Caught On Tape -- The Guardsmen Were Ordered to Shoot

Four Dead In Ohio

by digby

A big mystery was solved this week:

The Ohio National Guardsmen who fired on students and antiwar protesters at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 were given an order to prepare to shoot, according to a new analysis of a 40-year-old audio tape of the event.

"Guard!" says a male voice on the recording, which two forensic audio experts enhanced and evaluated at the request of The Plain Dealer. Several seconds pass. Then, "All right, prepare to fire!"

"Get down!" someone shouts urgently, presumably in the crowd. Finally, "Guard! . .." followed two seconds later by a long, booming volley of gunshots. The entire spoken sequence lasts 17 seconds.

The gunfire volley from the Guard killed four and wounded nine. The previously undetected command could begin to explain the central mystery of the Kent State tragedy - why 28 Guardsmen pivoted in unison atop Blanket Hill, raised their rifles and pistols and fired 67 times, killing four students and wounding nine others in an act that galvanized sentiment against the Vietnam War.

The order indicates that the gunshots were not spontaneous, or in response to sniper fire, as some have suggested over the years.

"I think this is a major development," said Alan Canfora, one of the wounded, who located a copy of the tape in a library archive in 2007 and has urged that it be professionally reviewed. "There's been a grave injustice for 40 years because we lacked sufficient evidence to prove what we've known all along - that the Ohio National Guard was commanded to kill at Kent State on May 4, 1970."


This excerpt from a copy of Terry Strubbe's Kent State recording contains the order for the Guard to prepare to fire. The word "Guard!" can be heard at 9.3 seconds. "All right, prepare to fire" begins at 19.5 seconds. "Get down!" is spoken at 22.3 seconds. The final "Guard!" is at 23.7 seconds, and the gunshots begin at 26 seconds.

The review was done by Stuart Allen and Tom Owen, two nationally respected forensic audio experts with decades of experience working with government and law enforcement agencies and private clients to decipher recorded information...

Although they occasionally testify on opposing sides in court cases hinging on audio evidence, Owen and Allen concur on the command's wording. Both men said they are confident their interpretation is correct, and would testify to its accuracy under oath, if asked.

Here's an excerpt from Nixonland on Kent State, which offers some important perspective as we think about what this all means:

On the Kent State campus there were bomb threats at fifteen-to-thirty-minute intervals. Eleven a.m. classes were cut short; the commotion outside was too great. The university radio station and intercoms announced, “All outdoor demonstrations and gatherings are banned by order of the governor. The National Guard has the power of arrest.” But when a class session let out on a major university campus, it looked all the world like a “gathering.” Only a fraction of students had heard the radio and intercom announcements anyway. University administrators could have told law enforcement that. But the governor had banned university administrators—quislings—from the operation’s planning.

Fifteen minutes to noon. Students made their way toward whatever it was they did on an ordinary Monday. A general saw what looked to him like a mob. Three minutes later, someone rang the Victory Bell and started rousing rabble for a noon rally. A minute after that, a campus police officer shouted the riot act into a bullhorn. He was standing by the ROTC rubble; now the military’s staging area, its ashes a constant reminder of what these students were capable of. Hardly anyone could hear the announcement.

A jeep made its way across the common: another hail of rocks.

At 11:55 guardsmen were ordered to load and lock their weapons and prepare to disperse gas. Two columns of troops moved out in a V, one directly east, another northeasterly. The eastbound company had to summit a steep hill south of Taylor Hall, a major campus building—the kind of slope, on college campuses, useful for wintertime sledding on cafeteria trays. As they trudged, they dispensed tear gas from their M79 canister guns. The boldest demonstrators picked up the hot metal cans and threw them back. Under suffocating gas masks, their visibility limited, the guardsmen pressed forward, determined to push the students into retreat. The militants hustled beside Taylor Hall for cover. The soldiers were unaware that they had only about a hundred yards to go before they would run into a fence. The fence curled around to keep them from moving east or north; a gymnasium kept them from moving south. They were trapped, with nothing to do but turn around—a retreat under fire, the most dangerous of military maneuvers. Sixty or seventy soldiers, trapped. What was it President Nixon had said about the “pitiful, helpless giant,” faced with “the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy”?

Lots of roofs: from which one would the sniping begin?

They were afraid they were out of tear gas. Radicals who thought their adversaries only armed with blanks shrieked insults, threw rocks, waved strange flags. “Pigs off campus! Pigs off campus! Pigs off campus!” The guardsmen couldn’t tell, but felt like they must have been surrounded.

They looped around for their humiliating return journey.

Then, at 12:24 p.m., several guardsmen stopped, turned almost completely around, dropped to one knee, and took aim at a cluster of students far away in a parking lot beyond the fence.

Sixty-seven shots in thirteen seconds.

Thirteen students down, mostly bystanders.

One was paralyzed. Four were killed: Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Jeff Miller, and Sandra Lee Scheuer, ages nineteen, nineteen, twenty, and twenty. The Associated Press’s dispatch went out. The Dow dropped 3 percent in two hours—the most dramatic dip since John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Two Students, Two Guardsmen Dead, the local paper reported.Those two students had it coming, much of Kent decided.

A respected lawyer told an Akron paper, “Frankly, if I’d been faced with the same situation and had a submachine gun . . . there probably would have been 140 of them dead.” People expressed disappointment that the rabble-rousing professors—the gurus—had escaped: “The only mistake they made was not to shoot all the students and then start in on the faculty.”

When it was established that none of the four victims were guardsmen, citizens greeted each other by flashing four fingers in the air (“The score is four / And next time more”). The Kent paper printed pages of letters for weeks, a community purgation: “Hurray! I shout for God and Country, recourse to justice under
law, fifes, drums, marshal music, parades, ice cream cones—America—support it or leave it.” “Why do they allow these so-called educated punks, who apparently know only how to spell four-lettered words, to run loose on our campuses tearing down and destroying that which good men spent years building up? ...

Signed by one who was taught that ‘to educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.’” “I extend appreciation and whole-hearted support of the Guard of every state for their fine efforts in protecting citizens like me and our property.” “When is the long-suffering silent majority going to rise up?”

It was the advance guard of a national mood. A Gallup poll found 58 percent blamed the Kent students for their own deaths. Only 11 percent blamed the National Guard.

A rumor spread in Kent that Jeff Miller, whose head was blown off, was such a dirty hippie that they had to keep the ambulance door open on the way to the hospital for the smell. Another rumor was that five hundred Black Panthers were on their way from elsewhere in Ohio to lead a real riot; and that Allison Krause was “the campus whore” and found with hand grenades on her.

Many recalled the State of Ohio’s original intention for the land upon which Kent State was built: a lunatic asylum. President White was flooded with letters saying it was his fault for letting Jerry Rubin speak on campus. Students started talking about the “Easy Rider syndrome,” after the Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda movie about hippies murdered by vigilantes. Townspeople picketed memorial services. “The Kent State Four!” they chanted. “Should have studied more!”

“Anyone who appears on the streets of a city like Kent with long hair, dirty clothes, or barefooted deserves to be shot,” a Kent resident told a researcher.

“Have I your permission to quote that?”

“You sure do. It would have been better if the Guard had shot the whole lot of them that morning.”

“But you had three sons there.”

“If they didn’t do what the Guards told them, they should have been mowed down.”

A letter to Life later that summer read, “It was a valuable object lesson to homegrown advocates of anarchy and revolution, regardless of age.”

Time had called the Silent Majority “not so much shrill as perplexed,” possessed of “a civics-book sense of decency.” Pity poor Time, whose America was but a memory.

Copyright © 2008 by Rick Perlstein.

I often make the mistake of thinking that America didn't used to be so mean. That's a middle aged person's error, I'm afraid --- from one who is beginning to fall prey to nostalgia for her youth. I am genuinely shocked by the callousness of people who laugh at a mentally ill person being shot with a taser and I'm sickened that people blithely suggest that terrorist suspects should be stripped of their citizenship and tortured --- but then I always was shocked by this harsh worldview. I just forget sometimes what it was really like.

People keep wondering if violent video games and television have made people less sensitive and empathetic. Wrong. This country has always been full of people who think this way --- and they are always considered to be the salt of the earth Real Americans while those who struggle for change are rabble-rousers and shit-disturbers. The liberals and the reactionaries (the hippies and the straights) have been at it forever.

The country eventually disengaged from Vietnam. But that was only one skirmish in our ongoing tribal struggle --- it still rages today. History can now record what really happened that day at Kent State. But I think we can assume from the Nixonland excerpt that whether or not the Guardsmen shot under orders was never really the issue anyway.

The funny thing is that the same Real Americans who believed the protesters deserved it would join the tea parties today and complain mightily about government overreach. In fact, many of them probably have.