As I watched the news coverage of the veterans marching in the St Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston, my thoughts went back 50 years, when I was in uniform at the (South) Boston Army Base (now a “Design Center”), teaching a class on riot control to a group of my fellow enlisted men in the 114th Personnel Services Company.
After Martin Luther King’s assassination in April of 1968, several of our major cities had erupted in riots, the worst ones being Baltimore and Washington. President Johnson had already committed 17,000 Federal troops to riot control. He ordered thousands more to be trained and ready.
With the Vietnam War raging, trained infantry soldiers were in short supply. So they turned to the Reserves, which were full of clerks, cooks, drivers, linemen, etc. Only a minority of soldiers get trained in combat activities (infantry, artillery, armor). But the Army maintained the fiction that every soldier could perform as an infantryman when necessary.
So there I was, talking to a bunch of paper pushers (maintaining records was our unit’s job) about forming a skirmish line and advancing, bayonets fixed, against our fellow citizens. We had no face masks or shields or bullet-proof vests. We didn’t even have helmets. We were afraid.
When I had finished the lesson plan, I decided to address the fear. I asked:
“If we get called up for riot control, do you want to have your rifle loaded?”
The thought of shooting a rioter was unacceptable to most, and they were afraid a loaded rifle would make it easier for an officer to order us to fire into the crowd. Some then suggested we needed a loaded rifle for self-protection.
That idea was considered and rejected. None of us had had much weapons training. Once a year at the firing range was the requirement. In the middle of the chaos of a riot, the consensus was that loaded rifles would be more dangerous to our well being than an angry rioter. Locked bayonets should provide enough protection. But most felt that we should have ammunition available nearby in case things got really threatening.
There was one hand raised in favor of loading the rifles. A kid who lived in South Boston stood up, face red with anger, and said he would never go into a fight with rioting blacks (he used the “n” word) without bullets in his gun. I could hear his fear.
Today that kid would probably receive an “Article 15” hearing and some sort of punishment for such speech, and that would be right. But that was another time. No one said a thing. We turned our backs and walked out.
Fortunately, Boston never exploded and we never got called out.