Recently I had the privilege of being asked to speak in San Francisco at the event, Presidio 27: “Mutiny” at the Stockade. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the peaceful sit-down by 27 Army prisoners at the stockade there on October 14, 1968.
The so-called mutiny involved 27 prisoners stepping away from formation that morning and sitting in a circle in the nearby grass to sing “We Shall Overcome.” The soldiers read a statement condemning the overcrowded and brutal conditions in the stockade, and protesting the killing two days earlier of an emotionally disturbed fellow prisoner, Richard Bunch, shot in the back by a trigger-happy guard as he walked away from a cleanup detail. Several of the soldiers in the Presidio group were AWOL at the time and had recently participated in antiwar protests in the Bay Area, including an October 12 antiwar march in San Francisco led by antiwar GIs and veterans.
For their nonviolent action in seeking redress the soldiers were charged by Army commanders with the capital offense of mutiny, which carries the death penalty. Some were sentenced with up to 16 years of hard labor at Ft. Leavenworth.
Here is the iconic photo of the soldiers sitting in protest and reading their grievances.
The incident sparked an outcry locally and nationally, including appeals from several members of Congress, and led to a spirited legal defense on behalf of the soldiers. The Army later reduced the charges and the convictions were overturned on appeal. For the full story read Fred Gardner’s The Unlawful Concert: An Account of the Presidio Mutiny Case.
The so-called mutiny had a catalytic effect on the emerging antiwar movement within the military. I remember hearing about it as an antiwar protester at Fort Hamilton, New York. Throughout the military from 1968 through 1972, enlisted troops and junior officers spoke out against the war and military injustices. Antiwar groups and GI “underground” newspapers appeared on nearly every major military base and aboard ships throughout the military. I tell the story of that movement in my book Soldiers in Revolt.
It was because of my role as historian and former participant of the movement that I was asked to participate in the Presidio panel discussion. Also on the panel were former Navy Lieutenant Susan Schnall, organizer of that GI antiwar march 50 years ago; Randy Rowland, one of the Presidio protesters; Brendon Sullivan, who served on the Presidio solders’ legal defense team; and former Marine Jeff Patterson, who refused to fight in Iraq.
In my remarks I talked about the importance of memory and the struggle not only to make history but to tell the story of that history and teach its lessons for the future.
It is important to honor our heroes, to remember and celebrate the courage of those young low-ranking working-class soldiers who risked everything that morning. By sitting down for peace they were standing up for justice and dignity.
Here is a YouTube video of some of the panel discussion.