Donald C. Miller, Personal History
Submitted via email, April 24, 2003
I entered Kent State University as a freshman in the Fall of 1967. My immediate major was Economics but because of the profound impact the events of May 1970 had on my life, I later switched to History. I believe I have participated in a historical event with much the same impact that the people of Boston witnessed almost exactly 200 years earlier on March 5, 1770. That event would later come to be called the "Boston Massacre." The two incidents are eerily alike as in each case 4 lay dead, between 8-11wounded, and with both events signaling major watersheds in American history. Historian Milton Viorst stated in his book, Fire in the Streets, a similar interpretation, "the America of the 1960's ended in the mid-west in a small town called Kent, Ohio." With this brief introduction out of the way my recollections of the events of that time is as follows.
The weekend started out as we liked to say on Thursday night April 30 with a bunch of the students at Leebrick Hall (Tri Towers) having a bit of fun by building an indoor swimming pool on the third floor dorm lounge. While this was going on we could hear in the background the T.V. reports of the ominous news that dealt with Nixon's incursion into the Parrot's Beak region of Cambodia. The following morning May 1st the front page of the Daily Kent Stater had bold headlines dealing with riots that had already broken out on the campus of Ohio State University. In the picture just below it, stood a bunch of us in front of a swimming pool, how incongruous.
I went home Friday afternoon and didn't return to campus until about 1:00 am late Saturday night, early Sunday morning. Traffic was thin coming into Kent and had no problem getting back to Leebrick. What I saw was truly unsettling as all along Main St., Lincoln and to the south end of campus were these small mini tanks called armored personnel carriers (apc's) doing their patrols. Soldiers were everywhere with rifles trying to keep an eye on the movement of students and vehicles. I saw no helicopters at that point. When I got up about nine o'clock on Sunday morning May 3rd, curiosity seekers were everywhere from both on campus and other parts of the state trying to get a close look at the unfolding developments. My parents had warned me the day before that there was trouble on campus and to stay clear, but of course I shrugged off the advice. It started out as another warm day so we all left Tri-Towers and headed towards the Satterfield, Bowman Hall area where the troops were camped. There were soldiers marching around drinking coffee, military vehicles parked everywhere, guns stacked or being held by someone. I never saw the gun with Allison Krause's flower in it, but I did hear about that incident years later. Nothing seemed too ominous other than the mere fact that this fun loving, peaceful campus now looked like a cross between East Berlin and an inner city war zone, similar to what we had seen on T.V. in Detroit, Newark or Cleveland a few years earlier. We walked around all day long in wide-eyed amazement, observing military equipment of all sizes and wondering what would happen next as a result of the activities of Friday and Saturday nights. We wandered over to the site of the smoldering ROTC building and just stared. The only thought that kept running through my head as I stood there was how this campus, in just a matter of a few hours, had been so completely converted into a city under military occupation.
Rumors were flying all afternoon as to what would happen on and off campus Sunday night. By about 5:00 PM there was stirrings around my dorm that something big was going to happen in the downtown area after dark. Being as that I was both curious and feeling the need to support the anti-war protesters, heading downtown was definitely on my agenda for that evening. I got to the corner of Lincoln and Main Streets at about 9:00 to 9:30 and witnessed a huge crowd estimated to be about 2000 just milling around in direct opposition to a large contingent of National Guard troops armed with rifles, and standing next to armored personnel carriers. The one thing that did stand out was how unearthly quiet it got around 10:30. A few students were moving about talking to the guard and then slowly retreating into the mob that had formed just in front of me. I was too far back to actually hear what they were saying, but I can only guess that it must have been something of a derisive or threatening nature. What I do recall next was that the night air was pierced by the sound of broken glass, whether it was a window or beer bottle, I couldn't say for sure. Almost immediately the long perimeter the guard had set up running north and south along Lincoln street, to protect downtown Kent began to move out. People began running in all directions with the main body of the crowd heading south or southeast past the Rockwell library and towards the administration buildings that sit on a steep bluff. It seemed like students were running in groups of 10 or 15 heading towards the commons with the guardsmen in hot pursuit. I took a completely different route and headed directly east out Main St. towards the general direction of Tri Towers. By doing this I felt I could avoid the tear gas and the beatings that the Guards would be meting out to the students that they caught. As we fled there was this ever-present sense of fear and anxiety of what would happen to us if we were apprehended. Rumors, regarding the plight of several students who had been bayoneted in front of Rockwell library, circulated through the crowd as we ran. Unfortunately they later turned out to be true. I remember being shocked and horrified by it all, how could all this be happening, on what was once a college campus? I hopped a fence near President White's house and ran through the side yard of the Music and Speech complex, only to be stopped by another fence. I jumped it and headed towards a wooded lot about an acre or more in size. It was quite dark back behind Music and Speech but I spotted a dirt path that ran through the woods and headed for it. It was at this moment that my worst fears were realized, apc's were already in the parking area near M & S and were moving our way. The guard knew exactly of our whereabouts and were heading towards us, all the while shining headlights in our direction. My panic level was rising by the second as a bunch of students headed down the dirt path just a few hundred yards from what we thought would be the safety of Tri Towers. From absolutely out of nowhere two of the Guards' helicopters swooped down upon our group as if it was a big bird going to pluck us up and fly away but instead they just hovered and shined a powerful search light on our positions. I had a strong suspicion that they were radioing the APC's of our location. At this point we all knew we were in big trouble so we headed as fast as we could towards the cafeteria doors just a few hundred feet ahead of us. We tried with no avail to get in, the dorm director for whatever reason had them locked. We kept moving from one door to another screaming to let us in but without success. All I recall was complete pandemonium, and fear as we begged the people inside to let us in before we got the hell beaten out of us by the Guard. I remember as I ran around to the other side of the building, seeing my roommate Ted, acting like he was on stage, dancing under a spotlight shining down from the helicopter. For several moments he continued to make these strange gyrations, all the while flashing obscenes gestures to the pilot. If I wasn't so scared I probably would have thought it was funny but I did yell at him to get inside the APC's were coming up fast. He disregarded my warning in a show of bravado. Finally, I found a door that was open on the east side of Leebrick, I ran in and collapsed in the hall. To say the least I was quite relieved. I headed down towards the "pit" area and saw, it seemed like hundreds of kids, coming back from what we used to know as, good old downtown Kent, now referred to as, "the front." In a state of sheer exhaustion they began to relate their own personal, "war stories." All I remember was the Black Militants telling everyone to be cool and that they would be staying out of what was going to develop on Monday, whatever that was! They somehow seemed more worldly than us white kids, after all many of them were experienced veterans of the inner city disturbances of a few years back. Sunday night was quite restless for everyone as the helicopters, with their searchlights blazing through our dormitory windows, cruised the skies over Kent, Ohio. Most likely they were still searching for the last remnants of protesters who were determined to keep things stirred up throughout the night.
Monday morning May 4 most of us went about our daily routines as if nothing happened the evening before. The day dawned hot, and humid as I trudged off to class in McGilvrey hall. As I passed through the commons area I noticed a few people milling around but nothing too ominous. After class ended about 11:30 I took the Campus bus out to Tri-Towers and headed immediately to lunch. Almost as soon as we sat down to eat many of us noticed that there was a disturbance in the direction of Taylor hall, which would be the top of blanket hill. As we looked out of the huge picture window facing the activity, I noticed that the National Guard seemed to be crossing the old practice field and firing barrages of tear gas at the students who were now standing around the area of the Prentice Hall parking lot. A pitched battle was now beginning to ensue as I distinctly remember the protesters tossing the gas canisters back at the guardsman as other soldiers continued to reload and fire back. I was mesmerized by this furious activity as it seemed to go on for several minutes. What was so strangely unforgettable out was the file footage that everyone later saw on a variety of documentaries, was taken at exactly the same angle as what we were witnessing first hand. The film must have been shot right in front of us, it was almost as if we were watching it live on TV. Firecrackers seemed to be going off, well at least that's what I thought it was. Myself and Fred, a friend of mine who lived on the same floor as I did, decided to ditch lunch and head down towards where the action was unfolding. We ran downstairs and out the back door, the same one I entered the previous night after being chased from downtown. We no sooner got outside and around the building when we ran into a student in a state of severe agitation bordering on complete hysteria. Russ came up to us and began to ramble incoherently, pointing at Fred and making ridiculous statements to the effect that he was to blame for the Guard being on campus and the dozens of dead students up on blanket hill. He made absolutely no sense and we had no idea what he was even talking about. He continued to stammer on but we both instantly knew something absolutely horrible had occurred up near Taylor Hall. We dashed headlong for the scene of action, crossing an open field and a road before arriving at the Prentice Hall parking lot. It was one of those, thankfully, few moments in one's lifetime that you never ever forget. It was like entering a nightmare world where the ambulances were coming and going completing their dreadful tasks of taking the bodies of several students to either the hospital or the morgue. By the sickening amount of blood still flowing in wide rivers down the parking lot and into the street I knew there had to have been multiple deaths. Everywhere one looked there were scenes of individuals caught up in their own personal expressions of grief. Some students wandered aimlessly in circles screaming hysterically while others sat on the curb of the parking area with head in hands crying quietly almost as if they were trying to avoid drawing attention to themselves. By this time the heat and exhaustion was beginning to set in and I began to, I believe, at this point go into a state of shock. Fred and I headed towards the top of the hill and looked down through the trees at the assembled multitude gathering at the victory bell. Another protest was just about to commence, the organizers' voices were shrill and filled with anger as they related the events of a few moments earlier. I don't remember all that was said by these individuals at this new demonstration, for by now I was too numb too feel or comprehend anything. I do recall how the tenor on this side of the hill was so markedly different from the parking lot scene. A young woman standing near us was yelling at the Guard that if, "they wanted to run us through with bayonets or shoot us, let it happen here, right here," she challenged. I knew instantly as Fred and I stood in the middle of the crowd, numbering I would estimate at about 2,000, that something equally horrible was about to happen again. When the general announced that this crowd had to disperse or they were going to move in, I felt for the first time we were in grave danger. I could hear Professor Frank's voice in the background screaming and crying out as loud as he could to, "please, please if you ever listened to anyone at anytime please don't do anything to provoke the guard into another massacre," or words to that effect. The guard almost immediately moved in around us cutting off all of our avenues of escape, they knelt down in a firing position aiming at our heads and chests. I turned to Fred in a state of panicked disbelief and murmured, "I think we're all going to die here aren't we?" He just turned and said, "Yea, I guess this is goodbye." By this time people were running towards the guard to break through the perimeter to escape this impromptu firing squad, I was one of them. I heard prof. Frank again pleading not to, because it might prompt the soldiers to fire at us, if they thought they were being charged. That was the last thing I remember at that point, I don't know if I was knocked unconscious by Fred tackling me or something else but my next memory was of waking up on the floor of Johnson Hall a few yards away. I recall standing up and walking towards the long window at the end of hallway, I saw a guardsman spot me and level a rifle in my direction, for the second time that afternoon somebody pulled me down and a voice said, "we can't go in the rooms or near any of the windows." He said there is a sniper possibly on this roof and that in a few minutes the guardsman would enter the dorm and "clean house." This presumably meant they would come in with an order to shoot to kill any one making threatening gestures towards them. At that moment I had this bizarre thought enter my consciousness, being as I had just recently been drafted, I had really nothing to worry about in terms of ever going to Vietnam, I was never going to make it off this campus alive.
Around 4:00 we all decided to take a chance and head back to our respective dorms. Being as the guard was still out on campus, presumably apprehending students, I decided to make a run for it. I was told by the Johnson dorm director that the University was under a state of martial law and that he couldn't guarantee my safety or anyone else's if I tried to make it back to Leebrick. As I ran the approximately 500 yards towards Tri Towers I hid behind cars and trees for fear that if I were caught I would be jailed or worse. In about 15 minutes I got back to Leebrick where our dorm director was counting heads before he officially evacuated the facility. We found out at that point that the University was officially closed.
A friend of mine by the name of Chuck met me in the hall and asked if I could do him a favor and take his girlfriend back to Chagrin Falls, for he would be heading in the opposite direction towards Pittsburgh. When I met her she was in near hysteria, she had just found out minutes earlier that her present or former roommate, Sandy Scheur, was one of those killed. On the drive home I recall her just staring out the window, saying very little and sobbing uncontrollably. I did mention to her that my only memories of Sandy was that in the Fall of 1967 she asked me If I would help her and her dorm mates build a float for Homecoming.