Thirteen unarmed college students at a demonstration against the Vietnam War were shot by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.
Thomas Grace, who moved to Buffalo in 1973 and now lives in Amherst, was one of them.
Grace, a historian, is the author of the newly published “Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties” (University of Massachusetts Press, 283 pages, $29.95). The volume is part of the series, “Culture, Politics, and the Cold War.”
Grace traces the political and cultural history of Kent State, a mostly working-class college located 40 miles south of Cleveland. That includes his account of the 13 seconds of bloodshed that triggered campus demonstrations and strikes across the country, and became a flashpoint against an increasingly unpopular war.
Grace, 66, has a PhD in history from the University at Buffalo. He worked as a social worker and labor union representative, and is currently adjunct professor of history at Erie Community College.
Q: What was the mood on campus before the shooting occurred?
A: It was very angry, particularly over the invasion of Cambodia announced on April 30. It’s important to remember the Vietnam War was a very felt experience. About 10 percent of the students at Kent State were Vietnam veterans.
Q: What were you doing before the protest began?
A: The night before the shootings I was actually studying for my examination. My commitment might have been stronger than some of the people who were out protesting, but I was not going to neglect why I was at school, which was to study and get a degree in history. That was very important to me, and I had a history exam the next morning.
Q: How’d you do?
A: I got an A.
Q: You wrote that some students interacted with National Guardsmen. Did you?
A: There was certainly some fraternization, but not on my part. I did everything I could to keep a safe distance from them.
Q: Did you have a sense of foreboding that day?
A: That came once I arrived at the rally at approximately noon. I had not planned to go, but I made a last-minute decision to see what was taking place. The rally had actually been called four days previously, during the initial protest over the invasion of Cambodia. Of course, the focus had moved less to Cambodia than to the presence of the National Guard on campus.
Q: What do you remember about that afternoon?
A: There were approximately 100 National Guardsmen on one end of the campus, and 500 to 1000 student protesters on the other side, with twice or three times that many onlookers.
When the National Guard ordered the students to disperse, that produced a lot of cursing and catcalling. We felt we had done nothing wrong, and that if anyone ought to be leaving the campus, it was them, not us.
Once the tear gas started coming in, I retreated and ran to an area of a girls dormitory. Some had gotten into my eyes, and the female students in the dormitory were passing out moistened paper towels from the first floor. Because of that I was oblivious to the fact that the National Guard had marched up over this hillside that we had retreated up, and actually formed into a protective formation.
There had been some rock throwing at this point between where I and the National Guard were. They were picking them up and throwing them back at the students, while still shooting some tear gas.
Then, as the National Guard decided to vacate their position, they got into a V-formation and started to ascend the highest point in the area. I had moved somewhat closer to observe, and remember yelling and screaming at them.
Some students were still throwing rocks. I didn’t, not that I necessarily thought there was anything wrong with it. It was a very charged environment.
When they got to the top of the hill, I could see this group of 50 armed men with bayonets turning, but to me it was more of a blur. A moment or two later, I heard unmistakable rifle fire.
Q: What happened next?
A: I turned and was about to run. I took one or two steps, and all of a sudden I was on the ground. The bullet entered my left heel. I put myself prone as possible on the ground because I could hear bullets within inches or feet of my head, and there was no cover.
It was the people further from the National Guard who wound up being killed. I was about 225 feet away. Jeff Miller, who was in the iconic photograph with the girl kneeling over his body, was about 250 feet away. But some were 350 or 375 feet away.
Q: How hurt were you?
A: I had these green socks on, and you could see the bone just protruding from the sock. It was ugly, and I knew I had a very bad wound.
Q: Did the bullet cause lasting damage?
A: The bullet entered my left heel. I have an 8 ½-size foot today. It was a 10. My ankle had to be fused.
I developed a gangrene infection, but my mother was a nurse and she convinced the surgeon to do everything he could to save the foot. The fact I have this foot today is because of him.
Q: Some historians have written that the shootings at Kent State effectively ended the student movement. True?
A: All the evidence tells us otherwise. Once people recovered from the shock, they were more determined than ever to resume their protests against the war in Vietnam. A point I make in the book is that the protests at Kent State continued as long as the war, and indeed became larger.
Q: The song “Ohio,” with the refrain “four dead in Ohio,” was rushed out as a single after being written by Neil Young and performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. How did you feel about it?
A: It was haunting and piercing for me to listen to. Now, it’s almost worn on me, but at the time it was very, very stirring. It’s played at the commemoration that occurs at Kent State every year.
There’s a story behind that. My roommate Alan Canfora and I met Neil Young months earlier at a small club. I read later that David Crosby showed him the photo of Alan holding a flag in front of the National Guardsmen that was in a two-page spread in Life Magazine, and is on the cover of my book. That was supposedly the catalyst for Neil to write the song. He never knew he met the guy in the picture months before.
Q: In your ‘Where are they now?’ appendix, the overwhelming number of people you check back on from that time remained true to their convictions.
A: I don’t know any of those people who didn’t retain a left or progressive outlook.
Q: At Jackson State College, 14 students were shot 10 days after Kent State by city police and highway patrolmen. There were two fatalities. Yet, Jackson State, which was gripped by campus unrest over racial issues, isn’t remembered the way Kent State is.
A: I think race explains most of it. There would be any number of people who would disagree with me, but I think our society has long valued white life over African American life. To me, that’s part of the tragedy of the American experience.