Skip to comments.The Bombing of Sterling Hall (The Antiwar Movement in the USA thirty four years ago today)
Posted on 08/24/2004 12:49:23 AM PDT by sockmonkey
The Bombing of Sterling HallText and photos copyright © 2000 Leemark Communications
The bombing was directed against the Mathematics Research Center, a U.S.-Army-funded facility, which was located in the East Wing of Sterling Hall along with the physics and astronomy departments. "Army Math," as it was known, was despised by many antiwar activists who felt the center was contributing to the death and destruction in Southeast Asia through its research and had no place on a public university campus.
Ironically, the department hardest hit by the blast was not the MRC but physics, many of whose faculty were against the war. A 33-year-old physics researcher named Robert Fassnacht was one of those working
At least 26 buildings on the campus alone were damaged in the bombing, which was heard more than 20 miles away. The explosive used was ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO), the same type that would be used in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Less than a week and a half after the act, the FBI had pieced together what happened and put four men on its most wanted list: 23-year-old Karleton Armstrong and his 19-year-old brother Dwight, from Madison, 18-year-old David Fine, from Wilmington, Delaware, and 22-year-old Leo Burt, from Havertown, Pennsylvania. Fine and Burt were both students at Wisconsin. Karl had been an on-again, off-again student in previous years. The Armstrongs and Fine were eventually caught, convicted and served time in prison. Leo Burt has never been found.
The Sterling Hall bombing is still a painful memory for many in Madison. There is no physical public memorial to Robert Fassnacht's death, either in Sterling Hall or on the campus. Yet a number of buildings are scarred from the bombing or other antiwar unrest during the '60s.
Despite the Sterling Hall bombing's far-reaching effects, a number of people today, especially younger people, don't even know it happened. What's more, many of those involved in the event have died during the 1990s, leaving fewer sources to tell the story.
Before most students graduate from the University of Wisconsin, they will run into numerous references to the Sterling Hall bombing. This event has become a legend of the University and is almost surreal, but for those on campus in the late summer of 1970, the event was very real. Four young men known as the New Years Gang, plotted and carried out the bombing of the Army Mathematics Research Center, which was located in Sterling Hall, as a protest to the Vietnam War. Karl Armstrong came up with the idea and convinced his younger brother, Dwight Armstrong, as well as David Fine and Leo Burt to participate in the bombing.
In the early morning hours of August 24, 1970, the New Years Gang loaded about 2,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate soaked in aviation fuel into a stolen Ford. The group parked the van below the Army Mathematics Research Center, in a driveway of Sterling Hall. At 3:42 A.M. the bomb exploded. It was powerful enough to knock out windows six blocks away, and police found pieces of the Ford van on top of an eight-story building nearby. Residents of Belleville, thirty miles from Madison, reported hearing echoes from the explosion. In all, the bomb caused approximately six million dollars in damages but it did surprisingly little harm to the Army Mathematics Research Center. The greatest causality of the bombing, however, was not the physical damage, but the death of Robert Fassnacht. The New Years Gang did not intend on killing anyone and thought the surrounding buildings would be empty on a Sunday night. Fassnacht, a physics post doc student, however, was working late that evening to finish an experiment. His death left the campus shaken with grief and three children without a father.
The Sterling Hall Bombing was not the first attack by the New Years Gang to protest to Vietnam War. The name of the group originated from a failed bombing of the Badger Ordinance Works outside Baraboo, Wisconsin on December 31, 1969 by Karl and his brother Dwight. The Armory Gymnasium (a.k.a. the Red Gym) and the UW Primate Research Center were cites attacked by Karl Armstrong as well, but the Sterling Hall bombing was his last assault.
The entire New Years Gang fled to Canada the evening of the explosion. Over the next several years, the police eventually found and arrested three of the four members; only Leo Burt has never been found. After Karl Armstrong was released from prison in 1980, he returned to Madison and opened the Loose Juice cart that serves fruit drinks during the summer on Library Mall.
Though the Sterling Hall bombing becomes ever more distant with the passage of each year, it will always have an impact on Madison. Some local video stores still rent the documentary, The War at Home, which discusses the Sterling Hall bombing. Additionally, at least two books have been written on the Sterling Hall bombing: The Madison Bombing by Michael Morris and Rads by Tom Bates. The anti-war protests of the 1960s and early 1970s have ended in Madison, but their impact lives on in movies, books, and Sterling Hall.
Thanks for your post. In taking a trip down memory lane via the internet tonite, I saw that Armstrong now runs Radical Rye, a sandwich shop/smoothie bar.
David Sylvan Fine signed the "Not in Our Name" petition recently. He has a law degree, but I am not sure that he has been admitted to the bar anywhere because of questions about his moral character, and changing story regarding the bombing. I know that he was turned down by the Oregon Bar when he applied. I read somewhere else that he works at UMW which I would find shocking, if true.
I would not have been making this trip down memory lane if not for John Kerry.
I would not vote for someone whose vain-glory and total lack of common sense has re-opened (at least for me) a wound on my soul, and (IMHO) a wound on the soul of America.
That's interesting. I was only 15 years old when this happened, but I kinda remember hearing about it, livin' in Chicago and all. Karl Armstong only got 10 years. Wonder how long the other 2 scumbags got. They killed a man. They all shoulda got life imho.
bump until I clarify the facts.
As the article stated no memorial and no one talked about it. It was kinda of funny watching the leftover 60's hippy leftists march down State St. when Grenada was liberated.
This kind of thing needs to be remembered. Not just for the sake of remembering, but to show that there was and still is an enemy within this country. We can't afford to have this kind of thing happen again in this country. People that destroy in this manner aren't protesting, they are committing war. As such, they should be treated as the enemy combatants that they are.
I think the Armstrongs got 10, Fine got 7, and Burt was never apprehended.
I posted this because it's the Anniversary of Fassnacht's death, and many years ago when I lived in Austin, and was acquainted with those in the anti-war movement (VVAW, CCI, SDS, Black Panthers-I helped with their free breakfast program,) some folks I knew who were associated with either SDS or Weather Underground alluded to the fact that they were hiding David Sylvan Fine out in Austin.
It was not a good time in America-bombs planted by those in the Antiwar Movement were going off on American soil at about the rate of 20 a week in places like California during the summer of 1970.
After, the bombing in Madison, many people dropped out of the antiwar movement. Sometimes I think that those who stayed involved all became Politicians (Tom Hayden, John Kerry) or College Professors.
I agree completely, and think that because of recent events on the political front, people will come to that realization.
Something I realized taking my trip down memory lane via the internet is that many of those who are "retellers" of the story, are presenting it with a sympathetic bias, and romanticizing the events of the time. They present those who were involved with radical, and extremist groups that engaged in criminal and violent acts as folk heroes who were driven to such actions by an oppressive American government.
Yeah, it's all 'fun and games' till people start getting blown up. Hope it doesn't come to that again. This time the protesters are even bigger idiots 'cause there's no draft, so there's really nothing to protest at all. Clueless fools.
Correcting my previous post:
For causing the death of Robert Fassnacht, and millions of dollars worth of damage ...
Fine was paroled in 1979 after serving three years. Karl Armstrong served seven years and his brother four.
Today is the Anniversary of Robert Fassnacht's death at Madison Ping.
My brother-in-law was working at the Badger Ordinance Works the night they tried to bomb the place--with a small plane, if my memory serves me right. The terror is something he'll never forget.
IIRC, Fassnacht left a wife and very young twins.
I went to Madison. I wasn't in town that summer, but many of my friends and relatives were. If those a__holes had made the fuse a little longer or lit it two or three hours later...
I was at UW-Madison from 74 to 77 - when memories of the
bombing were still fresh but most of the protests and
the violence had been replaced by a focus on football,
beer and girls.
My memory is that the Armstrongs were more reviled than
idolized in that 74-77 timeframe. Has revisionist history
taken hold and now they are portrayed as some sort of
Sterling Hall bomber Armstrong arrested after $800,000 cash found in vehicle