A half-century ago at 3:42 AM on Monday, August 24, 1970, the New Year’s Gang set off an ammonium nitrate bomb in the back of a Ford pickup truck next to Sterling Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. They were aiming it at the Army Mathematics Research Center, then directed by my later father, J. Barkley Rosser [Sr.]. However, they were notoriously the Gang That Could Not Bomb Straight and hit the physics department instead, killing a physics post-doc, Robert Fassnacht, and injuring several other people, as well damaging buildings even blocks away, aside from the major damage to Sterling Hall itself.
Of the gang, three would eventually be apprehended and serve time in jail: the two Armstrong brothers from the east side of Madison, sons of an Oscar Mayer plant worker, Karl, the group’s leader who was caught first and served seven years, and his younger brother, Dwight, who served three years and is no longer alive, with David Fine of Baltimore also serving three years. The fourth member, Leo Burt, remains at large.
Last October I wrote an 8-page essay reminiscing about the bombing that contains details both representing my peculiar perspective as well as some tidbits not widely public information. I am willing to send it to anybody who requests it of me. It contains six parts.
The first and longest part is about my relations with my parents, with a lot of information specifically about my late father. We respected each other personally, but disagreed politically, although I never approved of violence and thus severely disapproved of the bombing, as well as some personal mistreatment my parents experienced.
The second part recounts my own experiences on the day of the bombing, which is short as they were unexceptional, especially compared to many other people then (I was nowhere near it when it happened).
The third part, also long as the first one, involves a more detailed analysis of the AMRC and issues surrounding it. This includes that indeed people working there, certainly including my late father, did work of the value to the US military, with some of it being used in Vietnam, the main complaint of protesters who wanted the center shut down or at least moved off-campus. However, I also note that mathematics has many uses, both good and bad, and that some of the math developed there is also used in economics, including in such beneficial areas as environmental economics. It is easy to say that maybe there should be a “good” math research center not funded by the military, but in fact when the military funding disappeared later, none other was forthcoming and the center simply closed.
The fourth part reveals that the wrong person died in the bombing. Fassnacht was in the lab because the wife of his professor, the late Bill Yen, demanded that Bill stay home for domestic reasons. Bill was supposed to be in the lab, not the unfortunate Robert Fassnacht.
The fifth part involves a later event, a mitigation hearing held in the fall of 1973 after Karl Armstrong was captured. He plead guilty, but the mitigation hearing was officially about his sentencing, although it ended up being essentially a trial of the whole war in Vietnam, with famous outside lawyers participating such as William Kunstler. I offered to testify, thinking the judge was not impressed by all this, but one of the local attorneys said this was not needed. However, in the end, the judge imposed the maximum sentence of 25 years, of which seven were served. After getting out, Karl Armstrong for many years ran a fruit juice stand near campus, “Loose Juice,” and I got to know him.
The final section recounts a banquet in July 1989 associated with a conference of old UW radicals returned to town. At the banquet, which I attended, Karl Armstrong appeared and delivered an eloquent and unequivocal apology for what he and his gang members did, ranging from to the Fassnacht family to the anti-war movement, which the bombing severely damaged.
There is much more detail I am leaving out in the essay, but I conclude this by noting that we have seen some protesters in recent months engaging in violence. This event needs to be remembered as a warning that it is easy for violence to get out of hand and go too far and damage the cause that is supposed to be serving.
My oldest sister was woken up by the blast in her house just on the other side of University Avenue. All 4 of us attended UW but she was the oldest and the only one already there. Karl Armstrong was already arrested and convicted by the time I started studying there, but “Free Karl” was something I heard the 5 years I was there and I think he was frequently referred to as “A friend of the cosmos”. No, I am not making that up.
So I was in Two Rivers just getting ready to go to college—in Appleton not Madison—and it surely was another milestone in the anti war effort coming on the heels of Kent State that spring. A lot to think about for a conservative kid who decided to go to college rather than enlist not because that is what his parents wanted but because he had a girlfriend who had since broken up with him. ( Not a really tragic tale, we hooked up again 6 years later and have now been married 42 years with 2 kids, 3 grandchildren and a fourth on the way). The only insight I have is that there were various rumors that Burt was actually an informant and that is why they never got him. The paper’s story is that they tracked him to Peterborough, Ontario but lost him there. Of course there are a lot of conspiracy theories about MLK’s alleged assassin too. Burt could well be dead by now but he remains the great mystery of the bombing.
I have shorter post about this on Facebook. In response to someone commenting who was there then who pointed out FBI spying on students at the time, I posted about this rumor about Leo Burt, which went further than that saying that the whole bombing was an FBI provocated action. Facebook then deleted my comment about this on Facebook, which I have now put a new shorter version of up.
As it is, I at one point for awhile took that rumor seriously due to some things I heard, but have long since based on a lot more information I shall not dredge theough in any detail come to reject that conspiracy theory. I think Leo Burt was just what he appeared to be, although what has happened to him indeed remains a mystery, one that may never be solved if he has died without telling those near him his real identity.