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Kent State — and the Day That Changed America

The killing of four young protesters a half century ago had a profound impact on the nation

spinner image A woman screams next to a body at the Kent State University shooting
Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller who had been shot during an anti-war demonstration on the university campus on May 4, 1970.
John Filo/Getty Images

America was in a state of unrest in the spring of 1970. The invasion of Cambodia by American-backed South Vietnamese forces appeared to be an expansion of an increasingly unpopular war in Southeast Asia. Student protests, already widespread, swelled in number and intensity on the nation's college campuses.

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Kent State University, in northeastern Ohio, was no exception. Protesters burned an ROTC building over the first weekend in May. The Ohio National Guard was sent to the campus.

But even against the backdrop of increasing violence, no one was prepared for the news that rocked America on Monday, May 4: Four young people had been killed by gunfire from National Guard troops at Kent State.

The deaths would deepen the anger toward the war and further divide America. A photo by student journalist John Filo, of a young woman kneeling over the body of a student, became an indelible image of the era.

spinner image A building is on fire at the Kent State University campus
Ohio National Guardsmen assemble on the Kent State University campus near the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building as it burns.
Howard Ruffner/Getty Images

Eight guardsmen would be indicted by an Ohio grand jury. They claimed self-defense. All charges were eventually dropped. No one was ever convicted of the shootings.

But that afternoon, all anyone who was there knew was that something unthinkable and tragic had happened. Here are some accounts of eye witnesses.

John Filo

A 21-year-old journalism student then, Filo snapped the iconic photograph of a slain youth at Kent State and won a Pulitzer Prize. The photo became the lasting symbol of the tragedy. Today he lives in Hightstown, New Jersey.

I went outside with my camera and six rolls of film. Thousands of students wanted to see what was going on, and I did, too. I went to where the guardsmen were. It looked like a battlefield with the burned-down ROTC building. A jeep rolled in with law enforcement. The National Guard announced this was an illegal gathering. Boos and jeers followed.

The National Guard regrouped toward Taylor Hall and left my vision. I walked down the sidewalk and, all of a sudden, the guard reappeared. They're shooting at me! I thought it was a new scare tactic. I thought, This is crazy. These blanks are going to put out someone's eyes. I wanted to get a picture of them firing, but a guardsman was pointing his rifle at me. I heard the bullet go by my head, whizzing like a bee. It hit a metal sculpture, knocking off rust, then hit a tree, with a chunk of bark coming off. God, someone's using live ammunition, I thought.

I saw a body on the asphalt. There was so much blood, I couldn't believe it. My initial reaction was: Am I shot and don't know it? I walked to the dead person. I shot my picture. Then I saw this young girl run up — Mary Ann Vecchio. I knew I was running out of film. I already had the best picture I ever shot. I needed time to change film, but I didn't have time. Mary Ann knelt next to a body.

I didn't shoot right away because it might have been my last available frame. Mary Ann screamed. I shot the picture, then two more.

I immediately reloaded my camera. Back then, being a photographer was not popular. Some thought you were working for a secret agency. The police didn't want you shooting their actions. I had students screaming at me, “What kind of pig are you?''

I stayed until the wounded were removed. It seemed like forever. What happened next was more bizarre. Initial radio reports said two guardsmen and two students were killed. A few hundred students sat and looked at the National Guard. They said that if the students didn't disband, they were going to shoot again. No one moved. It was the most afraid I've ever been. Professor [Glenn] Frank was in tears. He said, “These people are crazy. You must get out of here.'’

The mayhem was over. Finally.

spinner image A man and woman hugging on the May fourth Kent State Shooting Anniversary
John Filo hugs Mary Ann Vecchio, the young woman featured in his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.
AP Photo/Jeff Glidden

Twenty-five years later, I finally met Mary Ann. We both cried. She realized that I had to do what I had to do as a photojournalist. She was 14 and a runaway at the time of the killings. She reacted differently that day. Decades later, it dawned on me why. It was her youth. Others kept their distance — she convulsed. She wanted to save this person.

I am the luckiest person on earth. After winning the Pulitzer Prize at 21, I was thinking that I was a pretty damn hotshot photographer. A couple of days later, I got a call from the AP photo editor, who was my hero. He said, “Congratulations. Let's see what you can get tomorrow.''

Tom Grace

Grace was a 20-year-old student on the day of the shootings. He was wounded in the left foot by a gunshot. Today he lives in Buffalo, New York.

There had been a lot of discussion at school about our country's recent invasion of Cambodia, and what had happened on campus in previous days. More than 1,000 National Guardsmen were on campus and in town. I promised my girlfriend that I would not go to the rally. My father had been in the National Guard. I chose to go to the Commons for the protest. I thought, What harm could there be? In retrospect, it was very naive.

spinner image National guard begins firing at protestors at Kent State University
Ohio National Guardsmen aim their weapons at protestors on the Kent State University campus.
Howard Ruffner/Getty Images

On campus, we saw the National Guard in a skirmish line. They ordered us to disperse. It only seemed to rile up students more. Some were veterans. The National Guard launched tear gas canisters into the crowd. Some students defiantly remained. I fled up the hillside. I had been (slightly) effected by the tear gas. By the time I got to Prentice Hall, girls moistened paper towels for us. I helped students overcome by tear gas.

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I didn't realize I was so close to one National Guard company — maybe 50 yards. The National Guard got into a V formation. I heard two cracks — unmistakable rifle shots. Before I knew it, I was on the ground, struck on the left heel. The rounds were going off over my head. I tried to raise my head to see where I was hit. Someone yelled. It was my roommate, Alan Canfora. “Stay down! Stay down! It's bird shot,'’ he yelled. Fortunately, I already was on the ground wounded— that was the good news — instead of upright and running.

After 13 seconds, they stopped firing. It seemed like an eternity. Sixty-plus rounds were fired. There were National Guardsmen that day that were horrified. About 75 of them on the hillside did not fire. Or, if they did fire, they did into the air. Mike Brock, a Kent State football player, found me. “Buddy, we're gonna get you out of here.'’ He threw me over his body and carried me across the parking lot.

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Back in the dorm, I remember girls screaming. One applied a tourniquet to my leg. I was placed on a gurney and wheeled into an ambulance. A wounded girl already was in the ambulance —Sandy [Scheuer, who died en route to the hospital]. That was a bad situation. At the hospital, my pain worsened. A lot of damage was done to my foot. My mother had been a nurse. She came [to Kent State from out of town] and convinced the surgeon to try to save the foot. They did. I spent 13 days in the hospital.

John Cleary

A 19-year-old student then, Cleary was shot in the chest but recovered from his wounds. Today he lives in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania.

Through the grapevine, I knew there was a rally and that the National Guard was there. I went there out of curiosity; it wasn't my thing. I was kind of oblivious to all of the anti-war protests. With my family's military background, I looked at soldiers as professionals. It never dawned on me that they would shoot unarmed students. I had no fear anything would happen. I expected them to do the right thing, to maintain order.

I borrowed my roommate's camera. I was observing, when it was announced this was an illegal rally. Tension built. There was tear gas, a lot of obscenities and a few rocks thrown. But thousands were merely observing. I felt that had the National Guard held its ground, the protest would have run its course. We would have moved on, probably to our next class. Or, if they had shot into the air, I believe students would have dispersed.

spinner image People running from tear gas at Kent State University
Anti-war demonstrators at Kent State University run as National Guardsmen fire tear gas and bullets into the crowd.
Bettman/Getty Images

The National Guard took a different tact. The troops walked by me to the practice football field. They knelt, aimed their rifles into the crowd, then stood up and retreated to the hill. I thought it was winding down. There was no threat to the guard at that point.

I thought I'd get one more picture. I was about 100 feet away from the guard. I started to swing my camera to take a picture, when I was hit in the chest by gunfire. It felt like a sledgehammer. Next thing I knew, I was in the hospital. If the bullet had been a couple of inches one way or the other, I wouldn't be here. I was 19. I still have metal fragments in my body.

Ron Snyder

A 33-year-old officer in the National Guard then, Snyder was captain of his unit, but it was not involved in the shootings. Today he lives in Rootstown, Ohio.

I was there and saw it all. Our job is to provide brutal force. These were not demonstrators — these were rioters. There was a lot of commotion, for lack of a better word. Two nights earlier, they burned the ROTC building to the ground. Man, the sky was aglow. The only thing left was charcoal. From the highway, it looked as if someone firebombed the city of Kent.

We woke Sunday, May 3, and restocked our tear gas for the grenade launchers. We had used them in Akron during the 1968 racial riots. That is where I got the nickname “Capain Gas.'’ My object with tear gas was to prevent personal confrontation. We know that if we are eyeball to eyeball, somebody's going to get hurt. We got an intelligence update — people were coming in from out of town. We were told some had machine guns.

That night, there were roughly 1,000 to 2,000 people at the corner of campus. They started making a problem. We had armored vehicles and a helicopter — the idea was a show of force.

Brig. Gen. Robert Canterbury was on the scene. He was a World War II veteran, a stern guy. We were told that there would be a mass arrest at the dormitories. After being read the riot act, they destroyed everything in sight. I was in charge of 60 to 80 troops. I could see students (inside the dormitory) fighting amongst themselves — fistfights. My concern was that I knew that if I turned my company loose, there was going to be a lot of hurt and blood.

The next morning, May 4, we received intelligence updates. They sounded really bad. More people were coming from other cities. I sensed there were hostile people there. Just before noon, things started turning worse. Canterbury and the police decided to disperse them. Tear gas was used first. Some protestors picked up the canisters and threw them back.

As they became more disorderly, they were again ordered to leave the Commons. They did not leave. It becomes a riot then. The students were nasty and threatening. The general said, “If they attack, you're going to have to shoot."

One company was going to swing around the architecture building and push them that way. We were to block our side. We took position between two buildings. I was unable to see the other company moving up the hill. I saw a surge of students running toward the guard. Then the firing started. A bullet struck a building to my left and concrete flew off. I backed up. I didn't know what was happening. I saw some students fall. I got on the radio and called for ambulances.

My thought was, Who is shooting and where is it coming from? I didn't know who did the shooting. I checked everybody's weapons in my company to ensure they had not been fired. Our company moved out to see who was alive and who was dead, and if anybody could be helped. The dead were dead; the others were helped by students. There was nothing else I could do.

I heard nothing like [a command to fire]. There was no order. If one guy shoots, another trooper is coming behind him [to shoot]. I am not defending anybody. But if one guy shoots, they're all gonna shoot.

I can tell you that, based on what I have read, every guy who fired thought his life was in danger.

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I never talked to any of the families of the deceased. It's probably better that I didn't. They assumed we were the enemy. I have spoken to some of the injured.

It happens. You go on and don't look back.

Dean Kahler

Paralyzed below the waist by gunfire, Kahler was a 20-year-old student on the day of shootings. Today he lives in Canton, Ohio.

I went to the University Commons because I had never seen an anti-war demonstration. I saw the burned-out ROTC building. I saw the National Guard. Students chanted, “1-2-3-4, we don't want your f-----g war.''

The National Guard read us the riot act. That made students chant even more. Some threw stones and rocks. But the Commons was about the size of a professional baseball outfield. It was so big that I don't think anything could have been thrown and hit the National Guard.

I saw guardsmen putting on gas masks and affixing bayonets and clips on M1s. I grew up on a farm, so I knew what a rifle could do. The troops starting lining up. They launched tear gas canisters with grenade launchers. It caused mass confusion. I ran and hid behind a pile of gravel. I rubbed tear gas from my eyes.

Moments later, I saw the guardsmen kneeling and pointing [guns] toward the parking lot. In the meantime, 300 to 400 students came from Taylor Hall, looking at them. The guard huddled, then retraced their steps. Students separated like the Sea of Galilee. The guard marched back up the hill. I followed along but didn't get too close. The guard reached the crest of the hill, turned in unison and fired downhill in our direction.

I remember jumping on the ground and praying that I wouldn't get shot. Bullets whizzed by me. I thought, Why are they shooting at me when I am so far away? Then I got shot. At first, it felt like a bee sting. My mind went sort of crazy. Why did they shoot me? I was 100 yards away.

I knew my spinal cord was damaged — I had no feeling below my waist. The bullets were still hitting the ground near me. I heard people screaming and hollering. Chaos. Then the shooting stopped. It got quiet for a second or two. Slowly, the screaming started again. There were 13 people lying on the ground.

Students gathered around me. One came over and asked if I was hurt. He ended up calling my parents. It was chaotic in the hospital, too. This was a Monday. Doctors induced a coma. I woke up Friday. I have been in a wheelchair since, paralyzed below the waist. About a year later, I started feeling very angry. Eventually, I realized that I could not live that way. I worked for the state of Ohio. I became a county commissioner. I competed in tennis, basketball, track and field and “ran'’ marathons.

Today, I am thankful to be alive.

Jerry Lewis

A sociology professor, Lewis, then 33, was serving as a faculty marshal on campus during the shootings. Today he lives in Hudson, Ohio.

We (faculty marshals) were peacekeepers. During the student demonstration, I ended up in a parking lot. I watched as the National Guard went up the hill, then retraced their steps. I was in the Army, so I was worried about the bayonets on the end of their rifles. You can use them to hit people, stab them. I didn't know they had loaded weapons.

Eventually, I saw eight to 10 soldiers turn and fire. It was a coordinated effort. Some believe there was an order to fire. I never heard that on the [audio] tapes. I knew they were firing real bullets because I saw smoke. I went for cover. Students rushed everywhere. Some asked me, “Dr. Lewis, they were blanks, weren't they?” I went through the parking lot and told students, “Those are real bullets. Leave now."

I walked to the Commons, where senior faculty talked with students. Some students were talking with the National Guard, who told them to leave. Professor Glenn Frank, a Marine, convinced them to do so.

spinner image The national guard heads toward protestors at Kent State University
View, from behind, of Ohio National Guardsmen in gas masks and with rifles as they advance up Blanket Hill toward Kent State University students.
Howard Ruffner/Getty Images

I've thought a lot about what happened. I found the shootings to be illogical. As a sociologist, I try to bring a scientific demeanor. It didn't make sense that they fired. They were not under threat. They fired at people down the hill and into the parking lot. There were students closer to the National Guard than that. All of the slain students were in the parking lot. One of the dead was about 90 yards away from the guardsmen.

The guardsmen claimed they felt threatened. You can't throw a stone from 90 yards. The whole point is, you don't put people in crowd situations who aren't well trained with rifles.

Everybody says May 4 is so complicated. Really, it is not complicated. We know all the circumstances. What we don't know — and never will — is why they fired.

spinner image Memorial at Kent State University
A memorial site commemorates the May 4, 1970, shootings on the campus of Kent State University.
Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal/TNS

Kent State in Popular Culture

Tragedy inspired artists and others for generations

"Ohio.” “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we're finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.'’ Haunting lyrics from the seminal student protest song of the generation written by Neil Young in 1970 and recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

"Flowers and Bullets.” Poem written in 1970 by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and initially published by the Soviet Union's state newspaper, Pravda. It was a touching ode to Allison Krause, who placed a flower on a National Guardsman's rifle the day before she was shot to death, reportedly telling the soldier: “Flowers are better than bullets."

Kent State: A Requiem. A national touring play by J. Gregory Payne in 1976 to convey all aspects of the fateful day.

The Bold Ones: The Senator. A thinly disguised two-part episode of the 1970 TV show featuring the investigation of a fictional campus tragedy.

The Stokowski Concert Collection. A series of spontaneous tribute songs from Bach, Chopin, Handel and others, recorded live by the American Symphony Orchestra in 1970 at Carnegie Hall.

How It Was: Death at Kent State. Intriguing National Geographic documentary film in 2008 featuring archival footage and interviews of two wounded students.

For more information about the shootings at Kent State, see these sources:

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