My May 4 Experience
Alan Canfora, May 4, 1970
surviving the Kent State massacre —
my eyewitness experience:
“…it’s very hard to ignore that Kent State thing.
They were down there, man, ready to do it.
You can see them, they’re all kneeling there,
they’re all in the kneeling position
and they got their slings tight
and they’re ready to shoot.
And there’s this kid, this long-haired kid
standin’ there with a flag wavin’ it…
I mean, I cannot be a man,
and be a human, and ignore that.”
ROLLING STONE magazine interview,
July 23, 1970, pp. 22-23.
My frightened girlfriend stayed in my apartment after I prepared two black protest flags. I purposefully chose black material to match my dark mood of despair and anger following the recent death of my friend Bill Caldwell in Vietnam. Four hundred Ohio national guardsmen (ONG) were in the city of Kent and 800 were on the campus. Leaving my apartment, I walked past many of these soldiers, went several blocks east to the Kent State campus, and joined my friends on the KSU Commons at noon. About 1,000 students had joined the protest rally, but classes were being held on campus as usual.
We assumed we still could exercise our Constitutional rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom to dissent. Immediately as our peaceful anti-war rally began, approximately 75 members of the Ohio National Guard attacked our peaceful gathering. As these guardsmen wearing helmets and gas masks marched and fired tear gas, we ran away from the KSU Commons up over “Blanket Hill” and down into the Prentice Hall dormitory’s parking lot.
The armed guardsmen followed us over the hill and then settled on a practice football field for perhaps 10 minutes. During this time, a stand-off occurred as a few rocks were thrown back and forth by both students and guardsmen. Because we stood hundreds of feet apart the rocks were ineffective and both sides ceased that activity.
As some of us walked closer to shout our anti-war and anti-National Guard anger, perhaps 250-feet away, about a dozen guardsmen kneeled and aimed toward us. I stood my ground and shouted towards the armed troops who had their fingers on their rifle triggers. Since there was no logical reason to aim or shoot, I assumed they would not fire and I was correct — at that moment. Soon, however, the troops regrouped and began to march away back up the hill. We assumed they were marching in a retreat back over the hill to the KSU Commons.
We were quite shocked when, at the hilltop, perhaps a dozen members of Troop G simultaneously stopped, turned and aimed their rifles. What followed was a 13 second barrage of gunfire, mostly from M-1 rifles, into our crowd of unarmed students. Some other guardsmen from Company A also fired non-lethal shots.
A total of 67 gunshots were fired by the guardsmen from the hilltop. Most of the bullets were fired over 300 feet into the distant Prentice Hall parking lot. Two of the students killed, Allison Krause and Jeff Miller, were protesters. Two others, Sandy Scheuer and Bill Schroeder were bystanders. Jeff was killed 275 feet away from his killer. Allison was 350 feet away. Sandy and Bill were approximately 390 feet away.
Nine others, including myself, were wounded. Dean Kahler remains in a wheelchair after he was shot in the back.
It was shocking to see the armed, uniformed guardsmen suddenly all turn together and start to shoot a powerful 13-second barrage of 67 shots into our crowd of unarmed students. For a brief moment, I assumed they were firing blanks because there was no reason whatsoever to fire live ammunition, as they seemed to be retreating over the hilltop.
At the moment the massacre occurred, as I stood and watched carefully, I saw several of my fellow-students run away and “hit the dirt” (drop to the ground). As the bullets began to fly, my survival instinct caused me to decide to make a quick dash behind an oak tree a few feet away–the only tree in the direct line-of-fire.
Just as I reached safety, kneeling behind that beautiful tree during the first seconds of gunfire, I felt a sharp pain in my right wrist when an M-1 bullet passed through my arm. With shock and utter disbelief, I immediately thought to myself: “I’ve been shot! It seems like a nightmare but this is real. I’ve really been shot!” My pain was great during that unique moment of unprecedented anguish but I had another serious concern: the bullets were continuing to rain in my direction for another 11 or 12 seconds.
Among the 76 Ohio National Guard soldiers stretched across the hilltop, only about a dozen members of Troop G — the death squad — stood calmly aiming in a firing line. They killed four Kent State University students and wounded nine others, including me. One wounded victim, Dean Kahler, remains paralyzed as a result.
During the gunfire, I was in great pain and distress but quite aware that I had to remain tucked behind that narrow, young tree which absorbed several bullets intended for me.
I then heard my roommate Tom Grace screaming his severe pain after a bullet passed through his left ankle. While the bullets were still flying, I yelled over to my best friend, Tom Grace, “Stay down! Stay down! It’s only buckshot!”
I wrongly assumed we were wounded by shotguns firing buckshot because I knew that 30 students at nearby Ohio State University were slightly wounded a week earlier by police shotguns fired on High Street in Columbus, Ohio.
Tom Grace claims I perhaps saved his life because he stopped trying to sit-up and check his wounded foot until after the shooting ceased.
So, during the gunfire I experienced great pain, shock, disbelief, fear, concern for Tom Grace and my fellow-students, confusion to assume shotguns were fired and the urgent need to remain protected by the oak tree.
The overwhelming sensation, however, was extreme pain from the shocking trauma of a gunshot wound. The surreal scene was made more starkly real due to the ghastly sounds of many bullets cracking and zipping through the air past both sides of the tree during those 11-12 seconds after I was shot. Most of the victims were shot down in the parking lot behind my life-saving oak tree at the bottom of the hillside.
It was the ultimate surreal moment to survive such a near-death experience especially when the shooters were aiming, in particular, at me and others.
When the gunfire ceased, after a moment of eerie silence, we saw the killers begin to march away while students screamed in pain and shock and called out for ambulances. I ran to Tom Grace and consoled him with assurances our wounds were only “…caused by buckshot!” Soon, other students began to assist Tom Grace and I decided to run and somehow get a ride to the hospital.
As I ran past Jeff Miller, I saw a crowd of students gathering and someone shouted: “Get an ambulance! This guy’s been shot! AMBULANCE!”
I ran up to Jeff Hartzler, showed him my bloody arm, and said, “They shot me and Tom Grace too. He is over there. Go help him!” He ran away toward Tom Grace. My pain and blood distressed me as I ran through the chaotic bloody parking lot. I knew I had to get treatment for my injured wrist at a hospital soon.
When I ran into the KSU home economics building, Nixson Hall, and rinsed my wound, a female student provided a clean, white towel and I ran back outside. I stopped the first car out front of the home-economics building and convinced the convinced the driver to take me to the hospital. That KSU graduate student and his wife then drove six miles east to the old Robinson Memorial Hospital in nearby Ravenna. As I rode along sitting, bleeding, in the back seat of that Ford, my pain and shock increased as the sound of ambulance and police sirens filled air constantly. Ambulances passed us and arrived at the hospital minutes before I was delivered there myself.
When I got to the hospital, as I walked alone toward the emergency room door, I looked inside the open rear door of a parked ambulance. I saw my friend Jeff Miller lying dead and bloody on a stretcher. I assumed he was only unconscious from a facial flesh wound. I still wrongly-assumed non-lethal shotguns shot us.
During those terrible seconds as I stood alone gazing at my friend’s bloody form, I vainly hoped that plastic surgery would repair Jeff’s face where a gaping 2-inch bloody hole destroyed Jeff’s always-smiling face. I did not know that a powerful M-1 bullet had passed through Jeff’s head and he was killed instantly.
Inside the hospital, I tried to calm Tom Grace who was screaming a plea for morphine or “something to stop the pain!” After I was hustled into a treatment room, I was later told that students were killed. A doctor who checked the names of the slain students alleviated my concern about my sister Chic.
Although I suffered extreme physical pain, the deaths of my fellow students overwhelmed me with feelings of great despair and anger. I immediately understood we were the victims of a great injustice. I feared immediate arrest in that police-state atmosphere. After my wounds were treated, I convinced hospital authorities to permit my departure.
Outside, I soon was reunited with my sister, my girlfriend and other Kent friends who just arrived at the hospital. We had to evade Main Street roadblocks and we sneaked back into Kent through Brady Lake on Lake Street. At my apartment, our many friends gathered and expressed horror and outrage about the murders. We were also quite concerned about Tom Grace who was seriously injured and remain hospitalized because his ankle was blown open by a powerful bullet. He later developed a serious gangrene infection and nearly lost his maimed foot.
Some expressed the need for “revenge” and others expressed our grief and anger as we discussed the historic massacre we had just witnessed. We were fortunate we survived. We knew that we had witnessed a cold-blooded, calculated, planned massacre. Years later, we learned there were orders to fire those 67 gunshots.