KENT, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed college students during a war protest at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Four students were killed, and nine others were injured. Not all of those hurt or killed were involved in the demonstration, which opposed the U.S. bombing of neutral Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
The confrontation, sometimes referred to as the May 4 massacre, was a defining moment for a nation sharply divided over the protracted war, in which more than 58,000 Americans died. It sparked a strike of 4 million students across the U.S., temporarily closing some 900 colleges and universities. The events also played a pivotal role, historians argue, in turning public opinion against the conflicts in Southeast Asia.
In the hours immediately after the shootings, reporters at the chaotic scene struggled to determine who had fired the shots and why. Among the theories was that Guard members shot after spotting a sniper, a theory later proved untrue.
Kent State’s campus, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) southeast of downtown Cleveland, will be still on the 50th anniversary Monday. An elaborate multi-day commemoration was canceled because of social distancing restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some events, activities and resources are being made available online.
Fifty years after the events, the AP is making some of its photos and a version of its text coverage from the time available:
An official of the Ohio Highway Patrol today disputed reports from the Ohio National Guard that a sniper was spotted by police helicopter before Guardsmen shot four Kent State University students to death Monday during an antiwar demonstration.
The university, ordered evacuated after the shooting, was virtually deserted this morning and under heavy police and military guard.
Earlier, fire destroyed a barn and several farm tractors in one corner of the campus, and fire officials said they believed the blaze was deliberately set.
Sgt. Michael Delaney of the guard public relations staff said after the shootings that, “At the approximate time of the firing on the campus, the Ohio Highway Patrol—via a helicopter—spotted a sniper on a nearby building.”
Today, a patrol official, Maj. D. E. Manly, said, “There is nothing on the log on the sighting.” Manly said if patrolmen in the helicopter circling the campus had seen a gunman it would have been recorded.
Guard officials claimed Monday and again today that the Guardsmen were returning the fire of a small caliber weapon in defense of their lives. A student crowd had surrounded some 30 Guardsmen and were throwing rocks and chunks of concrete at them.
The Justice Department and officials of the National Guard launched separate investigations of the gunfire outburst which took the lives of two girls and two young men.
The dead were:
Miss Allison Krause, 19, Pittsburgh, Pa.; Miss Sandy Lee Scheuer, 20, Youngstown, Ohio; Jeffrey G. Miller, 20, Plainview, N.Y., and William K. Schroeder, 19, Lorain, Ohio.
Portage County Coroner Dr. Robert Sybert said all four had been shot from the side, “left to right.” All died of a single bullet wound, he said.
Miss Krause was hit in the left shoulder, Miss Scheurer in the neck, Schroeder in the left underside of the chest and Miller in the head.
Dr. Sybert said the final autopsy report wouldn’t be completed for about a week.
Three students remained in critical condition today. One of them, Dean Kahler, of East Canton, Ohio, was paralyzed from the waist down, according to Paul Jacobs, administrator at Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna.
Eight other persons, including two guardsmen were hospitalized. One of the two guardsmen was treated for shock and the other had collapsed from exhaustion.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper, called editorially for “an immediate investigation and prompt steps to prevent a recurrence of the most tragic campus violence ever in the United States.
“Many questions will have to be answered: Why were these people shot? Who shot first? How could these deaths have been avoided?
President Nixon deplored the campus deaths. In a White House statement, he said:
“This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy. It is my hope that this tragic and unfortunate incident will strengthen the determination of all the nation’s campuses, administrators, faculty and students alike to stand firmly for the right which exists in this country of peaceful dissent and just as strongly against the resort to violence as a means of such expression.”
The campus and the City of Kent were sealed off following the shootings.
School officials ordered the faculty, staff and 19,000 students to leave. Classes were suspended indefinitely by University President Robert I. White.
Later, Portage County Prosecutor Ronald Kane, armed with a court injunction, officially closed the university until further notice.
Patrols of guardsmen and state patrolmen roamed the campus and blocked all entrances Monday night.
Businesses in the City of Kent and the approaches to the city were cordoned by police and guardsmen.
Nixon said that he would order a Justice Department investigation if the state so requested and Gov. James A. Rhodes then asked for the FBI to carry out an inquiry.
The governor had ordered the Ohio National Guard to the campus Saturday night following a demonstration by some 1,000 students during which the Army ROTC building was destroyed by fire.
Jerry Stoklas, 20, a campus newspaper photographer, said he witnessed the shootings from a rooftop.
He said about 400 students were harassing the guardsmen and “they turned and opened fire. I saw five people go down.”
Other witnesses said the demonstrators were pelting the guardsmen with rocks and chunks of concrete.
Stoklas said the troops had backed away, but the demonstrators followed. He said the guardsmen had “turned around several times, apparently trying to scare them.”
Sgt. Michael Delaney of the guard public relations staff said 20 to 30 rounds of MI rifle ammunition were fired.
“At the approximate time of the firing on the campus,” he added. “the Ohio Highway Patrol—via a helicopter—spotted a sniper on a nearby building.”
Some students contended the “sniper” actually was one of several student photographers atop Taylor Hall.
Guard spokesmen said 900 to 1,000 persons had been involved in the demonstration at the university’s Commons and that guardsmen had exhausted their tear gas supply in dispersing the crowd.
The state’s National Guard commander, Adj. Gen. Sylvester T. Del Corso, said the troops began firing from semiautomatic rifles after a rooftop sniper had shot at them.
Gene Williams, a member of the student newspaper staff, said he saw the troops turn “in unison, as if responding to a command,” and fire into the crowd.
Brig. Gen. Robert H. Canterbury, who was in direct command of the guard contingent on the campus, said no order was given to shoot.
“A military man always has the option to fire if he feels his life is in danger,” he said. “The crowd was moving in on the men on three sides.
“The shooting lasted about two or three seconds. Officers at the scene immediately called for a cease-fire.”
Canterbury said an investigation into the shooting would attempt to determine which guardsmen fired first, what others fired and actually hit students, and how many rounds of ammunition they expended.
The shooting climaxed student demonstration and disturbances on the campus and in the city that began Friday in the wake of President Nixon’s address to the nation Thursday night on sending U.S. troops into Cambodia.
About 500 students attended a peaceful demonstration on the campus at noon Friday but late that night about 500 persons, most of them students, went on a rampage downtown. Bonfires were set in the streets and several windows of stores and cars were broken.
About 1,000 students demonstrated on the campus Saturday night and some of them set fire to the ROTC building with railroad flares. That was when the National Guard, which had been on standby at Akron, was ordered to the city.
About 1,200 students staged a sit-in at a street intersection Sunday night in defiance of an emergency order from Rhodes banning any outdoor meetings in the city or on the campus. They were driven back to the campus by guardsmen with bayonets on their rifles.
Earlier Sunday night the guard used tear gas in breaking up a march on the campus by an estimated 1,500 students who were violating the governor’s emergency order.