Behind the camera: Student photographer John Filo
Where: Kent University
Photo Summary: Mary Ann Vecchio screaming as she crouched over the bleeding body of Jeffrey Miller
Picture Taken: May 4, 1970
Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’.
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drummin’.
Four dead in Ohio.
“Ohio” song by the folk band: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in protest of the Kent State massacre.
On May 4, 1970 the obscure Kent University jumped to the world’s attention when 13 students where shot, 4 killed, by National Guard members. The National Guard had been brought on campus in response to earlier violent protests. Student photographer John Filo captured his famous picture of then 14-year-old runaway, Mary Vecchio, as she crouched over the bleeding body of Jeffrey Miller. The picture has become a photo that visually symbolized the protests of the Vietnam War era.
Events leading to the May 4 shooting.
Richard Nixon was elected to office in 1968 on the promise that he would remove American GIs from Vietnam. Since the ’68 election tensions had slowly been rising in America and especially on University campuses. Events such as the exposure of the secret bombing campaigns in Indochina, the My Lai massacre in November 1969 and then in December of the same year the first draft lottery in decades did nothing to calm campus life. On April 30th, 1970 President Nixon in a televised announcement told America that US forces had 5 days earlier invaded Cambodia to destroy Vietnamese bases there.
Campuses across the country exploded in response to the acknowledgment of American forces opening a new front in Indochina. Students felt betrayed by Nixon. Instead of removing American forces from Indochina, with the Cambodian invasion, it appeared that Nixon was escalating the war. A growing war combined with the new draft system meant that there was a real risk of being forced to fight in a war that many saw as unjust and unnecessary.
Protests were organized throughout the US including Kent State University. At Kent a huge demonstration on Fri, May 1st and again the following Mon, May 4th was planned. The May 1st rally was held on the University Commons area (an open grassy area for sports rallies). Speeches against the war and the Nixon administration were given, and a copy of the Constitution was buried to symbolize how the constitution was dead because Congress had never declared war. (Congress has to approve the country going to war) As the evening fell the protest moved onto the downtown streets of Kent where many incidents between protesters and police occurred. The town bars were ordered closed by the major, which made the crowds even more unhinged as drunken youths spilled on to the streets. Eventually, protest turned to riot and riot turned to violence with frustrated students smashing downtown store windows, vandalizing and looting stores.
For every action there is a reaction
Kent’s Mayor, Leroy Satrom declared a state of emergency in the town and appealed to the Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes for help. Governor Rhodes responded by sending in the National Guard to bring order to the town. The Guard was able to deploy almost right away because the Ohio National Guard were already on duty in Northeast Ohio.
They’re the worst type of people
-Governor James Rhodes on the Vietnam protesters
The Guard arrived on campus on the evening of Sat, May 2nd to find a huge crowd of about 1000 students surrounding a burning ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) building on campus. Firemen were hindered in their efforts to put out the blaze by angry students. The wooden ROTC building would eventually burn to the ground. National Guard members spent the rest of the night arresting students and dispersing protesters with tear gas. No one was ever caught in regards to the arson of the ROTC building and there is much controversy surrounding who started the fire because the ROTC building was already abandoned, boarded up and scheduled for demolition. On Sun May 3rd, students awoke to their campus looking like a war zone with armed National Guard members everywhere, helicopters buzzing overhead and tanks stationed on University grounds. Sunday was a warm and sunny day and bemused students talked with Guardsmen occupying the campus. Governor James Rhodes gave a charged emotional speech where he gave a less than flattering portrayal of the student demonstrators: “They’re worse than the brownshirts and the communist element and also the nightriders and the vigilantes … They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.”
In the speech, the Governor also promised that he would get a court order banning future protests and gave the impression that something like martial law had been declared. Governor Rhodes actually had neither declared marital war or got a court injunction making campus demonstrations illegal but neither the National Guard or student organizers knew that. Sunday evening saw more protests and confrontations between protesters and guardsmen, exchanges between the two groups resulted in several students getting stabbed by Guardsmen bayonets.
May 4, Kent State Shootings
On Fri, May 1st, a protest was planned for noon on Mon May 4th and students attempted to follow through with the May 4 protest. However, the University attempted to stop the event and handed out thousands of leaflets that said the protest was cancelled. Despite the University efforts about 2,000 people gathered on the university’s Commons. Kent University breaks the crowd into:
… about 500 core demonstrators were gathered around the Victory Bell at one end of the Commons, another 1000 people were “cheerleaders” supporting the active demonstrators, and an additional 1500 people were spectators standing around the perimeter of the Commons. Across the Commons at the burned-out ROTC building stood about 100 Ohio National
Even though the protest was going on the campus was still open, people were going to class, having lunch and doing University things.
General Canterbury the commander of the Guardsmen ordered that the demonstration be dispersed to prevent any more outbreaks of violence. The protesters were first told to break up through loudspeakers and when that didn’t work teargas was fired into the crowds. However, the wind that day quickly dispersed the gas making it unsuccessful in breaking up the rally. Canterbury then ordered the Guardsmen, with bayonets fixed, to march across the commons in an effort to break up the crowd. The crowd was forced up, Blanket Hill, and down the other side towards the parking lot and practice football field. The Guardsmen with little or no crowd control experience soon became separated, with most of the men following the students directly. The 77 men who followed the students soon became trapped when their march lead them to a football field surrounded on three sides with a fence. Students at this time had still not dispersed and started to yell and throw rocks at the Guardsmen. There is some debate about how threatened this rock throwing was with protesters claiming that because of the distance only a few rocks hit the Guardsmen:
I did see one rock hit a Guardsman. And I say this because there were reports that came out of the press that fire hydrants had been thrown, Guardsmen had been bleeding and there was lots of lies afterwards, but I was right there, in the middle of it — nada — did not happen. But the one rock that I did see bounced off of a Guardsman’s helmet. And we’re talkin’ like a long way away. These guys were way down in the field. And that was that. So the Guard were in a crouching position with their guns out to shoot. Like you would think the Continental Army was.
-Carol Mirman – Student present during the Kent State shootings
Mary Ann Vecchio
The girl in the photo, Mary Ann Vecchio, had a troubled life as a child and after run ins with the law decided to run away from Opa-locka, Florida to hitchhike around the country. On May 4, 1970 she found herself at Kent State. She was talking to Miller, who she had just met, when the shots rang out. When the shooting stopped, she saw to her horror that Miller was lying in a pool of blood. In a 2021 interview she recalls that she was in shock and was crying out, “Doesn’t anyone see what just happened here? “Why is no one helping him?” When the soldiers approached, their guns at the ready, she screamed “Why did you do this?”
Afterwards, Mary Ann just remembers running. She was just a drifter and didn’t know anyone at the university; she’d only known Miller for 25 minutes. She was part of a group of young protesters that were rounded up by soldiers and transported to Columbus, Ohio about 140 miles away. From there she tried to hitchhike west.
A fellow runaway recognized her and set up an interview with an Indianapolis Star reporter. Hoping to get a bus fare to California in exchange for an interview, Mary Ann disguised herself as a granny. Instead of bus fare, the reporter called the police who arrested her as a runaway and sent her back to her parents in Opa-locka.
Many refused to believe that she was a runaway and accused her of being a communist plant. Claude R. Kirk, the governor of Florida said she was “part of a nationally organized conspiracy of professional agitators [that was] responsible for the students’ death.”
Soon she was targeted with harassment and death threats “It’s too bad it wasn’t you that was shot.” “What you need is a good beating until you bleed red.” “I hope you enjoyed sleeping with all those Negroes and dope fiends.” “The deaths of the Kent State four lies on the conscience of yourself.”
After many run-ins with the law, she finally moved to Los Vegas and made something of her life while keeping the fact that she was part of the iconic image a secret. For decades she watched and resented John Filo as he climbed the corporate ladder at CBS eventually becoming the head of photography.
The two never met again after the photo, until 1995. Gregory Payne, a professor and author of Mayday, Kent State, set up a 25-year retrospective. Both Mary and John dreaded the meeting but once they saw each other collapsed in each other’s arms in tears becoming fast friends.
Mary eventually returned to school and ended up becoming a respiratory therapist at the Miami VA hospital. She rarely told the vets she worked with every day that she was once the symbol of the 70s antiwar protests. As of April 2021 Mary Ann is retired and grows her own fruits on a plot of land on the edge of the Florida Everglades, she never had kids and after a nasty divorce never remarried.
Other Eye Witnesses
In 2013 on popular website Reddit a man claiming to be one of the men in the background posted his memories of the incident:
The guy with the white bandana and behind him and the fence is a guy with blond hair and long sideburns……well that is me at age 19. … I attended Kent State for one semester and was not a resident on campus May 4. … May 4 was a beautiful warm sunny day. At Kent there was a cafeteria on a rise and students often took their lunches outside on the grass. … I was walking from my class when the shots were fired and then saw people running. I headed to my car. I walked from Taylor Hall and there was a lot of confusion. I never saw Jeffrey Miller nor the photographer nor the girl screaming because there was another student down in the grass (later learned it was Dean Kahler) just a few feet away. In fact you can see people in the foreground pointing toward him but you can’t see him. Also the guard troops were sweeping up the hill the other direction so I could get behind them and get to my car. Several of us stopped around Dean who was alive but could not move. We stayed near him milling about being totally useless until the medics got there. I then went to my car and drove home.
Kent State is a large campus and had large open spaces (at least back then). Also at the time Kent was mainly a commuter college so you pretty much drove there, went to class, went home and minded your own business. It didn’t have a great reputation and the joke in Cleveland at the time was “if you can’t go to college, go to Kent.” The other thing about the photo is that it is essentially pointing away from the action and the guard. So those you see in the photo are stragglers on the fringe. Finally, this all happened around normal class change time so many people were unaware of what was going on. In fact, at the time I was walking in the photo I wasn’t even sure what had happened.
The Guard stayed on the field for about 10 minutes and it was here that several Guardsmen could be seen huddling together as if planning something. The Guard then began marching back the way they came, off the practice football field and back up Blanket Hill.
When they got to the top of the hill 28 of the 77 Guardsmen started firing their rifles and pistols. Investigations after the Kent State Shooting determined that altogether between 61 and 67 shots were fired in a 13 second period. John Filo a senior photojournalism student at Kent was present, with his Nikkormat camera using Tri X film, when they started shooting. Like many students that day John assumed the Guard was using blanks and quickly ran towards the Guard to get pictures while dodging fleeing students running the other way:
When I put the camera back to my eye, I noticed a particular guardsman pointing at me. I said, “I’ll get a picture of this,” and his rifle went off. And almost simultaneously, as his rifle went off, a halo of dust came off a sculpture next to me, and the bullet lodged in a tree.
I dropped my camera in the realization that it was live ammunition. I don’t know what gave me the combination of innocence and stupidity…but I never took cover. I was the only one standing at the hillside. … and turned slowly to my left, what caught my eye on the street was the body of Jeffrey Miller and the volume of blood that was flowing from his body was as if someone tipped over a bucket. I started to flee–run down the hill and stopped myself. “Where are you going?” I said to myself, “This is why you are here!”
And I started to take pictures again. And the picture I made then was of Jeffrey Miller’s body lying in the street and people starting to come out of shelter, and then a picture where Mary Vecchio was just entering the frame. I knew I was running out of film. I could see the emotion welling up inside of her. She began to sob. And it culminated in her saying an exclamation. I can’t remember what she said exactly … something like, “Oh, my God!”
Investigations would later try to answer the question, why did the National Guard open fire? The Adjutant General of the Ohio National Guard told reporters that a sniper had fired on the guards but this claim was proven untrue. The Guard themselves claim that they felt their lives threatened by the protesters yet none of the protesters were close to the Guard. Joseph Lewis the closest verified protester to the Guardsmen and was shot in the abdomen and left lower leg at a distance of about 60 feet. He was shot while standing still and giving a middle finger to the guard. Victims that day and the distance from the Guard line:
(estimated distance from the National Guard line):
- Allison Krause (343 feet/105 meters)
- Jeffrey Glen Miller (265 feet/81 meters)
- Sandra Lee Scheuer (390 feet/119 meters)
- William Knox Schroeder (382 feet/116 meters)
(estimated distance from the National Guard line)
- Thomas Mark Grace (unverified; between 60 and 200 feet/18 and 61 meters)
- Joseph Lewis (71 feet/22 meters)
- John Cleary (110 feet/34 meters)
- Alan Canfora (225 feet/69 meters)
- Dean Kahler (300 feet/91 meters)
- Douglas Wrentmore (329 feet/100 meters)
- James Dennis Russell (375 feet/114 meters)
- Robert Stamps (495 feet/151 meters)
- Donald MacKenzie (750 feet/229 meters)’
John Filo remembers if the Guardsmen cared about what happened after the shooting had stopped:
No. That was evident in that the squad that came over to examine the body of Jeffrey Miller was armed — six or seven of them. No one even bent down to get a closer look. The sergeant who did not have a rifle rolled the body of Jeffrey Miller over with his boot. That incensed some people. The soldiers regrouped and backed away from the body and away from the crowd of people … It could have taken 5 minutes. It is hard to calculate time.
Calls for Revenge
The Guardsmen retreated from the top of the hill to rejoin the other National Guard members at the perimeter of the burnt ROTC building. By this time students had again begun milling around the commons and what had happened started to sink in. Before the shootings, there was some question on how much of a danger the students posed to Guardsmen but after the shooting, there was no question with many calling for an all-out assault on the National Guard. ‘It’s gone too far’
With the students still not dispersed the Guard again approached and warned the faculty present that the students had to disperse immediately. It was then that the late, geology professor and faculty marshal, Professor Glenn Frank made an emotional plea to the students to break-up and leave the area. The speech was recorded by the news director at the student radio station, Bob Carpenter.
I don’t care if you’ve never listened to anybody before in your life. I am begging you right now, if you don’t disperse right now, they’re going to move in. It will only be a slaughter. Please, listen to me. Jesus Christ, I don’t want to be part of this. Listen to me…
–Professor Glenn Frank
The faculty through their pleas were finally able to get the crowd to disperse, Alan Frank the son of Professor Glen was there in the crowd that day, “He absolutely saved my life and hundreds of others,” said Frank.
University shuts down
While the bodies were being removed from campus and the wounded taken away by ambulance, Kent State University President Robert White was planning to shut down the University. A court injunction from Common Pleas Judge Albert Caris made the closure indefinite. Classes didn’t start again until the summer of 1970. Faculty at Kent made heroic efforts to allow students to finish their semester via papers mailed to instructors and classes held off-campus.
Nation wide protests
when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy
The news of Kent State spread quickly across the nation and this incident is widely regarded as the sole reason behind the only nationwide student strike in history. Hundreds of campuses shut down with over 4 million students protesting.
The next Saturday had protesters assembling in Washington to protest both the Kent State shooting and the Cambodian invasion. As the numbers grew the White House grew afraid of another “Kent” on the Whitehouse grounds. They arranged to have two rings of D.C. transit buses parked bumper-to-bumper. Paranoid government officials saw the gathering through the eyes of cold war soldiers with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff claiming that the buses were set up, because “this same group that was at Kent” was plotting to get a student killed in front of the Oval Office.
Publicly President Nixon expressed regret at the student deaths, “This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.” He invited Kent State students to the White House stated that the shootings should never have happened. Yet he had earlier called student protesters “bums” and in the Whitehouse tapes it was revealed that he had asked the Secret Service to beat up student protesters, and felt that the Kent State victims “had it coming”.
Many in America shared this “had it coming” attitude and the incident further divided the country. Incidents erupted around the country. Anti-Vietnam supporters demanded that flags be flown at half-mast in respect of the slain at Kent and on the other side pro-government supporters demanding that flags be raised from half-mast.
In 2010, the forty year anniversary of the shooting, new evidence emerged from the post-Kent-Shooting investigation. In June of 1970 Attorney General John Mitchell told the public “there was no sniper”. A report submitted to Attorney General John Mitchell in June 1970 stated: “there was no sniper” who could have fired at the guardsmen before the killings. It was also revealed that six guardsmen told the FBI that their lives were not in danger and that “it was not a shooting situation.”
However, over time declassified FBI documents show that at least two bullet fragments were found in a tree and ground around the guards. Also, and perhaps the reason the information was suppressed, the FBI had a mole in the student protest movement. Terry Norman, a part-time student at Kent, was working for the FBI and was armed with a gun that the FBI was able to determine had been fired on that day.
Activist Alan Canfora uncovered a copy of the “Strubbe Tape” in the Yale University archive. The Strubbe Tape was an audio recording by student Terry Strubbe who recorded the whole protest from his dorm window. In the 70s this tape was investigated but then destroyed by the FBI. The new uncovered copy was processed using modern technology in 2010 and it revealed that there were a number of pistol shots then someone giving orders to the guard members “Guard! . . . All right, prepare to fire!” the analysts reported hearing, followed by another voice yelling ‘Get down!’ The first voice then says, ‘Guard, fi–,’ “ the word fire being drowned out by gunshots. The U.S. Justice Department refused to reopen the case with this new evidence citing legal obstacles to further prosecutions and doubts about the new evidence.
An altered version of the picture has over the years been published instead of the real Filo Pulitzer Prize Winner. The altered version appeared as recently as May 1st, 1995 in the LIFE magazine article, “Caught in time” Pg 38.
In Memory of
Kent State University sponsored an official annual tribute until 1976 when the administration announced it would no longer support an official University commemoration. It was here that the May 4 Task Force was created. Made up of students, and community members the May 4 Task Force task is to organize a commemoration every year to those that died during the Kent State Shooting.
It wasn’t until 1990 that a physical memorial for the events of May 4, 1970 was dedicated. The memorial was shrouded in controversy and in the end, only 7% of the design was constructed. A 1978 sculpture of the biblical Abraham set to sacrifice his son Isaac was also deemed too controversial and was not allowed on campus. (The statue eventually went to Princeton University)
On Kent Campus a work of land art, Partially Buried Woodshed, by Robert Smithson commissioned in January 1970 had an inscription allowed it to be associated by some with the Kent State Shootings.