The Presidio Mutiny of 1968

Historical Essay

by Peter Barnes, excerpted from Pawns: The Plight of the Citizen-Soldier, (Alfred Knopf, New York: 1972)

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1968 rally against the Vietnam War at Kezar Stadium.

Photo: People's World collection, Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University

In 1968, after a series of suicide attempts by prisoners held at the Presidio stockade for various reasons including going AWOL, and the killing of one of them by a guard, they decided to take part in a nonviolent sit-down protest where they planned to voice their grievances. Though the protest went peacefully and according to plan, Captain Lamont ordered the twenty-seven protesters to be physically carried off to their cellblocks. All but five prisoners were convicted and received sentences from six months to sixteen years. More than a year after the sentencing, the convictions were overturned, but only after the demonstrators had suffered greatly.

Ten miles from the Treasure Island brig, on a wooded hill overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, sit two aging white stucco buildings surrounded by a high cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. This is San Francisco's other military prison, the Presidio stockade, perhaps the best-known stockade in the Army. It is little used today, and a commission of penologists has recommended abandoning it altogether, but until 1970 it was jammed with a fluctuating population of prisoners and guards in a nearly constant state of agitation.

As in every military prison, almost all of the Presidio stockade's inmates were AWOL's--men who for a variety of reasons, had been unable to accept or adjust to the Army's demands. Many were emotionally disturbed kids who should never have been in the Army; some were soldiers who had decided that they could not in conscience take part in what America was doing in Indochina. All were thrown together into fifty-year-old cellblocks that had been built to accommodate, at most, two-thirds their number.

The stockade grew particularly tense during the summer of 1968. The Sixth Army, for which the Presidio serves as headquarters, was granting almost no discharges, and so the prison population soared. Building 1213, which contains most of the cellblocks, was stuffed with up to 120 prisoners, when even by the Army's own standards its maximum capacity was eighty-eight. Prisoners could hardly move without constantly dodging or jostling each other.

There were other continual annoyances. The antiquated building had only four latrines; to go to the bathroom or to take a shower, a prisoner frequently had to wait more than two hours. Much of the time the latrines were backed up with excrement. At times the population rose above emergency levels, and food had to be rationed.

Compounding the constant physical discomfort and stress were frequent instances of harassment by some of the guards. Early in the summer, one inmate was dragged down the stairs in such a manner as to have his head hit every step, apparently because he hadn't got out of bed quickly enough. Another time, guards fired water pistols filled with urine at a prisoner. Conversations among black prisoners were broken up with such comments as "What's this, a Black Panther meeting?" In late June, a prisoner running for the gate was shot by a guard with a .45 and seriously wounded, though there were six or seven other guards within the compound at the time and the one who fired was only ten feet away.

Inevitably, there was a high number of suicide attempts--some genuine, others desperate appeals for psychiatric help or discharge from the Army. One prisoner who kept track counted thirty-three suicide attempts by twenty-one men between May and October 1968. Some drank chrome polish, lye, or other poisons; others slashed their wrists or forearms; some tried hanging.

Official stockade policy in dealing with such attempts was to throw the man into "the hole." One prisoner, Private Ricky Lee Dodd of Hayward, California, slit his forearm with a razor; he was bandaged and sent to segregation, where he proceeded to hang himself with his bandages. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Letterman General Hospital, and is alive today only because a disbelieving doctor succeeded in resuscitating him.

Private Patrick Wright, a prisoner at the time, recalls: "It was a crazy house--people cutting on themselves--everybody yelling--being jumped on all the time--guards telling me, 'I'm going to break your arm'---human excrement all over the latrine floor--guards shorting us on food."

Given conditions within the stockade and the nature of the prisoner population, it was not surprising that a combustible situation existed. In July, a prisoner went on an extended hunger strike; he was placed in segregation. Later in the summer, minor disturbances flared. Prisoners burned mattresses, threw garbage, smashed windows. Many inmates tried to escape.

One of the sickest prisoners in the stockade was Private Richard "Rusty" Bunch, a frail, boyish-looking brooder from Dayton, Ohio. "Rusty was a quiet, religious boy with a high IQ," Bunch's mother said later. "When his best friend was drafted, he decided to enlist. At first, he seemed to enjoy military life. But something--I don't know what—happened to him at Fort Lewis."

Bunch went AWOL, wandered through Haight-Ashbury on drugs, then turned up at his mother's home in Dayton. Mrs. Bunch scarcely recognized her own son. He babbled that he had died twice and been reincarnated as a warlock. She tried to have him hospitalized for psychiatric treatment, but no institution would accept an AWOL soldier. In desperation, she called the Army and received a written promise that her son would receive psychiatric care. But instead, he was thrown into prison, first at Fort Meade, Maryland, then at the Presidio.

It didn't take long for his fellow inmates to realize he was mentally disturbed. Bunch would sit on his bunk in a lotus position and mumble about his reincarnations. He would announce that he could walk through walls, and then walk into them. At night the whole stockade would be awakened by his frantic screams.

One day in October 1968, Bunch asked another prisoner to recommend a foolproof method of committing suicide. The latter, half-jokingly, suggested running away from a shotgun work detail. On Friday, October 11, while on such a detail, Bunch asked a guard, "If I run, will you shoot me?" The guard replied, "You'll have to run to find out." Bunch requested the guard to shoot at his head, then skipped away directly in front of him. He had gone barely thirty feet when the guard killed him with a 12 gauge shotgun blast straight at his back.

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Richard Bunch morgue shot.

When word of the shooting reached the stockade, the prisoners could barely contain their fury. Someone walked over to Bunch's bunk and found a handwritten note that said, "Well if you're not going to give me love at least do me the favor of complete elimination ... Fuck it, it ain't worth living ... I've got but one click and it's over." Stockade officials quickly declared the shooting a "justifiable homicide."

That evening a minor disturbance occurred. Captain Robert S. Lamont, the stockade's twenty-five-year-old commander, came by and warned the men that if there was any more trouble they'd be tried for mutiny. The prisoners, however, remained agitated. The killing of Bunch was the culmination of a long train of cruelties that was threatening their sanity and now, they thought, their lives. Some talked of killing a guard or burning down the stockade. By Sunday night, passions had cooled enough for the prisoners to agree upon a nonviolent, orderly demonstration the following morning. The idea was to sit down until someone listened to their grievances.

A list was drawn up with seven main demands: elimination of shotgun details, complete psychological evaluations of all prisoners and guards, removal of racist guards, rotation of guards to prevent the build-up of antagonism, better sanitary facilities, decent food in sufficient quantities, and a chance to tell the press the prisoners' version of Bunch's slaying. Surely, they believed, if only those in authority could know what was going on inside the Presidio stockade, help would be quickly forthcoming. Human beings couldn't be treated this way; Americans couldn't be treated this way. If only people knew.

On Monday morning, October 14, 1968, there took place in the stockade a peaceful sit-down demonstration that has since become known as the "Presidio mutiny." More than the prisoners could have anticipated, it succeeded in focusing attention not only on their stockade, but on the entire military system.

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Reading demands during mutiny.

Photo: Steve Rees

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Reading demands.

Photo: Steve Rees

Of the 123 prisoners in the stockade that morning, nearly a quarter -- twenty-seven -- took part in the "mutiny." Considering the inevitable reprisals, this was an extraordinary turnout. Conspicuous among the absentees were the black prisoners, who feared that punitive reaction would be harshest against them.

The twenty-seven men represented a good cross-section of the total population, not only of the Presidio stockade, but of all military prisons. All were AWOL's. Their average age was 19. None came from wealthy, well-educated, or established families; a surprising number, in fact, were sons of career military men. All but five had been unable to finish high school. Several, like many other high school dropouts, had joined the Army on the promise of being given useful vocational training. None received the assignments he had expected.

Three of the twenty-seven could be described as Vietnam War objectors. Private Stephen Rowland of St. Louis, the son of an Air Force lieutenant colonel and one of the two demonstrators with a bit of college, had volunteered for the Army because he wanted training in occupational therapy. A few months later, after being trained as a combat medic, he had applied for discharge as a conscientious objector and been turned down. Private Keith Mather of San Bruno, California, another high school graduate, was one of nine antiwar GI's who six months earlier had publicly tried to resign from the Army. Private Richard Gentile of Hampton, Virginia, stepson of a career Air Force NCO, had served twelve months in Vietnam as a machine-gunner; by the time he got back to the States he was sick of killing. Just the previous Saturday, October 12, with only eighty-four days left in his three-year enlistment, he had violated a post-wide restriction to take part in a San Francisco peace march and subsequently been thrown in the stockade for being eight hours AWOL.

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Sitting in and singing.

Photo: Steve Rees

Most of the other "mutineers" were military misfits of various sorts. Some were simply cultural aliens. Private Walter Pawlowski of New York City, a straight-A student in high school, had rebelled against what he considered the absurdity of Army discipline. Private Ricky Lee Dodd was a gentle California flower child who kept running away from the Army that was trying to make him into a killer; he became famous in the stockade for his several bizarre attempts at suicide, including the nearly successful effort to hang himself on his bandages. Private Roy Pulley, of Clear Lake Park, California, an "Army brat" by family background, was a hard-drinking, grass-smoking motorcycle enthusiast who had ridden with the Hell's Angels. After a run-in with police, he enlisted in the Army to learn airplane maintenance; instead, he was trained as a helicopter door-gunner.

Two of the 27--Privates Billy Hayes and Danny Seals--were Project 100,000 men with known mental deficiencies. Seals, from Auburn, California, was mildly retarded from a childhood brain injury. He had wanted to become a medic, but flunked the course at Fort Sam Houston and went AWOL in a fit of despondency. "It was hard to learn in the Army," he said. "I had to take notes and I couldn't spell."

Two others--Privates Michael Murphy and Larry Zaino--were high school dropouts who had gotten in trouble with the law and joined the Army under pressure from their probation officers. Both had gone AWOL four times before landing in the Presidio stockade.

A juvenile delinquent like Murphy and Zaino, Private Larry Reidel had been involved in numerous scrapes with the law: stealing, assaults, truancy. In the stockade he was always getting into fights with other prisoners. An Army psychiatrist had reported that "no therapeutic, punitive or correctional intervention is going to make this person into anything that approximates a good soldier."

Private Alan Rupert, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had never been quite sure who his father was. His mother worked in bars and had married twelve different men in fifteen years. Rupert ran away from home countless times and ran away from the Army nine times before winding up in the Presidio stockade.

Private Larry Lee Sales, of Modesto, California, had been pulling burglaries since he was a child, and had spent his youth spinning in and out of reformatories and county jails. In 1967 he entered Modesto State Hospital after having suffered a nervous breakdown. A psychiatrist wanted to commit him to the institution indefinitely, but Sales begged to be allowed to join the Army instead. He thought the Army would "straighten him out." After one day of basic training at Fort Lewis, he realized he had made a great mistake. He ran AWOL to his family, tried to commit suicide, and was taken to the Presidio stockade, where he attempted once again to end his life.

The histories of the other demonstrators are studded with chaotic childhoods, broken homes, low IQ's, emotional distress, and plain hard luck. All the frailties and misfortunes, hatreds and fears of this crazy-quilt collection of kids were climactically heightened by the oppressive conditions of the Presidio stockade. Now, on this October morning, they were reacting, in the words of Dr. Price Cobbs, the San Francisco psychiatrist who co-authored Black Rage, like black people. They knew how it felt to be oppressed. Their response was spontaneous. They reacted in a nonviolent fashion, like Martin Luther King."

The demonstration began simply enough. At 7:30 that morning, the formation for assignment to work details and sick call was held, as usual, in front of Building 1212. There were about eighty prisoners lined up. When the first name for sick call was announced by the sergeant in charge, twenty-seven prisoners broke from formation, sat down in a grassy area, and asked to see Captain Lamont. As they waited, they flashed V-signs, chanted "Freedom, freedom, we want freedom," and sang "America the Beautiful," "This Land Is Your Land," and a very faltering version of "We Shall Overcome," which several of the prisoners had picked up from watching civil rights demonstrations on television.

Soon Lamont arrived, accompanied by a fire truck and an Army photographer who circled the demonstrators, taking pictures from all angles. A company of about seventy-five military policemen also showed up, wearing helmets and carrying nightsticks.

Private Walter Pawlowski, one of the three demonstrators who has since escaped to Canada, stood up and informed Captain Lamont that he wanted to read a list of grievances. The prisoners became quiet. Pawlowski began:

"Captain Lamont, we want the elimination of all shotgun-type details here at the stockade. Two, we want a psychological evaluation of all custodial staff, people who work here at the stockade, prior to their being allowed to work here. Three, we want improved sanitation facilities . ."

Lamont cut Pawlowski off. He was not interested in grievances. He had been tipped in advance about the impending demonstration and was interested only in ending it. He demanded the prisoners' attention and started to read, from the Manual for Courts-Martial, UCMJ Article 94, the article concerned with the most heinous of military offenses--mutiny. But as he raised his voice to be heard, the demonstrators chanted louder. They demanded to see Colonel John Ford, the Presidio provost marshal; Terence Hallinan, a local attorney; and the press.

Unable to get the group's attention, Lamont walked to a loudspeaker in an MP patrol car parked outside the stockade and ordered the prisoners to return to Building 1213. They kept right on chanting and didn't budge. Lamont turned to the chief of the fire truck--a civilian--and requested him to hose down the demonstrators. He refused. Finally, Lamont ordered the MP's to escort the prisoners back to their cellblocks. According to an Army fact sheet, "no force was required other than physically carrying some of the prisoners off."

According to Article 94, "any person . . . who, with intent to usurp or override lawful military authority, refuses, in concert with any other person, to obey orders or otherwise do his duty or creates any violence or disturbance, is guilty of mutiny." (Emphasis added.) The sentence may be death. All twenty-seven men who sat down that morning were subsequently charged with this offense.


Saluting Patriots collage from Good Times, Oct. 29 1971.

There followed the longest and one of the most controversial series of courts-martial in American history. Military justice being what it is, all but five -- three escaped to Canada and two were found guilty of lesser crimes -- were convicted of the charge and given sentences ranging from six months to sixteen years. It was not until more than a year later, when the slow process of military appeals had been completed, that the convictions were overturned and the sentences reduced to a maximum of one year, already served, for willful disobedience of a lawful order. The military appeals judge, Colonel Jacob Hagopian, used exceptionally strong language in reversing the court martial verdicts:

"Mindful that a concerted intent to override lawful military authority is a requisite element which must be proved, the facts of this record shout its absence. The words and deeds of the [appellants] do not evince, either singularly or collectively, an intention to usurp or override military authority. Rather, the common thread of evidence throughout this entire voluminous record demonstrates an intention to implore and invoke the very military authority which they are charged with seeking to override."

The demonstrators had, in the end, been vindicated--but only at the cost of enormous personal suffering.

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