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A new film focuses on the event that led to the Kent State shootings
The film depicts the burning of the ROTC building, the event that brought National Guard troops onto campus
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
An image from the amateur film, 'An American Tragedy,' shot in 1970 by student Robert Elan shows flames engulfing the ROTC building at Kent State University. The newly revealed film is the only documentation of the fire that brought National Guard troops onto campus.
Courtesy of Robert Elan
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Today marks the 45th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State, when National Guard troops killed four students and wounded nine others.

One of the students on hand that day was amateur filmmaker Robert Elan, who documented some of the events on and around May 4th.

For the first time he’s sharing footage of the incident that brought Guard troops from the city onto campus. 

In this installment of our series, “Looking Back at Vietnam,” WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair talks with Elan about the burning of the ROTC building two days before the shootings on May 4th, 1970.

LISTEN: Robert Elan on the ROTC burning

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MP3 Download (4:20)

LISTEN: Robert Elan on who started the fire

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MP3 Download (2:18)

Turbulent times
When New York native Robert Elan came to Kent State, there were a few things he had to get used to - soda was called pop, and no one had heard of an egg cream.

Elan says coming to Ohio "was a tremendous change to say the least.”

In 1969, he brought along a super 8 movie camera to record his college experience. He filmed life around him "to keep as a kind of documentary, something I could look back on and have that as a remembrance.”

But his college years were anything but quiet.

Kent State, like many campuses at the time, began to erupt in protests against the Vietnam War.

In the spring of 1970, violence in downtown Kent on May 1st prompted the mayor to ask that National Guard troops be sent in.

Burning of the ROTC building
The following night, the Guard moved onto campus after student protesters set fire to the WW II era ROTC building.

Elan says the building was a symbol of the Vietnam War and became the spontaneous target of student wrath. 

He describes students tossing flaming rags through windows, "sort of like a Molotov cocktail."
Breaking the unwritten rules
Elan doesn't know who brought the incendiary items, but he says students lit them and threw them through the windows and"that’s what set the building on fire.”

Elan broke one of the unwritten rules of the student protest movement. He filmed the event.  

He says fellow students at the protest kept a close eye on him as the flames engulfed the structure.

"There’s no question that I had an evil eye focused on me,” says Elan.

Tongues of orange flame reach into the black night in Elan’s film, devouring the small, framed structure, the only known documentation of the burning of the ROTC building.

Students tussled with some firefighters, police sirens wailed, and tear gas spread through the crowd, says Elan, "but I continued to film, focusing on the building.”

FBI shows interest in amateur film 
In turns out that fellow students weren’t the only ones interested in Elan’s film.

That summer, he took a job back East at a wilderness camp for kids.

One day, two men arrived, dressed in dark suits, with dark glasses, “and each gentleman proceeds to whip out his badge, showing me they’re FBI agents," says Elan.

The agents told Elan that "a very reliable source" told them he had movies of the events preceding the shooting, "and we’d like to get the film.”

Elan denied any knowledge of the movie.  "They looked at me and they said, ‘We know you have film.’"

But he continued to deny he was the filmmaker, and instead turned the question on the agents. Elan asked why they were looking for the film for events proceeding May 4th? 

The agents replied "'to see the film that has the burning of the building.'"

Elan says he realized "at that moment that their interest was in trying to identify people who may be responsible for the damage to a building and not looking for people who fired a gun."

He asked them, "Aren’t you looking for wrong information, guys?"

"They didn’t say a thing," says Elan. "They just got back in their car and took off.”

The enduring pain of An American Tragedy 
For Robert Elan, the investigators’ priorities revealed a profound moral disconnect.

“There’s a marked difference between destroying a symbol, a piece of property that can be rebuilt -it’s not right, but it’s something that can be restored versus taking a human life.”

Elan graduated that fall. He was president of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity at Kent State, but after the shootings, he says many of his fraternity brothers didn’t return.

“They could not handle coming back to that campus and reliving the trauma that had occurred,” says Elan.

That was 45 years ago. Elan became a lawyer. He has a practice in Manhattan.

This past weekend, Elan and his fraternity brothers met at Kent State for the first time since the shootings, to watch his film, and to reflect on memories he says will never dissipate.


ABOVE: The full-length film by Robert Elan begins in the fall of 1969 and features the student mobilization march at Kent State. Allison Krause, wearing a yellow sweater, can be seen carrying the banner with other students. The film includes footage of activist Jerry Rubin's visit to Kent State, and a local band livening up the crowd. Elan filmed the burning of the ROTC building on May 2nd, and the Guard encampment. He ran out of film just prior to the Guard opening fire on students, but was able to film part of the standoff immediately afterwards.

BELOW: An excerpt from the film by Robert Elan shows the burning of the ROTC building and the Guard encampment on campus.

(Click image for larger view.)

Robert Elan shot super 8 footage of his time at Kent State, and after the shootings compiled a 20-minute film of the events.
An image from Robert Elan's film shows protesters in the October 1969 mobilization march in Kent. Historians at the May 4th Center believe the woman in the yellow holding the banner is Allison Krause.
A still from Robert Elan's film. Elan was president of the newly formed Zeta Beta Tau fraternity.
A National Guard soldier flashes the peace sign as Robert Elan filmed troops patrolling the Kent State campus before the shootings on May 4th.
Guard troops surround the shell of the ROTC building burned by student protesters on May 2nd. It's not clear who gave permission for the Guard to occupy campus.
Students dive for cover during the 13-second barrage of bullets fired by 77 National Guard troops on May 4th, 1970.
Some students had assumed the Guard was not carrying live rounds. Four students lay dead and nine others were wounded after 77 guardsmen opened fire.
In an image from Robert Elan's film, Guard troops face off against students following the shootings. Elan credits KSU professor Glenn Frank for convincing students to leave after troops ordered them to disperse, avoiding further bloodshed.
Robert Elan is an attorney with a practice in Manhattan. He graduated from Kent State University in 1970.
Some of the members of Kent State's chapter of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity returned for the first time since the shootings of May 4th, 1970.

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