Students at Kent State University and Ohio National Guardsmen stood 225 feet away from each other on May 4, 1970 – and confronted an even wider divide politically and culturally as the shots were fired that killed four and wounded nine.
The gap has narrowed over the years for those who were there, but they are still divided about what they experienced, as evidenced by a May 15 panel discussion of witnesses held at the Ohio Historical Center.
"We don’t want revenge, we don’t want punishment. We want the truth," declared Alan Canfora, who, as a 19-year-old junior, was wounded when the Guardsmen fired at anti-Viet Nam war protesters.
That truth has remained elusive for 38 years for Canfora, director of the Kent May 4 Center, and his fellow panelists: Charles Fassinger, the senior uniformed National Guard officer on campus on May 4; Scott Mueller, a journalism student at the time; Franco Ruffini, a recent student transfer from California; and Glenn Harper, a private in the National Guard.
Canfora stated that the FBI report found that the demonstration had been peaceful until the shots were fired.
Fassinger responded that the gathering "was anything but peaceful," and that he and other Guardsmen were struck repeatedly by rocks. "They thought they were being overrun, that their lives were in danger."
Canfora maintains that there was a verbal order to fire given to the Guardsmen, and that an audio recording of the command exists and will be released later this year.
Fassinger countered that he alone was authorized to issue such a command.
"I didn’t hear it, and I didn’t give it," Fassinger said. "As the commander, I was the one who should have given it."
The men all have something in common. They came from diverse backgrounds to be on that campus that day, and all admit to being changed by the experience.
The road to May 4
Canfora was a veteran anti-war activist and a member of Students for a Democratic Society, which he said fought against poverty and racial injustice as well as the Viet Nam war.
Fassinger had enlisted in the National Guard in 1946 at 16, and saw action in Korea, rising to the rank of commander of the 2nd Squadron 107th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Mueller was not a regular protester but was a liberal "because my father was a conservative."
Ruffini was also a member of SDS, who had transferred from the University of California at Irvine and had changed his major from physics to archeology because he did not want to lend his skills to "the military-industrial complex."
Harper had joined the National Guard to avoid going to Viet Nam.
President Richard Nixon’s April 30 announcement that the war would be expanded into Cambodia ignited protests across the country, including at Kent State.
Feelings about the war were raw. Canfora had attended a funeral 10 days before for a 19-year-old high school classmate who had been killed in combat, and Ruffini also had a friend who had been killed.
Protests started May 1 in Kent, and the following day the mayor declared a state of emergency and called for protection by the National Guard.
Canfora admitted to "symbolic violence against property" that amounted to about $5,000, but pointed out the ROTC building burned while it was in the hands of the authorities.
It was also a super-heated political season. Governor James Rhodes, running behind his challenger with the primary days away, called the students "worse than communists," Canfora noted.
The Guardsmen, including Harper, were coming off an assignment keeping order during a Teamsters strike and hadn’t had much rest.
With around 1,000 Guardsmen at Kent "I felt like my campus was being occupied," Ruffini said.
The university president banned gatherings of more than four students, which they defied with the rally of May 4.
Ruffini chose to go to class that day, but when he arrived the professor counted five heads and said, "This is an illegal assembly. Let’s go demonstrate."
The day before, the Guardsmen had heard taunts of "get off campus" and "kill the Guard," Fassinger recalled.
He said he was struck six times by rocks and that 43 troops required medical attention, with five hospitalized.
Tear gas was used to disperse the crowd and the troops advanced with bayonets.
At 12:12 p.m., the men turned and fired 67 bullets, lasting 13 seconds. Some shot into the air or the ground as a warning.
Students Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder were killed.
Canfora, waving a black anti-war flag, was shot through the wrist, and eight others were wounded. Dean Kahler was shot in the back and paralyzed from the chest down.
Harper was far away from the site but heard the shots and thought they were firing blanks, never believing the troops would be using live ammo.
"We weren’t trained to do what we were asked to do," he said.
Fassinger disagreed, saying that Guardsmen were given the same training as those headed for Viet Nam.
Who gave the order to fire "is still up in the air," Fassinger said.The men who fired were not "green kids" but senior non-commissioned officers who had been involved in quelling other disturbances, he added.
Canfora said a military order was given, but he doesn’t think the voice is Fassinger’s.
The men admitted to being traumatized by the shootings.
"I think we’ve all been changed. The whole country changed. Ohio changed," Canfora said.
Mueller found his roommate covered in blood from having Allison Krause fall on him.
"It was a frightening, frightening experience," Mueller said.
They also felt a loss of innocence about the power of misdirected government.
After the campus closed, Mueller and other students returned to work at a Warren steel mill. They were told not to discuss the incident and were required to sign an oath never to join the Communist Party.
But among the workers, veterans of the organized labor struggle, "we were welcomed with open arms," he said.
The tragedy hastened Fassinger’s departure from the Guard.
"I had people who had killed people, and I was responsible for that," said Fassinger, who later joined the Army Reserve and achieved the rank of brigadier general.
Eight Guardsmen were indicted and later acquitted.
It took a long time for the Kent State administration to acknowledge what had happened on campus.
The May 4 Task Force pushed for a memorial and an annual observance. A visitors’ center is being planned, and documentaries and a movie about the events are about to be released, along with the audio evidence, Canfora reported.
"I think we’re on the verge of a golden age of new information about Kent State," he predicted.
The most important thing is to make sure it never happens again, commented Mueller, who assisted James Michener in writing Kent State: What Happened and Why.
"My concern is that we keep repeating the same mistakes," Mueller said. "We have a chance to change that in the future."
The Community Conversations are being held in conjunction with "Capture the Moment," an exhibit of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, including John Paul Filo’s "Kent State Massacre," through July 25.
"It Happened In Ohio: The Kent State Shootings," with a timeline of the events and items from the archives, is also on display.