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Thursday, 03 April 2008

May 1971 - Washington, DC

By Richard Mims of The Foothills Opinion Post

The Weather Underground and various other anti-war groups had threatened to shut down the capitol for seven days that month. I can’t remember which seven, but I think it started in the first week. President Richard Milhous Nixon vowed that would not be allowed to happen.

I was a Marine corporal stationed at Quantico. My job was photography. In Nam, I worked on F-4s that flew photo-recon up north, Indian Country they called it. Back in the states I took pictures of Colonels’ wives at “O” club bashes and worked for the base newspaper.

Having done my tour overseas, I harbored few illusions about the glory of war, the righteousness of our cause or the halting of the Communist push in Southeast Asia. Indeed, with just 60 days left on my four-year enlistment, I was more civilian than soldier. So when the word came that we would be spending a week in D.C. guarding the 14th Street Bridge from hippies, I was less than impressed.

We loaded up a company of infantry, a few MPs, a couple of corpsman, and me, a photographer (to document any interaction with civilians) and headed to the capitol. Our Marine detachment was a very small part of an inter-service operation, but our assignment at the bridge was considered crucial to protecting access to the city.

Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of the then-named Rochambeau Bridge,later changed to Arland D. Williams Memorial. This bridge was later to be the scene of an historic plane crash on January 13, 1982, when Air Florida flight 90 hit the bridge and careened into the Potomac River killing 75 passengers and all the crew in addition to four motorists.

For us, the 14th Street Bridge was just a major roadway to the capitol and our responsibility was to keep clear of burning hippy buses and protesters. You will be happy to hear that we accomplished this with aplomb, mostly because there was never a protester or a hippy bus (burning or otherwise) on the bridge that day or any of the other days we were stationed there.

It was certainly compelling to see Marines with M-16s posted every 20 feet or so along both sides of the bridge though.

Under the orders of the first lieutenant in charge, I took photos of the troops, the bridge, our billet (some tents close to the bridge) and in general documented our deployment.

Things got so boring that the lieutenant and I took a jeep downtown along Constitution Avenue where I shot pictures of army troops in front of government buildings. Some of these ended up in the Quantico newspaper and these were the most telling of all - armed troops at equal intervals up and down Constitution Avenue. It must have done President Nixon’s paranoid heart proud!

During the ensuing week, there were many clashes with civilian protesters, but all involved the D.C. police. The nightly news showed protesters being gassed, beaten with billy clubs and thrown into paddy wagons. These unfortunates were then hauled to the stadium and kept in pens. The D.C. cops were censured for their brutality, but with orders from the White House to stop the Seven Days in May movement in its tracks, they just did what it took.

Not till years later did I understand the implications of putting armed troops on American streets. The Posse Comitatus Act meant nothing to me then and probably not much to Nixon either. As it turns out the marines and the navy aren’t even mentioned, though the thrust of the act is to prohibit the use of all armed forces save the Coast Guard and the National Guard on American soil.

Back in Quantico after our deployment, I learned of a protest concert at the Washington Monument that coming Saturday. My friend Vince and I along with our girlfriends loaded up my VW van and headed back to D.C. in civvies ready to party. We joined tens of thousands of protesters on the monument grounds listening to rock bands, smoking pot, getting the munchies and drinking Boones Farm Apple Wine.

It was a great day and there were no signs of hippie disruption, police violence or burning hippy buses. There was everywhere, however, the sweet smell of burning cannabis and the sounds of thousands of young people celebrating their right to peacefully protest their government’s actions.

After all, isn’t that what I was supposed to have been fighting for?

[The vault of new stories is running low again. If you are interested in contributing, the guidelines are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Hi Richard,
Thanks for sharing your story. It is so interesting to get lots of perspectives on those times. It seems hard to imagine that all this is "history" to kids. I taught a unit to high school kids about Vietnam. They were really interested because many had parent who had served, but they knew little about the details. When we finished studying it, they still felt perplexed. Why had we gone there?

Blessings,
Sharry

Sadly our current occupants of the White House are as clueless about the legalities of their actions as Nixon was. History does repeat itself, to our sorrow.

Thank you, Richard, for reminding us of those times.

Thanks for reading my story. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction and this seemed like one of those cases to me.

As to teaching Viet Nam to school kids and making any sense of it; good luck. Those of us who were there still don't know why.

Richard

Nice story. I remember a peace march on Washington in 1969 during which there were visibly snipers on top of government buildings "protecting" the government from us. I imagine they were as bored as your unit.

The tensions caused by free speech and the gulf between segments of society seem much more real and serious today, though my politics have not changed hardly at all.

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