2020-05-03 15:42:43 UTC
May 4, 1970
Marc A. Catone
I grew up in Danbury CT, spending much of my childhood and teenage years in the city’s Rogers Park. It was the place where I played ball, rode my bike, and fell in and out of love. I was standing in Rogers Park on the afternoon of May 4, 1970 when the sky caught my attention. A canopy of cobalt blue swirled overhead with white puffy clouds drifting towards the horizon. The beautiful day almost made me forget why I was there...to plead and pray that the United States withdraw its troops from Southeast Asia.
Four days earlier, Richard Nixon announced to a stunned and war-weary American public that our nation's armed forces had invaded Cambodia. Suddenly, the war expanded from the "Vietnam War" to the "War in Southeast Asia". Apparently, this was what Nixon meant during the 1968 presidential campaign when he claimed to have a "secret plan to end the war in Vietnam." The outrage caused by this military action increased antiwar protests in cities and on campuses across the country. Danbury was no exception.
In May 1970, I was in my sophomore year at Western Connecticut State University, a small college specializing in education majors. In October 1969, I became an active participant in the campus antiwar group, the CEW (Committee to End the War), which organized for the Vietnam Moratorium protests and teach-ins. The CEW was comprised of students, faculty, and Vietnam Vets. In response to Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, we marched from the campus on White Street to the War Memorial Building at the entrance to Rogers Park. Some people sang "Give Peace A Chance" while others held signs denouncing the war. As we passed the Danbury Police headquarters, I noticed two squad cars following us slowly along our route.
The march was going smoothly until we neared a car dealership with a very large American flag hanging over the sidewalk. A fellow marcher, just ahead of me, tapped the edge of the flag playfully with his index finger as he ducked his head to walk underneath it. A car salesman, standing at the entrance of the auto showroom, saw this and began calling us every name in the book. For a few moments, he was ready to jump into our procession with his fists swinging. The situation had the potential to develop into a very ugly scene. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the rest of the march to Rogers Park continued without incident.
Once we arrived at the War Memorial, we were joined by Danbury High School students and other members of the community. The "Pledge Of Allegiance" was said “with liberty and justice for some”, speeches were made, and prayers were offered for the end of war and safe return of American soldiers. After the meeting was done, I walked to my house on the other side of the park. I noticed the deep blue sky fading in the glare of the late afternoon sun. Once home, I switched on the TV to watch the Six O'clock News. That's when I first heard the reports about students murdered on the campus of Kent State University.
Forty years ago, Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer were shot and killed by Troop G of the Ohio National Guard. I was shocked, saddened, and angered by their deaths. A phrase began to circulate inside my head. This internal tape loop repeated...IT COULD HAVE BEEN ME...over and over. Certainly, the situation on the large Kent State campus had been tenser than the atmosphere on my small college campus in Danbury, but I felt a bond and kinship with the four slain students in Ohio nonetheless. They were exactly my age...19. Jeff and Allison were actively involved in the campus demonstrations. Jeff and Sandy knew each other and were friends. Sandy, who wanted to be a speech therapist, was walking to her next class when she was killed. Bill was an ROTC student. According to his mother, Bill was becoming skeptical about America's role in Vietnam. He had just completed a test in his ROTC "War Tactics" class when he decided to attend the afternoon rally on campus.
Jeff, Allison, Bill, and Sandy were among a scattered crowd in a parking lot 250-400 feet away from the National Guard. Troop G was moving up a hill, their backs to the students, when, without provocation and as if on command, they turned around, pointed their guns, and fired into the crowd for thirteen seconds. When the shooting stopped, four students were dead and nine were wounded. Dean Kahler was paralyzed for life when a bullet entered his spine. Years later, the Scranton Commission concluded that the gunfire from the Ohio National Guard was "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."
More recently, in 2007, Alan Canfora, one of those wounded on May 4th, acquired a tape made from a reel-to-reel recorder, whose microphone was on a building’s ledge above Troop G. For years this tape was in the possession of the Yale University archives. Clearly can be heard the orders, "Right here...Get set...Point...Fire." Thus refuting the National Guard’s decades long denial that any orders had been given to fire upon the dispersing crowd.
Jeff, Allison, Bill, and Sandy have come to symbolize young Americans exercising their right to disagree with their government's policies. For me, their deaths brought home the message that our country will tolerate protest, but only up to a point…interfere with the war machine and one risks death.
If they were alive today, each of the Kent State Four would be 60 years old. Nearing that milestone age this year myself, I’ve always tried to honor their memories, both personally and politically. As the David Crosby song goes:
"I feel like I owe it to someone."