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“It Couldn’t Go On Like This:” Jim Vacarella Describes Events Leading Up to the Kent State Shootings

Jim Vacarella was a student at Kent State University when the National Guard arrived on campus in 1970. Like hundreds of other campuses across the country, Kent State witnessed an upsurge in student activism following the American invasion of Cambodia in 1970. The Guardsmen arrived when students burned down the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) building, and Vacarella remembered that their arrival was met with hostility along with thrown rocks and bottles from angered students. Two days later, four students were killed when Guardsmen opened fire during an anti-war demonstration.

Listen to Audio:

VACARELLAThe memories of the time are ... start with Nixon’s invading Cambodia, the Vietnam War which we all were affected by, everybody that was living at that time was affected by it. And the war started widening in ‘65, ’66, '67. When I entered, I signed a paper, SSS-109 form, with President Lyndon Johnson. Deferred me because I was a premed student, till I was 36, but I was draft-eligible till I was 36. Nixon got in office in 1968. I made the first lottery. When he instituted the first lottery, I made the first lottery number. Went up to 85, mine was 82. I went from Kent at my sophomore year, I went to Cleveland, Fairview General Hospital in Cleveland, to be a nurse anesthetist. And I lasted six months there and I came back. And in the process of changing schools, they reclassified me 1A.

So, in April 30, 1970, when Nixon announced on TV, in Moulton Hall, we were in Moulton Hall watching it, when he announced that anyone that didn’t have the proper grades, or actually our RA counselor announced it, didn’t have the proper grades or we didn’t have ... we had a 1A classification, we would be gone in three weeks to Vietnam. And this from going from Woodstock and all of what we went through in the ‘60’s, in the late ’60s, to going to Vietnam in 1970 was not going to work. That was just not going to work. So, my definite feeling that night, that was Thursday night, was, and most of us were the same, was that we’re not going and something drastic is going to be done.

So the next day, there was a rally and there weren’t very many people. I dated this girl that was from Terrace and we went out that night and I missed Friday night’s activities. So, all I heard was what everybody brought back on Friday night, 'cause I was dating at that time. So next day, Saturday, we heard all of what was happening and there was going to be a rally at 8 o’clock.

We met on the Commons at 8 o’clock around the building, and this is where my events are very, very clear, the events of the night were very clear. We stood around the ROTC Building, and I would estimate maybe under 1000 people, say 400–1000, hard to estimate, but some say it was only a couple hundred. It doesn’t matter. There were lots of us but not masses. And someone lit a garbage can. In the garbage can was the fire. Threw it through the window of the ROTC Building and it went out. I’ve never heard this said but we were right there. That fire went out.

And the next thing we saw was a Molotov cocktail which we were told later that it was a police informant that had long blonde hair and subsequently one of our friends was indicted for this act ... so the second Molotov cocktail, if you will, that was thrown in caught the building on fire. Went through the window, caught curtains on fire and the wall was on fire. Now we moved from the fire because the firemen came. And then a bunch of people started ripping the hoses apart and the firemen left. And then several state troopers came and tried to guard that. And there were definitely rocks thrown, etc. and they left. And then we moved to the ... where the second building was burning, or was eventually burning, going to burn and that was the tool shed. And it was over by the tennis courts, right at the edge of the Commons by the tennis courts. And I looked back and that building was engulfed.

And then the Guard came in maybe, maybe it was 11 o’clock, hard to say what time it was. Everybody has their own recollection on it. But the Guardsmen came in and they didn’t come in to fight. They came in to do their stop and do their bivouac, or whatever. And they were pelted! No question about it! They were pelted with rocks and bottles and knives and whatever anything, anything anybody could throw. No question. And there were half-track tanks, jeeps and big old trucks carrying all kinds of soldiers. And they came and I guess they went to the field, where the practice field, and they set up. And all night long it was a guerilla-kind of warfare. We were up all night long throwing things, harassing the guards.

Sunday night, Sunday night, the 3rd. And we massed on the Commons again. Several people spoke. Somebody from the SDS. And you could see people in the crowd with cameras and all that. And we walked, we marched around Tri-Towers and came toward the parking lot in Prentice. And at Prentice they were there. They were waiting for us. They had this vee and they caught us in the Prentice parking lot. I think it’s Prentice anyway. It’s beyond Terrace, it’s just up here. I’m not real sure. I just saw the parking lot and there’s a lot of trees, a lot of cherry trees now that there weren’t then. And the whole parking lot was cordoned off by three, on three sides by the Guardsmen. Down, sort of down the hill, so we didn’t see them. By the time all of us got into the parking lot to go to Main Street here, they came and threw teargas and we were all gassed. And I was gassed, amazingly gassed! And I ended up in the bushes right out in front here by the President’s house. And I ended up laying in the bushes for about two hours, so I missed the next two hours, to clear my head.

O.K. so ... so, that night we knew. We just knew that this school’s going to close

PERLMAN HALEM: Now when you say you ...

VACARELLA: We knew it was a rumor ....

PERLMAN HALEM: No one knew who would close it?

VACARELLA: No, we didn’t know how ...

PERLMAN HALEM: Just knew it would be closed?

VACARELLA: We just knew that we were going to close the school. We didn’t know how, we didn’t know when. But we knew that it couldn’t go on like this. It was getting increasingly violent, increasingly violent. We didn’t know what was going ... what was coming next. But we knew that it would close. And mainly that was our rumor - we were going to close the school.

PERLMAN HALEM: The students . .

VACARELLA: We were going to close the school. So Monday started with that feeling.

Source: Interview by Sandra Perlman Halem, April 3, 2000
Courtesy of May 4 Collection Kent State University