Horrors at Kent State … and war
The recent article in the OBSERVER about the May 1970 Kent State shooting and the impact that it had on the Fredonia State campus brought back memories for me of that time nearly half a century ago.
When the Kent State shooting occurred, I was days from the conclusion of my year in Vietnam. Pacific Stars and Stripes covered the shooting so we were aware of what had occurred and I was concerned because my wife’s aister was a student at Kent State, but my main concern was out processing from my unit, getting on a plane and heading home to see my wife and one-year old daughter.
I was aware that the Kent State shootings and student strikes at college campuses across the country had been precipitated by the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. That invasion even caused protests of a sort amongst the young men that staffed my battalion’s fire direction center where I worked as a Fire Direction Officer. They reacted like the college students most of them had recently been. They made their feeling known but they continued doing their jobs.
By May 1970 the war had been going on for five years without any of the promised “light at the end of the tunnel” appearing. Reflecting divisions at home morale in some units in South Vietnam was not good. This was manifested by hostility towards officers and NCOs. I remember the night one of our firing batteries fired illumination rounds to aid military police attempting to apprehend a soldier who had shot an officer in his unit.
My own feelings about the war had evolved. Initially as a loyal “cold warrior” I had fully supported the war and instead of burning my draft card, I was one of many at my college who had it laminated in plastic. However now I saw that we hadn’t succeeded in defeating the North in the five years that U.S. troops had been actively involved. Also, from my own experience as an artillery liaison officer to an ARVN infantry brigade it was apparent that the south, and its army, lacked the will to win the war on its own.
That being said, I thought that the United States had originally entered the conflict with the best of “Cold War” reasons. We saw South Vietnam as a small freedom loving nation on the verge of conquest by its Soviet and Communist Chinese supported neighbor to the north. If South Vietnam fell, then other dominos in Asia would fall to communism. However, if we supported South Vietnam, we could make it a bulwark against communism. That’s what our leaders thought and by the time they realized that wasn’t going to happen the U.S. was in deep.
While I was in country the Nixon administration began implementing “Vietnamization” as a way of facilitating an “honorable” American withdrawal from the war. In South Vietnam we were aware that anti-war protests had been heating up at home and that the average American was getting tired of the war and reading the weekly casualty lists. Then in the Spring of 1970 Nixon ordered the Cambodian invasion. Just when it looked like we were getting out of the war it was suddenly widened. Protests ratcheted up across the country and then Kent State happened followed by student strikes on many campuses.
Focused on getting home but a little puzzled about what had happened to the country I had grown up in, I departed South Vietnam and the war from Camranh Bay in the early hours of Saturday May 16, 1970. The plane carried us to McChord Airforce base in the state of Washington.
That morning while awaiting my flight to Chicago at Seattle Tacoma International Airport I had my first experience that illustrated for me the impact that Kent State had on America. A young man and his girlfriend called across the terminal to ask me “how many babies did you kill Captain?” Later, on my flight from Chicago to Buffalo I sensed hostility from some passengers that I still remember clearly. The well-dressed man seated next to me on the flight obviously didn’t like being seated next to someone in a green Army uniform. Prior to going to Vietnam, it seemed many civilians saw soldiers as lambs being led to slaughter and sympathized with us. But now some of our fellow citizens saw us as cold-blooded killers. However, happy being on the way home I attempted to ignore it.
What happened at Kent State was an inexcusable tragedy. We must never allow our divisions to grow to the point where such a thing could happen again. Some of our current politicians on both sides of the aisle might take a lesson from that.
Finally, it’s nice to note the respect shown to active duty military and to veterans of all of our wars today. We should never forget that soldiers do not start wars but reluctantly take up arms to defend our nation and its vital interests only after politics and diplomacy have failed.
Thomas Kirkpatrick Sr. is a Silver Creek resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org