30 years ago, bomb shattered UW campus
Anger over Vietnam reached tragic climax in Sterling Hall explosion
By Sharif Durhams and Peter Maller
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: Aug. 19, 2000
Madison - Karl Armstrong remembers vividly his hatred for the government.
There was the My Lai massacre. The beatings by police at the 1968
Democratic National Convention. And the killings of four anti-war
protesters by National Guardsmen at Kent State University.
Armstrong, an occasional student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and
a participant in several hit-and-run building attacks, learned of Kent
State while visiting an uncle in Minneapolis.
As he watched the evening news with his younger brother, Dwight, his
"I turned to my brother, and I said: 'They're killing us now. We're in the
endgame. Army Math is
Thursday is the 30th anniversary of the morning Armstrong lighted the fuse
to a bomb that carved a crater into the Army Math Research Center in
UW-Madison's Sterling Hall - and, by extension, into the whole anti-war
movement at one of the country's most volatile campuses.
University officials will make no public statements about the event. Bells
will not toll for Robert Fassnacht, the 33-year-old graduate student who
died in the explosion. No ceremony is scheduled.
But any visitor to the building can still see the faint signs of what was
then the most destructive act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, since
eclipsed only by the Oklahoma City bombing.
The crevice where newer bricks join old serves as a kind of plaque marking
the spot where the fertilizer and jet-fuel bomb exploded. There is no memorial.
"The event has become a legend of the university and is almost surreal,"
says a guide to the university written by students two years ago. "But for
those on campus in the late summer of 1970, the event was very real."
Target for Anger
"Army Math" - as the one-of-a-kind research center was known on campus -
had been the target of activists' ire since soon after it opened in the
late 1950s. Over the years, that ire turned to anger.
As protests against the Vietnam War intensified, the Daily Cardinal
published stories alleging that university professors and graduate students
were conducting secret weapons research that would eventually be used to
kill civilians in Southeast Asia. Army Math - located on the top three
floors of the six-floor building - had become Public Enemy No. 1 among the
The protest speeches and vandalism that spread through the university area
in the 1960s had, by the end of the decade, grown to riots and firebombings
countered by police with pepper spray and by National Guardsmen with brute
force. Students abandoned classes to protest what they saw as
discriminatory policies that prevented black students from entering the
university, and they railed against their lack of voice in how
administrators ran the school.
By 1970, simply holding classes had become difficult.
"Twenty students would say to each other, 'Let's go break some windows at
State Street and Layton Avenue,' " said John Elder, a UW-Madison sociology
professor and Quaker who was a vocal opponent of the war. "The police
typically resisted with emotion, energy and violence. The crowds would
swell to 200 or 400 students. By evening, there would be complete disruption."
One of the worst student disruptions came in the spring, in what came to be
known as the Miffland riots, an on-again, off-again fight between students
and police. Roger Howard, now dean of students, was the resident director
at Witte Hall, the dorm closest to Mifflin St. - the heart of the
"Miffland" area. Howard would see young men in dorm hallways carrying piles
of rocks. They would quickly dart out, pelt police officers and run back
Howard kicked the attack squads out when he could. When that didn't work,
officers would enter the building, pepper-spraying antagonists and
In May, with the news of Kent State burning across campus, Chancellor Edwin
Young declared a state of emergency, and 1,800 National Guardsmen and 400
police officers clamped down the campus. Young then canceled final exams to
get students out of town for the summer as soon as possible.
Young's move ended the riots, but not the destruction.
The 3:40 a.m. attack on Sterling Hall was so powerful, it damaged 26 other
buildings. Pieces of the stolen van that contained the ammonium nitrate
bomb were found atop an eight-story building three blocks from the blast site.
Howard and his wife were knocked out of bed. Nearby churches lost their
Residents 30 miles away were awakened by the sound.
Fassnacht was working through the night to finish a project before leaving
on vacation. He planned to go to San Diego the next day with his wife,
Stephanie, their 3-year-old son, Chris, and their 1-year-old twin
daughters, Heidi and Karin.
Investigators think Armstrong, along with his brother Dwight and
accomplices David Fine and Leo Burt, filled a Ford van with fertilizer and
jet fuel, drove it to Sterling Hall's loading dock, lighted the fuse and
called the police to warn them.
In an interview last week, Armstrong said the attackers had bombed Sterling
Hall in the wee hours because they did not want to harm anyone and had
assumed the building would be vacant. But Fassnacht was killed and four
"There was this red glow from the fire and there was debris flying up in a
mushroom-shaped cloud," Armstrong said. The group stopped at a truck stop
to celebrate because the initial radio report said there were no injuries.
"We were just jubilant. We were high as a kite," he said.
But the next news broadcast told of the killing. The bombers were
horrified. And they knew they were in serious trouble.
The next morning, after driving around southern Wisconsin for hours, Karl
Armstrong and David Fine returned to Madison in
their getaway car, a yellow Corvair.
"It was my mom's, and I had promised her I'd get it back to her the next
day," Armstrong said. "I didn't want to worry her."
Then he and Fine stole another car and left the city.
"I thought then that I would never come back," he said. "I felt that I was
leaving everything, my family and friends, behind forever."
Within two weeks, the Armstrong brothers, Fine and Burt were on the FBI's
10 Most Wanted list.
Karl Armstrong was found in Canada two years later, and his brother was
found there four years after that. Police tracked down Fine in California
Fine was paroled in 1979; the Armstrongs were paroled separately in 1980.
Burt has never been found.
All four were accused in the bombing and a series of other attacks that had
either failed or had not caused serious damage.
"I feel real badly that Bob Fassnacht died in the bombing," Armstrong said
last week. "It wasn't something that was intended. I look at it more like a
tragedy that I was involved in."
Fears on Campus
No one knew what to expect when students returned to campus in the fall.
Some suspected the bomb had relieved tensions; others - including the
student body president and the state attorney general - feared it was just
It turned out to be more of an ending.
The statement made by the Sterling Hall bombing was one that many anti-war
activists opposed. They feared the attack discredited the peace movement
and gave credence to people who viewed war protesters as dangerous.
They struggled to reclaim their message - that the government was still
killing soldiers and civilians in Vietnam. But now protesters - some of
their own - had killed an innocent here.
The bombing "definitely had a negative impact on what we were trying to
accomplish," said former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who was a radical
student leader at the time. "It was a shocking episode."
Activists posted fliers and held meetings, but could no longer rally support.
"People were tired of it," Howard said.
Across the country, anti-war demonstrations declined dramatically.
"I've never seen anything change so quickly," said Michael Zaleski, the
prosecutor who eventually brought criminal charges against Karl Armstrong.
"Before the bombing, there used to be 10,000 to 15,000 kids rioting in this
city every week.
Everything stopped. I remember there being just one event after that, with
a couple of hundred people - and half of them were FBI agents and
Activist professors at UW-Madison silenced themselves. Students who asked
them to lecture were refused.
The pain was most evident among faculty at the physics department at
Sterling Hall, which occupied the first floor and basement of the building.
While research at Army Math was virtually uninterrupted, numerous academic
projects in the physics department were destroyed.
"There certainly are scars remaining, both physical and psychological,"
said Don D. Reeder, department chairman, who was a young professor at the
time of the bombing.
"There were several people who lost their entire research projects," he
said. "They were so demoralized that they never came back to the level of
productivity they were at before."
Joe Dillinger, Fassnacht's faculty supervisor, a scientist in his mid-50s
at the time of the explosion, was perhaps the most deeply wounded. With his
research in superconductivity destroyed and his chief researcher dead,
Dillinger went into severe emotional decline.
"He died a few years after," Reeder said. "He was a broken man."
Organized protest virtually disappeared for 13 years before students once
again linked arms and blocked a building to oppose university policies. The
issue that reignited student activism: secret military research at the Army
Math Research Center, which had then moved to the Wisconsin Alumni Research
Foundation building. "Army Math" finally went out of business in the late
Since then, activism slowly has returned to the Madison campus. But the
degree is different, and the tactics have changed.
Adam Klaus, a student who helped organize several protests last year, said
modern protests have borrowed some tactics from the 1960s playbook. But
students, through seats on committees and audiences with administrators,
have much more formal say now in how the university is run.
Karl and Dwight Armstrong returned to live in Madison after being released
"There was no hostile reaction in the community when I returned home,"
Armstrong said. "Quite to the contrary. The atmosphere was friendly."
Now 53, the elder Armstrong runs Loose Juice, a fruit juice stand just
blocks from Sterling Hall. He rarely works at the stand; he prefers playing
golf. He spends three nights a week with his mother. They play Scrabble.
Dwight Armstrong works for Union Cab in Madison. He keeps a low profile and
has not spoken publicly about the bombing.
David Fine earned a law degree from the University of Oregon in 1984; he
was last known to be living in the Pacific Northwest.
About 10 years ago, at a large gathering of former 1960s leftists, Karl
Armstrong publicly apologized for his part in the bombing. The closest he
comes to activism these days is naming a banana-flavored drink at his juice
stand for Angela Davis, the 1960s black activist.
Not the Same
Howard's career at the university has allowed him to be touched in some way
by virtually every student protest of the last four decades.
And although recent protests against tuition increases, the university's
perceived lack of commitment to diversity and potential ties to sweatshop
labor have gathered some momentum, they do not question the core values of
the university the way protests did in the 1960s.
"There has been nothing that has cut across the institution like that,"
Howard argues that Vietnam War protesters raised a fundamental moral
question - one shared by peaceful and violent activists alike through
American history, from the abolitionist movement to the current crop of
The question: If you believe that your country is engaged in a
fundamentally immoral activity, how far can you go?
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug. 20, 2000.
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