Pictured are Ohio Northern University students Jarrod Jones and Lindy Holmes interviewing former Ohio National Guard member Raymond Silvey.
Mathew McManus, one of eight Ohio National Guard members who were indicted and acquitted in the fatal Kent State shootings that transpired on May 4, 1970, can still recall what he saw and did that day as a sergeant for Company A.
“The troops reached the top of the hill and I was in front of them… The line suddenly turned. Did an about-face. These men are in gas masks. Their sight is limited. So, they were going by feel; what this person did, they did. So, it was a chain reaction, right across the line. The weapons were coming down almost like dominoes from my left to my right.” McManus said. He noticed another superior officer running down the line, grabbing the ends of rifles and shoving them toward the sky.
“I ordered my men, because I knew, I could hear the firing started, I knew there was no stopping it. I ordered my men to raise their weapons in the air. As loud as I could yell, I yelled, ‘Raise your weapons and fire one round in the air!’ And I myself hit the ground,” McManus remembered. He paused, reached for a glass of water and took more time to collect himself before continuing with the story.
McManus’ remarkable narrative was captured as part of an ongoing Ohio Northern University oral history project that’s seeking to gather firsthand accounts from Guard members who were present on Kent State’s Blanket Hill that fateful morning when the Guard fired into a crowd of demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine. Just as importantly, the project’s goal is to learn how the tragedy has and has not affected their lives since then.
The Kent State Guardsmen Oral History Project is without precedent and stands out for its focus on the marginalization of a contingent who are considered anything but a minority: white men in military uniforms.
“In history within the last generation or so there’s been an increasing push to capture unheard voices. Usually that means voices from disaffected populations such as women and minorities. But, in this case, the voices that haven’t been heard are in traditional positions of power. It’s an anomaly,” says Dr. David Strittmatter, assistant professor of history at ONU. Strittmatter conceived of the project for one of his public history classes and has been including students since then to gather information, conduct interviews and record footage.
“We’re wanting to know, ‘How has this followed you? How has it affected your life, if at all?’” Strittmatter says.
Over the years, historians, documentarians, law enforcement, media and many others have captured numerous stories about the Kent State shootings, from student perspectives to Kent, Ohio residents’ reactions. Yet little attention has been paid to those who wielded the rifles. Kent State University has archived more than 100 interviews with individuals about the historic shootings, but only three feature Guardsmen. Strittmatter took note of this informational gap and decided it was a matter worth addressing. He also quickly realized that it would be a wonderful learning opportunity for students.
“The media just castigated and vilified these guys,” Strittmatter noted of the guardsmen. “We wanted to be non-judgmental.” The students, who conduct several of the interviews, have devised questions that are open-ended but also specific enough to allow individuals to freely talk about their experiences. “A good oral history project is about sitting back and allowing people to talk,” Strittmatter says.
So far, this project focusing on Blanket Hill participants has yielded 12 Guard member interviews, which can be found at the student-created website: KentGuardVoices1970.com. The pandemic has slowed the process, but some interviews were conducted as recently as March. Many of the men contacted have not wanted to discuss their involvement in what is often referred to as a “massacre” for various reasons. “In the beginning, I didn’t know if anyone would want to talk,” Strittmatter explains. But future interviews are now planned with more Guard veterans who are also interested in speaking out. Strittmatter said two men who were high school classmates and who were both Guardsman during the shootings are interested in interviewing; they haven’t seen each other since that the mid-1970s.
Strittmatter said the project has been eye-opening. Students have been able to acquire explanations about some controversial details from that day, have discovered that some of the former Guardsmen still have professional ties to Kent State University, and have found out that not a day has gone by that some Guard participants haven’t thought about what happened and why. One was a conscientious objector who threw down his weapon after the shooting began. Another was able to compartmentalize the day enough to become a comedian. Some are sorry about what happened. Some are not. Some are still trying to piece together a coherent understanding, which may never be possible; a full accounting with conclusive evidence regarding why the National Guard started shooting demonstrators have remained elusive.
“I think that these interviews, or just the project as a whole, is such a fascinating piece of history that has never been fully shared,” says ONU senior history major Lindy Holmes, a project contributor. Crucial to its success, she says, has been researching and conducting the interviews from a neutral standpoint so that the men feel comfortable with freely expressing their views.
“We needed to consider the smallest things, such as creating questions that would engage the guardsman and allow them to openly speak with us,” Holmes says. “It was important to stay away from any questions that would be considered biased or judgmental. We needed to focus on how to create this new narrative without any form of malice. My goal was to acknowledge their position as well as their emotions from the event. In some instances, the Guardsman were very sorrowful and the events continued to affect them. To me, it was important not to disregard their experiences. I wanted to be someone who would listen to them, tell their story from their point of view and share it word-for-word without any bias.”
Ironically, some of those who joined the Ohio National Guard back then did so to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War. Yet some then found themselves at Kent State University, being ordered to shoot at people who were demonstrating against the war itself.
“There was an immense response of opposition among many young people relating to the Vietnam War,” says Holmes. “I found it valuable to understand that these men were basically facing the same situation as the young protesters and were more than likely unhappy with being face to face with people they may have identified with.”
Where are these former Guardsmen now? Strittmatter said many of them still live in Ohio, which has made interview logistics more manageable. Most are in their 70s.
The Ohio National Guardsmen Oral History Project has no timeline for completion. For the time being, Strittmatter and ONU students intend to collect recollections from Ohio National Guardsmen as long as they are interested in sharing them.