Remembering Kent State: Eyewitnesses Describe May 4, 1970
Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State when Ohio National Guardsmen shot 13 university students, killing 4. For the past three decades eyewitnesses have been traveling back to campus to record their memories for an oral history project at the library. These are their memories of May 4, 1970.
Kent State had been a fairly active school for protests going back to the early 1960s. By 1970 opposition to the Vietnam War was large and growing. President Richard Nixon’s announcement on April 30 that the war would be expanded into Cambodia sparked outrage among students who hoped the conflict would be winding down.
Chuck Ayers, a junior graphic design major, recalls each student's focus on their draft lottery number. It could decide whether they would be shipped off to war.
“The first draft lottery in ’69 - if you didn't go through those times it’s hard to understand what was going through people’s heads,” Ayers recalled. “There was a tension in almost everything that people did at that time. Things in the war were just building up. The antiwar feelings were getting stronger and stronger all the time.”
On Friday night May 1, a mix of protesters and partiers lit a fire in a barrel on Water Street and began blocking cars. Mayor LeRoy Satrom and his police chief, Roy Thompson, already nervous over rumors that “hippies” were going to attack the city’s water supply, called a curfew and closed the bars. That led an angry crowd to empty onto the streets in a small riot, breaking some shop windows. Satrom called Columbus to inquire about help from the National Guard.
The next evening some students set fire to a one-story wooden building on campus used by the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).
“It was just all kinds of kids scattered around the hill, cheering the fire,” said freshman marketing major Denny Benedict. “Not that I agreed with burning the building, but it was an old, World War II, 1940s, old wooden barracks that should have been torn down.”
Sociology major Ellis Berns watched students throw rocks at firefighters, “and what really pissed me off was my peers, my [fellow] students, my people protesting were actually cutting the fire hose, which made absolutely no sense to me.”
Ohio National Guard units had already been deployed at a truckers’ strike in Akron, Richfield and Cleveland when they got the call to head to Kent. One Kent State student had been called up for his first deployment in the Guard. In telling his story he wished to remain anonymous.
“As we approached campus, which was evening…you could see the fire, the glow of the fire on 76 as we approached Kent,” he said.
The Guard deployed with fixed bayonets on their M1 rifles and sealed off the town with road blocks.
On Sunday May 3, Governor James Rhodes arrived in Kent and denounced the protesters as “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” Rhodes was running for the Republican nomination in the U.S. Senate race. The primary election was coming up on May 5, and he was running as a law and order candidate.
“No one is safe,” he said, “and I don’t think that people understand the seriousness of these individuals organized in a revolutionary frame of mind, believe me.”
Many students who had been off campus over the weekend returned to Kent Sunday to find the school had an occupying force of several hundred guardsmen.
“When I got back on Sunday — Sunday late afternoon,” recalled Joseph Sima, “I thought I was in a war zone of Vietnam: helicopters that were three times anything I had ever seen, armored cars, jeeps, machine guns, mini-tanks, soldiers everywhere.”
“So Sunday, when we came back on campus and we saw all these tanks and troop carriers and jeeps all over campus, we thought it was funny,” recalled Diane Yale-Peabody, a sophomore journalism major.
But when night came “things got ugly,” the KSU student/guardsman remembered. Students rallied on Main Street at the front of campus waiting for Mayor Satrom to come and hear their demands.
He arrived incognito and never showed himself. The Guard then moved in and used tear gas and bayonets to chase students back to their dorms as helicopters with searchlights hovered overhead.
“OK, we had bayonets and they didn’t,” the anonymous guardsman remembered. “They ran. They were stabbed. One was stabbed in the hand. It was pinned against the building. They ran the bayonet through his hand into the building. Another individual was slashed. We had masks on. We were anonymous. We had taken our name tags off our jackets. We were anonymous.”
By Monday morning when students were taking midterm exams, guardsmen holding rifles with bayonets stood outside every building on campus. Freshman Janice Marie (Gierman) Wascko lived in town and was angered when she saw the Guard presence.
“We get up to campus, and it is like the war had come home,” she said. “There was all these guys, and it was like we were the enemy. It is a state university. I worked my buns off to get through school. I paid my way through school. And it’s like, who are you people?”
A rally was planned for noon, but student Curtis Pittman was not going.
“Monday, we was aware — well, I was aware — of the rally that was supposed to take place on the commons,” he said. “But at the same time, the Black United Students, which I was a member of, had encouraged the Black students to stay away from the rally because they felt that if there had been any kind of trouble, that most likely we would be the first ones targeted.”
“There were maybe 40 people really protesting, the hard core protesters,” said Denny Benedict, a freshman marketing major who watched the noon rally from a hilltop. “Most everybody was onlookers, because it was at noon, right in the center of campus, change of class.”
Berns said Vietnam was no longer the issue.
“My protest became more and more adamant towards getting the National Guard off of the university more than anything, because I felt passionate about, as students, that we had the right to protest,” he said.
Junior Ken Hammond, who had been active in the Students for a Democratic Society a year earlier, spoke to the crowd from the brick wall where the “victory bell” was mounted on the south end of the commons.
“And so I said, ‘What do you want to do? Should we have a strike?’ And people who could hear me — of course, we didn’t have any mics, we didn’t have a bullhorn, we didn’t have anything like that — started chanting, started going, ‘Strike, strike, strike.’ But that was maybe a few hundred people out of a couple thousand people that were out there.”
National Guardsmen were stationed about 100 yards away at the north end of the grass expanse. Three soldiers and a school police officer drove toward the students in a jeep.
KSU police officer Harold Rice ordered the crowd to disperse. "Leave this area immediately! Leave this area immediately, for your own safety,” he said.
“I think that’s where the mistake was made,” said Benedict. “Somebody decided to clear the area. If they would have just let it go on, it would have just been a protest, petered out, and that would have been the end of it, in my opinion.”
Bill Barrett, a Kent State employee, was observing the demonstrators for the university news and information office.
“They paid about as much attention as protesters will pay, throwing rocks and things,” he recalled. “None of them that I could see were reaching the jeep; it was a little too far in front of them, but they were more or less letting them know that they had no intention of going.”
As Chuck Ayers saw it, “the army itself was the symbol of what everyone was angry about.”
About 75 guardsmen marched with bayonets out to drive the students up a hill where Taylor Hall stood and then continued down the other side to a practice football field where they stopped. Some students tried to hit them with rocks but most fell short.
To aerospace student Jim Sprance, the conflict didn't seem serious.
“I can remember seeing the tear gas thing. It was a big game of catch with the tear gas canisters going on, but again, it was still a game in my mind,” Sprance said. “There wasn’t a violent demonstration going on. I did not see any rocks being thrown at that point. I did see canisters being traded back and forth.”
Nearly 100 yards away, Henry Mankowski was walking with a friend when about a dozen troopers raised their weapons.
“And when they knelt and aimed, Ken and I were at the point where they were aiming at us because I remember I turned to him and said, ‘Who are they aiming at?’”
After a pause the troops began to head back to the commons.
“They began to come back up the hill and at that point I kind of felt like things were winding down,” said architecture student John Cleary who was taking photos as the guards walked by him. “You know, they made their advance, they pushed the students off of the commons, so now they were going back to the commons.”
At that time sociology major Ellis Berns saw his friend Sandy Scheuer.
“She was next to me, and I said, ‘Let’s go. I'm tired of this. Let’s just get out of here. I’ve got to see my girlfriend. You’ve got to get to class.’ And so we were actually heading away,” said Berns.
University employee Bill Barrett was in front of the Guard, beginning to head downhill to the commons. He looked back to see the soldiers stop.
“I was probably 20, 25 yards behind where the Guard stopped at the top of the hill, and I watched them as they turned,” he recalled. “I know student accounts and some other accounts from the other side talk about them whirling around, but they certainly didn’t whirl; they were pretty deliberate about turning around and forming a line there by the pagoda.”
Student John Cleary: “As they got near the top of the hill, I wanted to get one last picture of them before they went over the crest of the hill. So I was kind of getting my camera, I was winding it, getting ready to take another shot and suddenly, they just turned and fired. It was like this volley of gunshots.
“And then I got hit in the chest. I guess the best way I can describe it is like getting hit in the chest with a sledgehammer. It just really knocked me down. I don't remember too much after that. I don't remember the ambulance ride.”
Ellen Mann was walking with her friend Joseph Lewis 30 yards below the retreating Guard.
“At that point I looked at Joseph, and I saw he was giving them the finger,” she said. “The next thing I know, he falls, he screams, ‘Oh my God, they shot me!’ And he falls to the ground.”
Berns and Scheuer dove to the ground. “It just seemed to last forever. We both hit the ground. I had my arm around her, my left arm around her.”
Henry Mankowski heard bullets whiz past his head.
“And right off to my right, I saw someone get hit in the chest, and it turned out to be [William] Schroeder. I mean, the impact of the bullet just picked him up off the ground and thrust him backwards, arms and legs. I mean, it’s burnt — burnt into my mind and my memory.”
“So we looked around, and you noticed in the parking lot,” said Benedict, “some of the kids weren’t getting up.”
Berns still had his arm over his friend.
“I remember calling out to her, ‘Sandy, it’s over. Let’s go, let’s go.’ I remember calling out to her, and there was no response,” he said. “And then I looked. And then I realized that I believe she had been, she was hit… The bullet had not just grazed her but had severed a carotid artery. So there was a lot of blood.
“I was in a state of like, I don’t know what to do. I remember trying to administer first aid. I remember trying to reach in to try to stop the bleeding into her neck.”
One guardsman who wishes to remain anonymous was also a Kent State student. He never heard an order and wasn’t sure why his fellow soldiers were shooting, but he was ready to join them.
“And I’m sayin’ to myself, ‘Should I shoot? Shouldn’t I shoot?’ I couldn’t shoot, there was someone in front of me…Several of us were lowering our weapons into the firing position, but our own men were in front of us. We would have probably turned right and fired. I would have. I can’t speak for anyone else in the Guard, but knowing that there was firing going on, I would have more than likely emptied my weapon.”
“But their leaders, they were halfway down the hill,” noted Benedict. “They were running back up, hitting these guys, telling them to stop and pushing their rifles out of the way, trying to get them to stop.”
After the shootings a silence fell over the area. Then the survivors began to scream.
The debate continues on whether there was an order or signal to shoot.
Bill Barrett didn’t notice any from his viewpoint: “I’m not trying to say that there was any signal given. They were simply ready and somebody pulled the trigger. That was my impression, and the rest just followed suit.”
Mann and other students began to attend to Joseph Lewis, who had been shot in the stomach and leg.
“It was really gory and really bloody. So we knew we had to put some pressure on that. So we used my shirt that I had gotten wet, and we wadded it up and put pressure on it because there was nobody helping. It was just us there,” said Mann. “The guardsmen standing there and then they just left, they disappeared.”
Senior arts major Carol Mirman said she was in the line of fire but was not hit. She heard bullets pass by. When she got up she saw the body of Jeffrey Miller. He was 265 feet from the shooters.
“I’d never seen blood like that. I’d never seen anything like that. It was a complete shock,” Mirman said. “I wanted to touch him. I remember wanting to hold him, but I was afraid of the blood. I did touch him, I did touch and hold his hand ’cause I didn't want him to feel alone. I figured how can anybody live with this, his life was running down the sidewalk. Running. Just kept flowing.”
The Guard retreated to the commons and students, outraged over the shootings, wanted to attack them.
Student Steve Titchenal had been tape recording much of the conflicts that weekend.
“The afternoon after May 4 I think was actually almost more scary than the shooting because I think it came very close to additional casualties occurring because students were very upset, obviously, by what had happened,” he recalled. “And the guardsmen seemed to be very intent on just clearing everybody out.”
National Guard Captain Ron Snyder said the soldiers were reloading. “There was a point in time when General Canterbury came up, and I don’t recall the exact words, but pretty much it was to the effect that if we had a huge assault on our position, was to fire.”
After Sandy Scheuer had been taken away in an ambulance, Ellis Berns ran to the Guard.
“I remember the Guard was not letting anybody in, and they were pointing guns,” he said. “I remember I ripped my jacket off, this green fatigue jacket with Sandra’s blood, and I threw it at them. And I told him to go f*** himself. I was just livid. I didn’t know what to do.”
Geology Professor Glenn Frank, a faculty marshal trying to maintain peace that weekend, urged National Guard leaders to not march toward the students again. They refused so he went to the students.
“I don’t care whether you have never listened to anyone before in your lives, I am begging you right now,“ Frank shouted to the students. “If you don’t disperse right now they are going to move in, and it could only be a slaughter! Would you please listen to me? Jesus Christ! I don’t want to be a part of this! Please!”
“And people listened, and we dispersed,” recalled Randy Gardner, a freshman interested in studying psychology and mental health. “And we slowly walked up the hill. Some people didn’t, I mean some people were still angry and just full of rage and everything, and you know, rightfully so for the massacre we had just witnessed.
“Yeah, I was stunned. I was stunned. I remember I was angry. And I was kind of closed in to myself, I think.”
Nine students were wounded, four killed. Jeffrey Miller, Sandy Scheuer, William Schroeder and Allison Krause were all dead on arrival at Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna. A physician who wished to remain anonymous, performed one of the autopsies.
“That was a terrible day for us. Mr. Krause drove over from Pittsburgh. The poor man came over and identified his daughter, it was terrible.
“I can recall leaving that evening, coming home, and driving through downtown Ravenna and the streets were just absolutely deserted. Everybody was home and there was just absolutely no traffic on the roads other than myself. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘My goodness, this is terrible. This is the United States of America and this should not be happening.’”
In the immediate aftermath, students were blamed for the killings. James Stroh was a student but also a veteran of the Vietnam War.
“When I got home, my father was very upset. I mean totally upset,” he recalled. “Matter of fact, the words were such that my mother started shutting windows because it was getting loud and she didn’t want the neighbors to hear. My father’s only comment was they should’ve shot them all, and I said, ‘Well if they did, they would’ve shot me too.’ And he goes, ‘Well, if you were there they should’ve.’ That was in 1970.”
Art professor Brinsley Tyrrell heard from other students with similar stories.
“I suppose it’s about two days after the shootings, when I start to get students turning up on my doorstep, pretty incoherent, bursting into tears,” he said. “There was one person whose name I don’t remember who’d been in my class who came back. His parents had not allowed him in the house, screamed through the letterbox at him that they never wanted to see him again.”
Even faculty members like Tyrrell paid a price.
“Both my kids were not allowed to play with any of their friends simply because they were children of someone who worked at the university,“ Tyrell said. “My wife reminded me last night that they were both stoned at one point by other children. In fact, William got hurt—quite a nasty cut from a stone.”
That semester, the university never reopened and students reported having difficulties getting jobs when their school affiliation became known.
A special state grand jury exonerated the guardsmen but indicted 25 students. By the end of 1971 those indictments would be dropped. The Nixon administration’s justice department flip flopped over a federal indictment against the National Guard until finally indicting eight guardsmen almost four years after the shooting.
Criminal cases became civil cases until 1979 when the state of Ohio settled out of court and issued an award of $675,000 to the victims, half of which went to Dean Kahler, a freshman who was permanently paralyzed by a bullet.
The state did not apologize but issued a “statement of regret.” On May 4, 1990, then-Ohio Governor Richard Celeste went to campus and apologized on behalf of the state.
Copyright 2022 WCPN. To see more, visit WCPN.