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Kent State ...
Ohio State University

by Brandt Forrest
© 1997

 

Kent State & Ohio State Universities - May 4, 1970

OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY, Columbus - Members of the Ohio National guard fired tear gas at protesting students the morning of May 4, 1970. Note the M-1 Kent State 1: Photo Brandt Forrest rifles and the fact that there is no magazine. I believe this caused many students to believe that the rifles were not loaded.
      I woke up around seven on May 4, 1970. A warm breeze shifted the white sheer curtains as I eased out of bed and headed toward the shower. In the background I heard the newscasters voice, "Reaction against President Nixon's decision to invade Cambodia continues to mount. Last night, Governor Rhodes ordered Ohio National Guard troops onto the campus of Ohio State University." Minutes later I kissed Mary good bye, grabbed my camera bag, and began the long walk from East Norwich, down Iuka, toward the campus.
      It was a beautiful day. I passed the familiar brick, stone and wood houses that make up the east campus neighborhood. The area was framed by budding trees and plants glistening with morning dew. The sky was a clear and brilliant blue with only a thin, wispy, white cloud scattered here and there. Everything was right for a day in May except the smell. Instead of the fresh, sweet smell of spring, the acrid residue of the previous night's tear gas clung to everything. Upon reaching High Street I turned south and headed toward 15th and the main gate to the campus.
      I should have seen clumps of students coming from the fraternity and sorority houses, most heading toward classes, some stopping at Charbert's, some at Long's. Instead there were just a few scattered souls, shuffling along, letting off an occasional yawn, lighting a last cigarette, trying to decide if they should go to class.
      I passed Mershon Auditorium. The warm sun cast long shadows of the buildings onto the Oval. I noticed the grass. Electric green. Not the fat, lazy, green of July. Not the resurgent, yellow flecked green of October, but the bold, shouting, green of early spring.
      It was a color I had seen before riding in a jeep just outside Di An (pronounced zee on), the First Infantry Division's rear base camp. I stood on the canvas covered seat of the jeep and aimed my camera across the shimmering rice paddy; the eastern sun, a bright orange disc rising above the South China Sea, casting long shadows of bamboo and palm trees across the man made lake. The day was already hot and damp, sweat poured from my arm pits onto my starched fatigues as the weight and heat of the flak jacket made itself felt. The new shoots, electric green in color, stood six to eight inches above the glassy water. At the far end, a farm family and their water buffalo walked single file along a dike.
      It was the stereotypical shot of Vietnam. But what had struck me most about the scene was the intensity of the green. Now I saw it on the oval. I was ashamed to admit that I had never stopped to notice the same rich color here, at home, back in "The World." It had taken a year in Vietnam to learn what to look for.
      Kent State 2: Photo Brandt Forrest I crossed North Oval Drive and reached my destination. Less than fifty yards in front of the administration building stood two armies. The smaller one in old style (pre-Vietnam) olive drab fatigues, stateside division patches in bright red, white and blue on the left shoulder, standard issue black boots, steel helmets, wood stocked, gray bayoneted M-1 rifles, gas masks on left thigh. They stood in neat ranks, four deep and about fifty yards in length. Behind them was a small corral of white and black police barricades, nothing more than gigantic saw horses. On the neat red brick of the building they protected was a single scarlet word, spray painted in bold, foot tall letters: STRIKE!
      To my left was the second army, a huge unarmed mob dressed in tie dye T-shirts or button down Oxford cloth, blue jeans or khaki pants, boots, or sandals, or bare footed. They aimlessly milled about on the oval facing the Guard or formed into tight huddles earnestly discussing the situation.
      There was a tension present, but there was no conflict. A Guardsmen would lean to one side and whisper something to the person on his right or left. Both would chuckle and then resume a more military posture. At the same time a student would become bold and walk through the no-mans-land that separated the forces to get a closer look. They would then return to the mob and share the information gathered.
      This uneasy truce lasted for an hour or so. I used the interval to walk in between the two camps snapping photos of both sides. It was during this walk that I became alarmed. As I looked at the Guardsmen I could see that their rifles were loaded. The M-1 used clips of ammunition. The M-16 that students saw in news reports from Vietnam used a magazine. Unlike a magazine, a clip fits inside the stock of the rifle, just in front of the trigger guard. From the side view an M-1 looks exactly the same whether loaded or unloaded. Knowing what to look for and where to look, I could see the bullets. I don't believe the students saw them or believed the bullets were there.
      Still it was a beautiful day. I was back on campus. I was no longer a soldier. Both sides seemed contented to stand and stare at each other. Why worry?
      I returned to the east flank, turned and noticed a stirring in the Guard ranks. From somewhere near the admin building came a tall, elegant figure: paratrooper boots polished to a sheen, fatigues starched and pressed, .45 holstered to his hip and topped by a helmet liner bearing a single star. A Brigadier!
      A one star general to command what could not be more than two hundred men. In Vietnam a major would have thought himself ill used to be in charge of such a small contingent. I wondered, as I would have while in the army, what had happened that had booted this small protest up to the one star level.
      In a matter of minutes there was a huddle behind the Guard formation. Like a coach, the general gathered his officers and sergeants. Index finger poking into his palm, neck muscles straining, jaw jutting, he laid out his strategy, took a collective salute and then stood, hands on hips, waiting for the ensuing action. The cadre left the huddle and met the soldiers in small groups until every man on the line had been called into the General's plan.
      First squads, then platoons, finally the whole company came to attention and fixed bayonets. The four ranks turned into one, lengthening out in front of the mob. The men brought their rifles up to a position I had not seen since bayonet drill in basic training: the butt held close to the hip and the barrel, with bayonet, pointed toward the mob. As one, the line took a step forward. Then another. Then another. Then another.
      The mob did not know what to do. Before the Guard moved, the distance between the two factions had varied from ten to thirty yards in width. That gap was quickly disappearing. Those in the back of the mob could not see anything and pushed forward for a view. Those in front stepped back from the line of threatening steel. The mob began to collapse upon itself. A certain uneasiness began to appear. The more timid began to look for a way out. The bolder ones began to shout at the guard. Most became confused, tangled in each others way, frightened by the show of force.
      The problems in the student ranks mattered not to the lieutenants and the captain of the Guard. Their job had escalated. It was no longer a matter of keeping the students from gaining possession of the admin building. Now they were ordered to drive them from the oval and so they would.
      The tactics employed were designed to clear angry mobs from city streets. The force would have been big enough if this were taking place one block north where the academic buildings on North Oval Drive were backed by those of 18th street. The oval, as both students and Guard were about to discover, was a different matter. With nothing to channel them the students simply moved around the ends of the advancing line, like water pushed by a squeegee, turning the Guard's flank by default. At some point the company commander realized the problem, halted his troops and brought them back to their starting point. The two sides sparred this way two or three times, each round ending with the guard controlling no more territory than before they started.
      It might have ended right there but being pushed around on the oval, their oval, had sparked an anger in the students that I had not observed earlier in the morning.
      Now the Guard took on a face. To the students the Guardsmen became Governor Rhodes, became President Nixon, became President Johnson, became the establishment, became the war in Vietnam, became the Cambodian incursion, became the opponents of free speech and open housing and civil rights, became all the frustrations and forces the students deemed as wrong in America over the past eight years.
      They would now take it all on, but how? There were no brick walks to tear apart and turn into weapons. The hard clay of the oval could not be easily clumped into something fit to throw in anger. But there were words to toss and these came blasting out:
      "Pigs off campus!"
      "Off the pigs!"
      "F--king pigs go home!"
      Angry words screamed with deep gut intensity, screamed until the veins popped out in young necks and faces became florid, screamed at point blank range, screamed from the back of the mob like direct fire cannon shells, screamed in cadence like the deep thump, thump, thump of a 50 caliber machine gun. Posture changed. Students bent at the hips, cupped hands in front of mouth to aim and intensify their curses, raised themselves up on their toes to force more sound from their lungs. Slowly they pushed back on the Guard. Ignoring bayonets, ignorant of the hidden bullets, they surged forward like the tide of a storm tossed sea. The Guard gave ground until they were all but backed against the small wooden barricade and then they could give no more.
      The students, sensing the had reached a limit, backed off a pace or two, locked sights, and began to fire volley after volley of vindictive rage into the reddened faces of the Guard.
      I can only guess what the Guard felt. Many of them had either been to college or were college students also. But that did not make them one with this politicized mob. Many probably looked disdainfully on the "long haired, hippie, freaks" taunting them. Some probably were tired and resentful of lost weekends, lost pay checks, lost days to get the crops in, all spent policing the rebellious kids in Ohio's colleges, "Spoiled rich kids who can afford to go around looking like rock stars and Indians because they don't need a job."
      I suspect that most Guardsmen were sympathetic toward the government, held a sort of vague patriotic sense toward the war of "my country right or wrong," or, "we've got to stop communism somewhere." Some probably held no opinion on the war except to make sure that they did not end up in it. Though I did not see any combat patches among the ranks, there might have been a Vietnam vet or two included. Probably there were a few who thought that Vietnam was wrong, but from a pragmatic, "it's unwinnable," point of view. They had not been convinced by the student rhetoric of "evil war, corrupt government." They didn't believe in revolution to purge the nation of its ills.
      Over the past four years these men had quelled race riots in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, Akron and war protests at every major state college. Some had to be tiring of the duty and the anger directed toward them but they still accepted the control of their leaders, tethered by lines of authority that smothered the urge to "slap some sense" into those screaming insults at them.
      "How long will that last?", I asked myself.
      I wasn't sure as to what the students felt either. The campus had changed in mood and temperament during the two years I had been away. I remembered returning to the campus just two weeks after I had left Vietnam. I had taken a Greyhound bus from Dayton to Columbus and then caught the Columbus Transit Broad Street line back to the school. As I rode I could feel the tension rise as the bus entered the campus area. Bad vibes. A gut level sensing of the no-longer-submerged conflict, town against school, students against town. That tension hadn't been there when I left. Student behavior, usually confined to public drunkenness and general tom-foolery, may have bought a raised eye brow or a clucking of tongues, but most of the city saw it as normal, healthy college nonsense.
      Then came the late sixties with students involved in free speech, civil rights, and open housing protests. This was followed hard on the heels by war protest, "living together", drugs, acid rock, sit downs and sit-ins. Collectively the student's earnest efforts had worn down the tolerance of most adults. A back lash was building, an anger that sought release somewhere, sometime. An anger unseen, like those clips of bullets inside the Guard's M-1s.
      The picnic atmosphere I had witnessed in the long morning shadows was gone. The rising heat and humidity of the day brought sharpened tempers with it. Something had happened in the last hours.
      The Guardsmen were no longer citizen soldiers, weekend warriors, people who rescue their fellow citizens during floods and tornadoes, who occasionally go off to fight in wars with Roman numerals against evil governments. No, now they were representatives of evil war and a plotting, diabolical government. Now they were the National Guard, people who impose martial law, drive tanks into the ghettos of Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, people who beat up students in Berkeley. And so, like it or not, understand it or not, they were authority's representatives and they were being insulted.
      "Ooooouuuu, is little soldier boy here to protect me? Is itty bitty soldier going to shoot me with his big gun?" Kent State 3: Photo Brandt Forrest All this mixed in with the primary mantra, "Pigs off campus! F--king pigs off campus!"
      I could see the necks beginning to redden in the olive drab ranks. The smiles and jokes were history.
      New orders passed within the ranks. Rifles were grasped between knees, the canvas gas mask bags were tugged open and the Martian like masks donned rendering each soldier into some hideous, bug-eyed mutant. From the back of the ranks came the soft pops as tear gas canisters were opened and tossed or fired into the middle of the crowd.
      For a few seconds all action was frozen, the students became silent, stunned. Thin gray streams of smoke emerged from the canisters, thickened, and then poured into the air. Then panic. Screams. Pushing. Fleeing. Then more pops. The troops advanced behind the gas. They did not push out as far as before but the distance between them and the admin building doubled.
      Those who had caught a snoot full coughed and gagged and rubbed at fiery eyes. But again the oval became the ally of the students. While tear gas is powerful, it is designed to work in a confined area. The wide open oval allowed the gas to flow everywhere giving everyone a taste, but unless a student was within a few feet of a canister they had plenty of time to move away to where it was merely unpleasant as opposed to disabling.
      I pulled out my clean handkerchief to wipe my eyes and continued to snap away with my camera, irritated, but not doubled over.
Kent State 3: Photo Brandt Forrest
      The students soon realized they could continue to harass the Guard. Having discovered their power and invincibility against everything the guard had tried, made madder by the use of gas, the students came surging back. As fast as new rounds were fired into their midst, a bandanna-masked student would rush the offending canister, pick it up and hurl it back toward the ranks.
      A chopper appeared overhead, hovered menacingly over the mob, the down draft kicking up dirt, tear gas and blades of grass and bits of trash. A terrifying rumor that there were snipers on board quickly spread through the student mob along with one that there were OSU security people on board taking photos to identify students. The helicopter increased the noise and confusion and the element of fear but then the mob caught itself and turned toward the screaming turbine, whirling blades and faceless occupants and flipped them off.
      "F--k the cameras! Go ahead, arrest me for your f--king mistakes!" rose the student battle cry. They screamed now in two directions, toward the sky and toward the Guardsmen. Like Mohammed Ali dancing in mid ring, they defied the Guard to throw another punch.
      My military mind became alarmed. Did these kids not know that there were bullets in the rifles pointed at them? Did they have any idea of the destruction made when a thiry-aught-six bullet slams into a body? Did the students realize that taunting these men increased their risk? Did the Brigadier realize that he had escalated a stand off into a frightening push and shove contest that could reach far beyond the breadth of his command?
      Clearly none of this was known by the brigadier or the students, nor did they care to know. I can only guess at what motivated the general. Was it a paternal sense that all of these kids needed a good spanking and sent home to bed without dinner? A sense that he had to protect the admin building from destruction? Did he believe that Vietnam was right and these students wrong?
      I had a better grasp at what motivated the students. It was that sense of invulnerability that lives inside all of us in youth. We take risks we would not take as adults. We drive fast, we pick fights, we dive into unmarked pools, we skate on cracked ice, we drink too much, we ingest unknown drugs or smoke unknown leaves just to see what happens, we join the military, we go to wars, we rebel. We will not die.
      I had lived out most of that in high school and college. Further, I had seen this same reckless behavior among the troops in Vietnam. In truth, it was part of the reason I went. "Why not? It will be exciting. I won't die." But I came back knowing we are all vulnerable. I was older, wiser.
      Now, here I was, able to see my former self in the reckless actions of the students. What was I thinking? Part of me wanted to join the students. My experience in Vietnam had brought me to the opinion that the war was not winnable as we were fighting it. I had seen first hand the level of corruption inside the Saigon government. I had been a part of the manipulation of news to make it seem that there was a new, revitalized, South Vietnamese army doing the bulk of the fighting. That was, I knew, a myth.
      I wanted to see us out of Vietnam. I wanted the soldiers back home. But part of me opposed the students. I had seen first hand what happened when draft deferments were passed out like candy to anyone with money, a kindly doctor, a shrewd lawyer, a place in college or grad school. As a direct result our army in the field was made up of poor blacks and whites. The cynic in me asked, "what would end the war faster; protests such as this one, or a few hundred body bags filled with kids from the suburbs?"
      Part of me wanted the respect of my parent's generation. They had survived the depression, they created a welfare system to prevent anything so cruel from happening again, they had fought and defeated fascism and militarism. They had then turned right around and rebuilt Germany, Japan and Italy into prosperous democracies. They had built schools and colleges and encouraged us to use them. Their grim determination in adversity, their generosity in prosperity was worthy of our admiration.
      But part of me saw the warts. They had liberated Europe but they turned a blind eye to segregation and race based housing. They built schools and universities and then became petulant when their sons and daughters did not share their world views. They flipped out over marijuana and ignored their own imbibing of bootleg booze during prohibition, or their use of prescription drugs to calm themselves down from the frantic pace of their corporate-suburban life style. More to the point, they did not want to listen to the possibility that the Vietnam war was wrong, their draft system biased, their government was lying.
      Part of me wanted to side with the Guardsmen. Like my fellow Nam vets, they were there doing their duty. They did not have a choice in the matter without facing the fearful consequences of court martial. Further, without the Guard the students would seize and possibly destroy the admin building.
      Then there was the taunting of the students. It smacked of elitism. They made moral judgments and presumptions on all those in uniform. I wasn't a member of the Guard, but I had been similarly abused upon my return to the States. The members of the Guard weren't pigs or baby killers or Nazis. Neither was I.
      But part of me despised the Guard. I knew how they had come to be Guardsmen. They had received a draft notice and they found a way out. They used their white skin and small town connections to get into Guard units, units that were often overstaffed, to stay out of the regular army and out of Vietnam. And then I remembered my own military decisions. I joined ROTC only because I knew I was about to be drafted. It bought me two years of freedom and the time to finish college. I had gone to the JAG guys at Ft. Lewis in May of 1968 in the hope that I could qualify for "sole surviving son" status thus avoiding duty in Vietnam. I had requested and received an "early out" to return to school and knock 50 days off of my tour. What had I done that made me the repository of patriotism?
      My God! I was in a rage with everything. What was going on inside me? I began to go through the mind tape of my personal memories of Vietnam. I remembered the caskets at Tan Son Nhut, some arriving, some departing. I remembered standing in crisp fatigues on the flight line at Biên Hòa next to a bus load of mummies; glassy eyed kids swathed in bandages, doped up on pain killers, waiting for an air ambulance home. I remembered feeling the weight of the lieutenant's bar on my collar, feeling responsible for their pain and misery, for the whole damn mess of Vietnam, wondering why I was allowed to stand there, looking swell, while they suffered. Kent State 6: Photo Brandt Forrest
      I remembered seeing that leg fall off of a litter while we did the story on "dust off." I remembered the early evening I walked by the morgue, peered into a half open door and saw a body, peppered with small holes by shrapnel, hanging by the heel as the graves registration people washed it off with a garden hose.
      I remembered the voices in our shows, the ones aged by what they had seen and done. I remembered the nineteen year old Spec Five medic, crying to me, "Sir, we do the best we can only sometimes we get'em in here and they're all messed up and we just can't save em."
      I remembered the stories killed when an interviewee failed to live long enough for us to get the story on air. I remembered the night of my hail and farewell party, steak in one hand, beer in the other, watching as a rocket slammed into the studio taking a large chunk of upper leg muscle and three fingers off of the hands of my replacement.
      I remembered Doug Knott and fellow Phi Delt, Al Lofton, two friends who would never walk the oval, or any place else, again.
      All of that had to mean something. It had to have value or else that part of my life, and the lives of others, was wasted. I could not bring myself to write it off and so I had to contemplate: What did I owe those memories? What was the right way to honor those comrades? Was it to protest and hope to end the war? Was it to damn the protesters for their infidelity? Was it just to put it all behind me and walk away as if it didn't matter?
      I belonged to all the sides in the argument and to none of them. As soon as I saw one way clear, another thought made it cloudy. I could not bring order to my mind or find peace in the resolution of the spiritual conflicts. Above it all was the rotting of my own soul. I had gone to war and knew a soldier's heart.
      I stood there, lost in my thoughts, no longer able to take photographs, turned every which way by the civil war going on in my own head. What did I believe? The questions, with and without answers, came at me faster and faster, the confusion rising in me like the choking clouds of tear gas on the now trampled electric green grass of the oval.
      My chest sagged and my throat began to burn. Though I wanted to, I could not even cry. I stood, unnoticed by the mob or the Guard, amidst noise, smoke, screamed obscenities, bayonets, hidden bullets, tear gas, olive drab and tie-dyed warriors, the chaos that engulfed the campus I loved so much, the walk I remembered so vividly and fondly, my head spinning and unable to reach a decision. I stood lost in my private frustration, alone, unable to join and stand with either group, yet longing to be accepted.
      The Orton Hall chimes announced noon. My last roll of film was shot, my throat and heart were aching. Exhausted by the inner turmoil, I slumped back toward Iuka and the long walk home. The tears I had been able to contain on the oval now burst through. Hot, wet and salty, they streamed down my cheeks, slid into the corners of my mouth, dropped to the front of my shirt.
      What was going to happen? When was some idiot going to throw a rock, when was some pissed off tin soldier going to pull a trigger, when was this whole thing going to blow up? Would it be here, or some other campus?
      That night I heard the answer in the evening news from Kent State, 100 miles north east of Ohio State University, "Four dead in Ohio."

 
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