In the early morning of July 23, 1967, one of the worst riots in US history broke out in the heart of Detroit’s predominantly African American inner city. When it was quelled 4 days later by 7,000 National Guard and Army troops, 43 people were dead, 342 injured, and nearly 1,400 buildings had been burned.
The predominantly African American neighborhood of Virginia Park was ready to explode when the police raided an illegal club. In the street, a crowd gathered as police waited for paddy wagons to take the 85 patrons away; about 200 onlookers lined the street. A bottle crashed into the street; another one went through the window of a patrol car.
The police fled as a riot erupted. Within an hour, thousands of people had spilled out onto the street, and looting began. Soon much of the street was ablaze. Firemen were attacked as they tried to battle the flames. The mayor asked the governor to send in the state police, but these 300 more officers couldn’t keep the riot from spreading to a 100-block area. The National Guard was called, but didn’t arrive until evening. That day, more than 1,000 were arrested, but still the riot kept growing. Five people were dead.
On Monday, 16 people were killed, most by police or guardsmen. Snipers fired at firemen, and fire hoses were cut. Governor Romney asked President Johnson to send in troops.
That morning I was a rifle company commander in the 101st Airborne Div, and we had a new battalion commander—and someone called an alert early that morning. I was sure it was the new boss seeing how fast we could assemble—but we went to Detroit. Nearly 2,000 paratroopers arrived and began patrolling the street on Tues. I didn’t like the idea of deploying my troopers against Americans—but these rioters were bent on hurting people. For the most part my troops patrolled neighborhoods on the periphery of the riots—and the citizens really welcomed us. Ten more people died that day, and 12 more on Wednesday. On Thursday order was finally restored. More than 7,000 people were arrested. Some 1,700 stores were looted and nearly 1,400 buildings burned, causing $50 million in property damage. Some 5,000 people were left homeless.
Seventeen years later when the Army transferred me to Grand Rapids in western Michigan I was expecting the same environment. My wife and I found it totally different, and came to really enjoy the area—and I retired from the Army so we could stay here and raise our family. It was a good decision.