4th, 1970 as the Ohio National Guard opened fire on Kent State students during an anti-war protest.

Filo talks about that day:

The bullets were supposed to be blanks. When I put the camera back to my eye, I noticed a particular guardsman pointing at me. I said, “I’ll get a picture of this,” and his rifle went off. And almost simultaneously, as his rifle went off, a halo of dust came off a sculpture next to me, and the bullet lodged in a tree.

I dropped my camera in the realization that it was live ammunition. I don’t know what gave me the combination of innocence and stupidity… I started to flee–run down the hill and stopped myself. “Where are you going?” I said to myself, “This is why you are here!”

And I started to take pictures again. … I knew I was running out of film. I could see the emotion welling up inside of her. She began to sob. And it culminated in her saying an exclamation. I can’t remember what she said exactly … something like, “Oh, my God!”

The Guardsmen fired 67 rounds in a span of about 13 seconds. Four students were killed, nine injured.

The story actually begins 4 days earlier on Thursday, April 30th, 1970 when it was announced by President Nixon that the “Cambodian Incursion” had been launched by US Forces. It was widely believed that the war in Vietnam had been winding down in 1969 and the announcement of a Cambodian invasion fueled campuses nationwide to erupt in protest.

On Friday, May 1st, about 500 protesters gathered on the Commons at Kent State University. The Commons, located in the center of the campus was a traditional meeting place for rallies and protests. There was sweeping anger and a burning of a copy of the US Constitution, implying that President Nixon had killed it. The crowd dispersed shortly after noon and planned on another protest on May 4th. Around midnight that same day, trouble erupted in town after people left a bar and began throwing beer bottles at police and destroying local business store fronts. As the news spread, the crowd began to grow larger.  As more police arrived, the crowd, now at about 120 had already set a small bonfire and hurled more bottles and began shouting obscenities at the local law enforcement. A State of Emergency was soon called for by Kent Mayor LeRoy Satrom and a call was placed to Governor Jim Rhodes asking for assistance. The bars were forced to close early, which in turn , increased the size of the crowd. Eventually the police dispersed the crowd using tear gas, forcing them several blocks away, back to the campus.

Saturday, May 2nd, rumors began to circulate that radical revolutionaries were in Kent to destroy the city and university. As a result of threats received by local businesses and leaders, Mayor Satrom met with city officials and representatives of Ohio’s Army National Guard. After the meeting, Satrom called Governor Rhodes requesting the National Guard be sent to Kent. He believed that the local officials would not be able to handle future disturbances. The request was granted and the National Guard was called in at 5:00 PM that day however, they did not arrive until later that evening, sometime around 10:00. By that time, a large protest was underway at the Commons and the campus ROTC building was ablaze. Kent firemen and police were struck by rocks and other debris as they attempted to put out the fire. Other Fire Departments had to be called in because protesters had carried away the fire hose and slashed it. By the end of the night the National Guard made several arrests and used tear gas to finally disperse the demonstrators. The arsonists were never caught, and no injuries were reported due to the fire. A later report on the blaze stated “Information developed by a FBI investigation of the ROTC building fire indicates that, of those who participated actively, a significant portion weren’t Kent State students. There is also evidence to suggest that the burning was planned beforehand: railroad flares, a machete, and ice picks are not customarily carried to peaceful rallies.”

Sunday May 3rd, a day before the shootings, Governor Rhodes holds a news conference at the firehouse, calling the protesters un-American and referring to them as ‘revolutionaries set on destroying higher education in Ohio’.

He goes on to say:

“We’ve seen here at the city of Kent especially, probably the most vicious form of campus-oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups. They make definite plans of burning, destroying, and throwing rocks at police and at the National Guard and the Highway Patrol. This is when we’re going to use every part of the law enforcement agency of Ohio to drive them out of Kent. We are going to eradicate the problem. We’re not going to treat the symptoms. And these people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community. They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. Now I want to say this. They are not going to take over [the] campus. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.”

During the day, several of the students went to town to assist in the cleanup after the riots and were met with some ambivalence by the local business owners. In response to business leaders and a concerned public, Mayor Satrom issues a curfew until further notice. At 8 PM another rally was held at the Commons which was broken up about 45 minutes later by National Guardsmen firing tear gas into the crowd. The students relocated to the intersection of Lincoln and Main staging a sit-in with the intent of gaining a meeting with the Mayor and the University President. At 11 PM, curfew took effect and the National Guard dispersed the sit-in and escorted the students back to campus.

The Kent State Massacre, Monday May 4th, 1970. The protest, planned three days prior, was scheduled to begin at noon.  The University handed out 12,000 flyers in an attempt to stop the gathering, stating the event had been cancelled. Still, over 2,000 students began gathering at the Commons. The first attempt to disperse the students was made by campus patrolmen who attempted to read an order to disperse or face arrest. The students reacted by throwing rocks and objects at the patrolmen, forcing them to retreat.

The National Guard returned in a second attempt to disperse the crowd. When the protesters refused to disperse, the National Guard began to fire tear gas which proved to be ineffective because of the wind that day. The students shouting “Pigs off campus!” retaliated by throwing rocks and the tear gas back at the Guardsmen, who were wearing gas masks.

After it was apparent that the protesters would not disperse, 77 National Guards, armed with M-1 rifles and bayonets, marched towards the Commons. As the Guardsmen approached, the crowd began to retreat from the Commons, up and over what is known as Blanket Hill. The National Guard continued to follow the crowd over the hill but instead of turning left at the bottom towards the Prentice Hall parking lot as the protesters did, they continued to march forward towards a practice field surrounded by a chain link fence. They remained on the practice field for about 10 minutes. At one point, several members of the Guard knelt and aimed their weapons towards the protestors now gathering to the left and front of them. After finally realizing that the only way back was to retrace their steps over Blanket Hill, they began to march back towards the Commons. Some of the students began to follow the Guard as they began to march back over the hill. As they climbed back up Blanket Hill, several of the guardsmen stopped, half turned and faced the gathering of students in the parking lot.

At 12:24, a guardsmen sergeant fired his .45 caliber pistol towards the crowd of students. A number of other guardsmen also turned and began to fire their rifles.

One witness was Chrissie Hynde, the future lead singer of The Pretenders and a student at Kent State University at the time. In her 2015 autobiography she described what she saw:

Then I heard the tatatatatatatatatat sound. I thought it was fireworks. An eerie sound fell over the common. The quiet felt like gravity pulling us to the ground. Then a young man’s voice: “They fucking killed somebody!” Everything slowed down and the silence got heavier.

The ROTC building, now nothing more than a few inches of charcoal, was surrounded by National Guardsmen. They were all on one knee and pointing their rifles at…us! Then they fired.

By the time I made my way to where I could see them it was still unclear what was going on. The guardsmen themselves looked stunned. We looked at them and they looked at us. They were just kids, 19 years old, like us. But in uniform. Like our boys in Vietnam.

29 of the 77 guardsmen claimed to have fired their weapons.

The shooting was estimated to have lasted 13 seconds.

According to Wikipedia, the shootings killed four students and wounded nine. Two of the four students killed, Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, had participated in the protest, and the other two, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder, had been walking from one class to the next at the time of their deaths. Schroeder was also a member of the campus ROTC battalion. Of those wounded, none was closer than 71 feet (22 m) to the guardsmen. Of those killed, the nearest (Miller) was 225 feet (69 m) away, and their average distance from the guardsmen was 345 feet (105 m).

The question of why the shots were fired remains widely debated.

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