May 4, 1970, was a Monday. The Vietnam War was ripping Southeast Asia apart, while an altogether different war raged across and throughout the American heartland. On the campus of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, forces representing the Establishment were arrayed against a motley mob of some 2,000 students, hippies, stoners, bikers, and sundry anti-war protestors.
Fertile Ground for Chaos
Richard Nixon was two years into a term brought about by his promises to end American involvement in Vietnam. The My Lai Massacre in November of 1969 put an exceptionally ugly face on the conflict, while the pressure of a national draft kept the war personal for American young people. By 1970, student protests at colleges across the country were becoming overtly violent.
On April 10, Jerry Rubin, the leader of the Youth International Party, announced, “The first part of the Yippie program is to kill your parents. They are the first oppressors.”
On April 30, President Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, a move widely seen as an unwelcome expansion of the conflict in Vietnam. By the first of May, demonstrations were being held both formally and otherwise across the country.
On Friday, May 1 in Kent, Ohio, protesters began vandalizing the downtown area by breaking windows and pelting police cars with beer bottles. Kent Mayor LeRoy Satrom declared a state of emergency and reached out to Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes for support. Governor Rhodes authorized the deployment of two Infantry companies and an Armored Cavalry troop. On the evening of Saturday, May 2, protesters burned the Kent State ROTC building to the ground.
For much of that weekend, chaos reigned across the Kent State campus. Law Enforcement, firefighters, National Guardsmen, and anyone else viewed as being an authority figure were pelted with rocks and bottles. The Guardsmen responded with tear gas. Protesters were commanded to disperse at the point of the bayonet. Though there were a few minor injuries most of the damage was thus far confined to property.
By noon there were violent running encounters between the roughly 2,000 protesters and some 77 National Guard troops armed predominantly with M1 rifles. Windy conditions minimized the effectiveness of tear gas, and protesting students lobbed volleys of rocks at the Guardsmen. The crowds of protesters dispersed and then coalesced fairly randomly in response to the movements of the National Guard troops. Some protesters departed the area, but a great many pursued the main body of troops verbally taunting them and throwing stones.
The soldiers moved back toward the campus Commons area. The main body of protesters followed them shouting and throwing rocks. Some of the Guardsmen then stopped, knelt, and trained their rifles on the rowdy mob. Sergeant Myron Pryor then purportedly drew his M1911A1 .45ACP pistol and fired at the crowd. There followed a ragged volley of rifle fire lasting 13 seconds.
The Forensics of the Tragedy
When SGT Pryor first fired his weapon the nearest student to the National Guard formation was 71 feet away. 29 of the 77 Ohio National Guard soldiers later reported having discharged their weapons. Over the course of thirteen seconds, they fired a total of 67 rounds.
Four students were killed and another nine injured. Two of the students, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, were participants in the protest. The other two, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, were walking between classes and not actively involved. Schroeder was actually a member of the Kent State ROTC unit.
Scheuer was shot through the neck at 120 meters. Schroeder was shot in the chest from a range of 116 meters. Krause was hit in the chest from 105 meters, and Miller was shot in the head at 81 meters.
Of the nine protesters who were injured, all were male. Distances ranged from 22 to 230 meters. Dean Kahler was left permanently paralyzed with a spinal cord injury. James Russell was struck in the forehead with birdshot.
There were allegations that the exchange was precipitated by gunfire against the Guardsmen. The Ohio National Guard commander, General Robert Canterbury, had personally given the order to lock and load rifles prior to the push to disperse the crowds.
SGT Pryor’s M1911A1 was an evolutionary development of John Moses Browning’s extraordinary M1911. Developed around the beginning of the 20th century, the M1911 was a radically advanced sidearm for its day.
The M1911 saw active service with American forces during WW1. In 1924 the basic design was slightly tweaked into the definitive model that carried US forces through WW2, Korea, and Vietnam. These changes included a longer grip safety spur, simplified grips, a shorter trigger, frame cutouts behind the trigger, an arched mainspring housing, and a handful of lesser adjustments. The resulting pistol was and is reliable, relatively accurate, and undeniably powerful.
The M1 rifle entered service in 1936 and soldiered on as the standard Infantry rifle for the US Army until it was supplanted by the M14 in 1958. A semiautomatic gas-operated design, the M1 was an integral part of the Allied victory during WW2. The weapon obviously remained in service with Army Reserve and National Guard units until the 1970s.
Though bulky and heavy by modern standards, the M1 was a generation more advanced when compared to the bolt-action weapons used by every other major combatant during the Second World War. Given the weapon’s length and rugged construction, it also made for a proper close-quarter tool when equipped with a bayonet. The M1 is rightfully revered by military history enthusiasts as well as those who carried the weapon operationally.
At least one of the Guardsmen involved in the Kent State shooting was carrying a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun. I’ve pored over the period pictures and cannot definitively pick out a shotgun. However, the US Army has used a wide variety of scatterguns operationally over the years. The Remington 870 was in common use at the time. The Winchester 1897 Trench Gun saw service all the way from WW1 up to the 1991 Gulf War.
The Ohio National Guardsmen used M79 grenade launchers to throw tear gas canisters. In use from 1961 to the present, the M79 has been variously known as the “Thumper,” the “Bloop Tube,” the “Elephant Gun,” and “Big Ed” by the American troops who wielded it. Australians referred to this beloved weapon as the “Wombat Gun.”
The M79 utilizes the High-Low Propulsion System that minimizes recoil from its 40x46mm grenades. The Mk19 automatic grenade launcher fires 40x53mm grenades that are not interchangeable with those for the M79.
The M79 was largely replaced by the under-barrel M203 which has itself been largely supplanted in US service by the HK M320.
More than anything else a single photograph was taken by John Filo defined the horror of the Kent State shootings. Filo was a photojournalism student at the time and snapped the picture spontaneously. He won the Pulitzer Prize for the image.
The young lady in the photo is a 14-year-old runaway named Mary Ann Vechio. Vechio was an Italian immigrant who left her home and Westview Junior High School in Opa-Locka, Florida, to illicitly visit the Kent State campus. In the aftermath of the shooting and the photo, Vechio traded her story to a local reporter for a bus ticket to California. Police apprehended her before she could get on the bus and returned the girl to her family. She later sued T-shirt companies for 40% of the profits from shirts featuring her likeness.
As is the case with all such chaotic public events, controversy swirls to this day over the details. Terry Norman was a junior at Kent State at the time of the shootings and was surveilling students and demonstrators at the behest of the campus police and the FBI. He was equipped with a gas mask and was carrying a concealed .38 revolver at the time. Though the details are certainly murky, it has been alleged that Norman discharged his handgun as many as four times some 70 seconds prior to the Guardsmen opening fire with their rifles.
Eyewitness accounts have been conflicting as has been forensic analysis of the scant audio tapes available from the event. However, had Norman actually discharged his weapon in self-defense as has been alleged it would lend credence to the National Guard version of events that they fired in response to gunfire they perceived to be directed at them. The moment was certainly violent and chaotic enough to have been confusing.
The Kent State shootings ultimately helped catalyze the US withdrawal from Vietnam as well as the downfall of President Richard Nixon. This event also transformed crowd control tactics, tools, and techniques around the world. However, as I researched this sordid event I was inexorably drawn back to a single timeless truth. No matter the righteousness of your cause, whether you are on a college campus, an energized public square, or the Gaza strip, it is seldom wise to throw rocks at guys with guns.