Remembering the Kent State massacre, 51 years later - opinion

I hope that today’s troops are far better trained and infinitely better led than in my day.

JOHN FILO’S Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph shows Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after the unarmed student was shot dead by an Ohio National Guardsman. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
JOHN FILO’S Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph shows Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after the unarmed student was shot dead by an Ohio National Guardsman.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
 Anyone who ever served in the military has heard the saying, “We the untrained led by the unqualified to do the unnecessary.” That was tragically true 51 years ago this week when my Ohio Army National Guard unit, the 107th Armored Cavalry, made history at Kent State University.
I knew the campus well from my time covering Portage County as a reporter in the nearby Akron Bureau of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and from my wife’s time there as a grad student. But I was not at Kent State on May 4, 1970.
I was in the headquarters company of the 107th stationed at the Shaker Heights Armory and not deployed at KSU that day, but I spoke with some who were there on all sides. I was an editorial writer on the Plain Dealer that day and the first word I got was a particularly disturbing call from a senior Guard officer at the scene. It was his opinion and that of others I spoke to in the coming days that the tragedy was largely the result of poorly trained and worse led soldiers.
I knew firsthand that the training was virtually non-existent in my company, and it is fair to assume it wasn’t much better for the rest of the regiment.
The incompetence started at the very top with Gov. James A. Rhodes, who was running in the Republican Senate primary the next day because he was term-limited as governor.
An avid admirer of Richard Nixon, he tried to emulate his hero’s red-baiting style in the hope his tough crackdown on the students would help propel him to victory.
He inflamed an already tense situation by calling the demonstrators “worse than the Brownshirts, and the Communist element, and also the Night Riders, and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”
He lost the next day to Robert A. Taft Jr., who went on in November to defeat Democrat Howard M. Metzenbaum for the seat vacated by the retiring Democrat Stephen M. Young.
Nixon’s reaction to the tragedy suggested the students deserved what they got. Quoting the president, press secretary Ron Ziegler said, “When dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.”
Rhodes shares responsibility for the KSU tragedy along with his adjutant general Sylvester Del Corso, who was responsible to see that his troops were properly trained and led. Which they clearly were not.
OUR RIOT TRAINING, if you can call it that, was a total farce. Not only did I get a sharpshooter medal for my skills on a rifle I never fired, but we had been told that if we just signed a card that we had gone through several sessions of riot training we wouldn’t have to bother. All in all, we had no more than a couple of hours of meaningless exercises in facing a mob.
I learned the troops at Kent State were not supposed to have live ammunition in their M-1 rifles. When my company of the 107th was called up two years earlier for the race riots in Cleveland, we were given several rounds of live ammo but told to keep them in our pockets unless specifically ordered otherwise.
In the violent summer of 1968, I was one of the National Guardsmen activated for riot duty. Parts of my city, Cleveland, were burning and there was extensive looting and damage. In fact, one of the spark points was my old elementary school, Rosedale, which was burned down.
I was a private first class (the rank I came in and left with six years later) and assigned to City Hall to help the Guard’s spokesman, a major, and to leak info – some which the army wanted out, some it did not – to my fellow reporters in the city.
My big assignment was to go around in a jeep – with a driver and armed escort – photographing the action. I took a lot of pictures of police and Guardsmen just standing around watching looters help themselves at a furniture and appliance store near my old neighborhood. When I reported this to my commanding officer, he confiscated my film and nothing was ever said or done about it.
I’d been called up the year before as well as a precaution against fear of rioting by the losing side when Cleveland elected one of the first black mayors in the country, Carl Stokes. We donned full gear and slept outside around our tanks, which would have been useless in our neighborhoods. The election went smoothly, and we were all sent home.
I later served briefly in the DC National Guard when I went to work in the House of Representatives. I don’t recall any training for riot duty there either.
That was more than 50 years ago. For the sake of everyone, for the Guardsmen and police, for the people who work in and around the Capitol, for any peaceful, law-abiding demonstrators, and for the Republic – particularly in light of the Trump insurrection of January 6 – I hope that today’s troops are far better trained and infinitely better led than in my day.