A brief write-up of Moments of Truth: A Photographer’s Experience at Kent State, 1970. (Kent State University Press: 2019 ($34.95).
Howard Ruffner did something very clever in his just-published collection of photographs taken at Kent State just before and during the May 4, 1970 killings. Ruffner, a photographer and stringer for Life magazine (where some of his photographs originally appeared), enhanced his famous photograph of the Guardsmen turning and preparing to fire on the students. As Ruffner notes, his enhanced photographs show a complete absence of rocks by the feet of the Ohio National Guardsmen.
For those who are old enough to remember the campus killings, Ruffner's photographs just demolish the Ohio National Guards' claims that they were pelted with rocks and other objects before they fired to protect themselves from a lemming-like crowd of crazed students. Ruffner's photographs may be the most damning evidence that the Guardsmen did not tell the truth and the four fatalities did not deserve to be killed.
The rest of Ruffner's photographic memoir consists of a brief retelling of his background, a review of how he became one of the most important witness for the victims during both the criminal proceedings and a civil trial alleging wrongful death and injury. He also provides other photographs taken both before the shootings, and in its immediate aftermath, and in the four days following President Richard Nixon's announcement that he was sending combat troops into Cambodia, which many students considered to be an expansion of a hated war.
Ruffner’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on the tragedy, and reminds us that while there might be plenty of "moments of truth," we still do not why a faraway war came home to America's campuses.
The FBI has finally released a summary of its report showing how it tested the tape of the Kent State shootings, and the summary confirms that the tests used to dispute two audio experts' claims that there was a "prepare to fire" order were based on technology that is "beyond antiquated."
That is what audio forensics expert Stuart Allen told me after I read to him the summary the FBI report made available after numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. The report states that the FBI used RAP-R 2, SoundForge3, AvidPro Tools, AdobeAudition3, and ES-4 as opposed to SoundForge10 and the more advanced Russian S.I.S. Sound Cleaner. Allen's fellow forensics expert Tom Owen similarly dismissed the FBI's tools as "off the shelf vendor stuff" that cannot replicate the results Allen and Owen obtained.
At issue here is whether or not a command "prepare to fire" was issued by someone in the Ohio National Guard shortly before the troops fired into a crowd of protestors at Kent State on May 4, 1970, killing four students and wounding nine others. The soldiers denied under oath at the 1975 civil trial that any such orders were issued, and if Allen and Owen's interpretations are correct, it means at a minimum there was extensive perjury at the trials. Some survivors of the May 4, 1970 tragedy believe that it also proves the Guard committed murder. A presidential commission in 1970 concluded the shootings were "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."
Although most of the contributing causes of the May 4, 1970 killings have been identified, the precipitating cause remains the subject of debate. The controversies surrounding the killings are not acknowledged in the university's new May 4 Visitors Center, which will be celebrated this Saturday, the 43rd anniversary of the killings, with panel discussions and a speech by filmmaker Oliver Stone.
One of the things that surprised me about last year's Cleveland Plain Dealer exposes is that not a single Guardsman reacted to the news of Stuart Allen's findings. Over the weekend I came to understand why: some of them were unaware of his conclusions, and had nothing to react to.
I finally managed to get the first two interviews any journalist has had with former Ohio National Guardsman. The first, that is, since the Plain Dealer reported that Allen and another audio forensic specialist, Tom Owens, concluded there was a preliminary "prepare to fire" order to fire at Kent State (and Allen said there was an actual follow-up order).
Last weekend I spoke with both John E. Martin, the captain of Company A, the 145th Infantry; and one of his sergeants, Matthew McManus. McManus was one of the eight Guardsmen who were indicted by the Justice Department; in his case, he fired a shotgun into the air that may or may not have caused a student's wounds. (A second Guardsman, Leon Smith, was also charged with shooting the same student.). The case against McManus was always considered to be the weakest of the eight, and a federal judge later acquitted him and his fellow indictees of depriving the victims of due process of law.
Neither Martin nor McManus were familiar with the new findings and Martin stuck to the story he told all along: that he never gave nor heard any order to fire. McManus claimed the only order he ever heard was the one he admitted issuing long ago. After the firing had already started, McManus gave an order: “Fire over their heads” (the Justice Department’s version, or, as he tells it, “If you have to fire, for Christ’s sake, fire over their heads.”)
McManus also insisted that the order audio experts Stuart Allen and Tom Owens detected on the tape—“Prepare to fire,” was not an order that anyone in the military would give. After 40 years, he could not remember how a verbal order to fire should have been phrased, but he insisted “prepare to fire” was something one would only hear at a military funeral. In fact, McManus suggested that the words might have been uttered not by a Guardsman, but by a student protestor affiliated with the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
This defense had been used once at the 1975 wrongful death and injury trial, when the Guards’ attorneys tried to pin the entire blame for the shooting on the students themselves. At one point the lawyers suggested that Charles Deegan, an ex-Marine who served in Vietnam and subsequently returned to Kent as a student, had heckled the Guard by shouting cadence and issuing fake orders for the troops to follow. Deegan denied the claim, which I always thought was ludicrous and an act of desperation on the attorneys' part. The claim also reminded me of something else said to me by another of the Guards’ attorneys: “Let’s face it. We’re paid hatchet men.”
Significantly, neither Martin nor McManus noticed Terry Norman on Blanket Hill. Martin said that several of his men heard a single shot prior to the main volley. McManus told me that just before shooting, he was on the far left of the Guard’s V-shaped formation (and on their far right after they turned around and fired). Before the shootings the only incident of note that he was aware of was between Major Harry Jones and a student who emerged from the crowd, threatening to throw a part of a torn-off tree branch at Jones and his communications officer. McManus said that Jones drew his pistol and told the student to stop. The shooting started shortly after that, and McManus said that that both he and Jones were “mad at the troops for firing.” McManus because, from his position, he could not see a reason to fire (although he was quick to defend his men by adding he could not see everything going on). He was also angry because he was in the line of fire and saw dirt kicking up within a few feet from where he was standing. (I had never heard that story before.) Jones, he said, was so mad he immediately and forcefully pushed the firing soldiers’ rifles in an upward position. We had known that for years. In fact, a private in McManus’ unit, Jeffrey Jones, told me years earlier that the first thing Jones demanded to know was: “Who gave you men the order to fire?”
As an sidenote, McManus added that on the afternoon of May 3, the day before the shootings, he, another Guardsmen, and some students played euchre and touch football on the practice football field by Taylor Hall.
McManus also felt “there is never going to be an end to” May 4 and alluded to "all the grief it brought to me,” including family turmoil he did not want to talk about.
McManus clearly was not close enough to see what was happening on the other side of the Guards' V-shaped formation, where Troop G of the 107th Armored Cavalry did most of the firing. If nothing else, the captain and the sergeant provided us a preview of what the National Guardsmen's defense strategy would have been had any official investigation had gone forward.
There has been another major bombshell in the Kent State shooting case--this one following a year of startling disclosures about what apparently happened during at the university during an anti-Vietnam War protest on May 4, 1970.
Last year, less than a week after the 40th anniversary, Cleveland's Plain Dealer reported that two nationally renowned audio forensics experts studied a tape of the shootings and concluded there was an order "prepare to fire" issued just six seconds before the troops actually did.
Five months later, the paper reported that one of the experts, Stuart Allen, had continued to study the tape on his own, focusing on a commotion he heard 70 seconds before Ohio National Guardsmen killed the four students. Allen further concluded that four additional shots were fired by Terry Norman, a part-time Kent State student and later a Washington, D.C. police SWAT officer, who was carrying a concealed .38 caliber pistol. Given that both Norman and the FBI long denied the gun had been fired, and that after initial denials Norman was ultimately discovered to have been an undercover photographer working for both the FBI and the campus police, questions were raised about whether Norman was just a loose cannon or part of the FBI's infamous COINTELPRO operation designed to "disrupt and destroy" radicals on the New Left.
Now, Allen reports that by isolating even more sounds on the tape, he has been able to make out a second and actual order to shoot the students. Allen says he can make out these words: "Squad, fire."
Allen's findings, of course, contradict every public statement Guard officials made and the sworn testimony of at least a dozen soldiers. At the 1975 wrongful death and injury trial every Guardsman at the scene from the senior officers to the lowest-ranking privates insisted every "shooter" individually made the decision to fire in self-defense, without receiving any orders from commanding officers.
Allen suspects the killings may have been the culmination of "a perfect storm" of multiple coinciding events. Given all the other contributing causes, he is probably right. However, I personally doubt that the bullets Norman allegedly fired could have precipitated the Guards' volley. Even if Norman fired four times, as Allen reports, the troops did not return fire in his direction (which would have directly behind them and off to their side) . Instead, they fired directly into a crowd of protestors off to their distant right. In fact, all but one of the 77 soldiers who faced the students seemed oblivious to Norman's presence on Blanket Hill. A man with the gun was not even mentioned in virtually all of the troops' after-action reports or in their statements to the FBI. Moreover, none of the troops fired their weapons until after 70 seconds had passed. Perhaps most telling, no soldier tried to pin the blame on him at the 1975 wrongful death and injury trial, even though Norman would have made a perfect scapegoat.
Still, Norman's behavior on May 4 remains highly suspect. In addition to the claims that he fired his gun, there was disturbing testimony--confirmed by Norman himself--that he positioned himself in between the protestors and the Guardsmen minutes before the shooting broke out and that he threw rocks at the students. Norman swore under oath that he only threw two or three rocks, but the student involved in an altercation with him, Tom Masterson, thought the number was closer to "half dozen, a dozen." One could reasonably conclude that Norman behaved almost as if he wanted to provoke an incident between the students and the Guard.
All of this begs the question: what can or should be done with this information? More than four decades have passed since the killings and with the exception of a few relatives of those killed, there are not that many people who want to see another prosecution of the former Guardsmen. The state of Ohio has already refused to consider further action and the Justice Department has for 16 months simply ignored the pleas of the next-of-kin who seem to believe the truth will somehow magically reveal itself if another federal grand jury investigation was held.
The case remains where it has always been: in limbo. We are no closer to realizing anything resembling a final resolution. To date, no Guardsman has said a word publicly about Allen's conclusions.
Attempts are now being made to determine if any taped copies of the Guardsmen's testimony or statements to the media exist, so the various officers' voice patterns can be compared to the voice that Allen says gave the order "squad, fire." If any recordings exist, it may be possible to identify the officer who gave the actual order to shoot. That person, if he is still alive, has a lot of explaining to do.
This blog is written by William A. Gordon, a Kent State alumnus and the author of "Four Dead in Ohio" and three other books. It offers commentary on the still unfolding developments in the Kent State shooting case.