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Then the outnumbered and partially encircled contingent of Guardsmen ran out of tear gas. Suddenly they seemed frightened. They began retreating up the hill toward Taylor Hall, most of them walking backward to keep their eyes on the threatening students below. The crowd on the hilltop consisted almost entirely of onlookers rather than rock throwers. The tight circle of retreating Guardsmen contained officers and noncoms from both regiments, but no single designated leader. With them in civilian clothes was Brigadier General Robert Canterbury, the ranking officer on the campus, who said later: "I was therebut I was not in command of any unit." Some of the troops held their rifles pointed skyward. Several times a few of them turned, pointed their M1s threateningly at the crowd, and continued their retreat.
When the compact formation reached the top of the hill, some Guardsmen knelt quickly and aimed at the students who were hurling rocks from below. A handful of demonstrators kept moving toward the troops. Other Guardsmen stood behind the kneeling troops, pointing their rifles down the hill. A few aimed over the students' heads. Several witnesses later claimed that an officer brought his baton down in a sweeping signal. Said Jim Minard, a sophomore from Warren, Ohio: "I was harassing this officer. I threw a stone at him, and he pointed a .45-caliber pistol at me. He was brandishing a swagger stick. He turned away.
He was holding his baton in the air, and the moment he dropped it, they fired."
Within seconds, a sickening staccato of rifle fire signaled the transformation of a once-placid campus into the site of an historic American tragedy.
Like a Firing Squad
"They are shooting blanks they are shooting blanks," thought Kent State Journalism Professor Charles Brill, who nevertheless crouched behind a pillar. "Then I heard a chipping sound and a ping, and I thought, 'My God, this is for real.' " An Army veteran who saw action in Korea, Brill was certain that the Guardsmen had not fired randomly out of individual panic. "They were organized," he said. "It was not scattered. They all waited and they all pointed their rifles at the same time. It looked like a firing squad." The shooting stoppedas if on signal. Minutes later, the Guardsmen assumed parade-rest positions, apparently to signal the crowd that the fusillade would not be resumed unless the Guardsmen were threatened again. "I felt like I'd just had an order to clean up a latrine," recalled one Guardsman in the firing unit. "You do what you're told to do."