August 6, 1965: The Day the Troops Trains Came to Berkeley
August 7, 2015 Gar Smith / EAW & Paul Avery / San Francisco Chronicle & Bob Randolph / The Berkeley Barb
Fifty years ago on August 6 (Hiroshima Day), a group of Berkeley students and Bay Area peace activists took up positions on some railroad tracks near University Avenue and unveiled two large banners spelling out: "STOP The War Machine." Their goal: to try and stop a Pentagon troop train carrying young soldiers to fight and die in Vietnam. Additional protests followed, each larger than the one before. Protesters leapt aboard the trains and were clubbed by police. Within a week, the Pentagon halted the trains.
SF Bay Area protests against the war in Vietnam in 1965. Clips from Hot Damn! by Harvey Richards. Available through the Harvey Richards Media Archive.
50 Years Ago Today:
The Day the Troops Trains Came to Berkeley
Gar Smith / Special to Environmentalists Against War
(August 6, 2015) -- Fifty years ago this Thursday, August 6 (Hiroshima Day), a group of Berkeley students and Bay Area peace activists took a stroll down University Avenue and unveiled two large paper banners. One read: "STOP." The other read: "The War Machine."
What made this protest memorable was the place where it was staged. It was not on the University of California's Savio (née Sproul) Steps nor was it on the streets of Oakland.
Instead, a determined crowd of 250 demonstrators converged to stand on a line of railroad tracks near a rail station just off the main highway. (The Berkeley School has since taken up residence on the site of the old station building.)
City officials had been advised that the Pentagon planned to send a train loaded with young soldiers through Berkeley on their way to the Oakland Army Terminal, to board ships to Vietnam where they would ordered to kill the "Viet Cong." It was clear that many of them would not be coming back.
Many of us walked to that intersection filled with memories of the day in 1964 when, as students, we spontaneously sat down around a police car driven onto the Berkeley campus to arrest an activist named Jack Weinberg. That nonviolent sit-in not only immobilized the squad car, it stopped the arrest and kicked off a little ruckus called the Free Speech Movement (FSM).
"What if?" we thought. "What if a group of nonviolent protesters occupied those railroad tracks and brought a Pentagon's war machine to a stop?"
The tracks are long gone (replaced by a tidy bicycling and walking path that crosses the city) but what happened on West Street that day made headlines around the world -- and raised the stakes in the growing public opposition to the US war in Vietnam.
Details of the lead-up to the demonstration have faded with time but there is one moment that survives indelibly. I remember standing in the middle of those tracks with others grouped closely alongside. I remember the sound of the approaching engine's horn as it began to blast ominously in the distance -- even before the train became visible.
A member of the Berkeley police department's "Red Squad" stood at my left -- at a safe distance from the rails. As the train appeared and began to close in, we raised our banners and stood our ground.
That's when I noticed the head of the Red Squad (appropriately enough a red-haired cop in a suit) had suddenly turned tail and was running due west, away from the onrushing locomotive.
The train was almost on top of us when I had my epiphany: Contrary to my idealistic expectations, I suddenly realized: This. Train. Is. Not. Going. To. Stop.
Everyone else seemed to have gotten the same clue -- but a bit earlier. Glancing quickly to my left and right, I noticed I was the only one left holding up the sign.
I barely managed a leap to the right, wielding the banner like a bullfighter's cape (as if the paper banner could protect me from a 2,700-horsepower, seven-ton juggernaut).
I felt the huge mass of metal pass within inches. A Chronicle photographer caught my near death-by-diesel pas de deux and it landed on page one the next morning.
My girlfriend, Ruthann, was on the other side of the rails. She thought for sure she had just seen me struck and ground into a lump of Leftist leftovers.
As the train rumbled by, I looked up toward the cabin and saw the face of the engineer. He was gazing downward with one arm hanging out the window. His expression was implacable. He could have been staring at a road sign -- or roadkill. He showed no emotion as the locomotive rolled south. No show of concern, just a board look of passing curiousity.
The hundreds of young soldiers being carried off to war were much more demonstrative. Many shouted insults as they passed but a few flashed peace signs and that gave us immense hope.
We returned to the empty tracks to gather up the remains of the banner -- now sliced to pieces by the train's spinning wheels. We voted to fold it up and mail it to Washington, addressed to President Johnson.
Later that night, I placed a personal call to the head of the railroad company. I reached him at his home. Of course, he knew what had happened, it was in the evening news from coast to coast.
I asked him why the train did not stop. Why put innocent lives at risk?
He replied curtly that: "Stopping a train is a federal offense."
I granted him that point but repeated my main question: "Why didn't the engineer stop the train when he saw there were fellow Americans standing on the tracks?"
Just before he hung up, the man from Santa Fe provided the following explanation for the engineer's behavior: "He was simply following orders."
Other attempts to block the trains followed. On August 7, two more trains rolled through Berkeley and were met by hundreds of protesters. When the second train barreled through, several protestors sat down on the tracks. On August 12, the Vietnam Day Committee organized a forth protest and 1,300 protesters showed up to block the tracks.
As many as 30 demonstrators managed to leap onto the coaches. Several made it to the top of the carriages. One tried to stop the train by pulling on an airbrake. They were beaten back by police swinging two-foot batons (which left a three protesters badly injured). But the engine was forced to a halt.
The next day, people across the country read the eyewitness accounts of how young protesters had jumped onto the outsides of the 20 passenger coaches rumbling down the rails. "One woman missed her footing as she tried to get on the Santa Fe railway train to distribute anti-Viet Nam leaflets to the soldiers," the Chicago-Tribune reported. "She fell and was struck by a spring box under the carriage, which hurled her away from the wheels of the slow-moving train. Several demonstrators sat on the tracks as the train approached. They were seized by plainclothesmen and thrown from the tracks."
The train was forced to slow to six miles an hour as police, gripping their riot sticks with both hands, pummeled the backs and arms of protesters clinging to the outside of the moving carriages. "About one-third of the demonstrators," the Chicago Tribune noted, "were women, some carrying babies."
(Ronald Reagan was quick to put a rightwing political spin on the Berkeley protests. In 1966, he linked the activities of the Vietnam Day Committee and the FSM to a Senate Subcommittee on UnAmerican Activities report that concluded UC Berkeley "has become a rallying point for Communists and a center of sexual misconduct.")
Despite the outrage of pro-war politicians, the Pentagon was forced to abandon further attempts to ship young soldiers off to war via the East Bay. So, in the end, the protests were successful. While we were not able to stop the war machine in its tracks, we were able to stall and divert it. And we sent a message to Washington that the anti-war movement was only going to grow in numbers and intensity.
Postscript: There are few surviving photos of that first demonstration. A recent check with the Chronicle's photo archivist found no prints or negatives and no one knew how to contact the photographer, Terry Morrison. One of the best surviving photos appeared on the cover of Rag Baby (Volume 1, Issue A) that contained a 7-inch 33.3-rpm vinyl LP by Country Joe and the Fish. One of the two recordings on this rare October 1965 record was a little ditty called "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." (The companion piece was a tune called "Superbird.")
I recently discovered that one of my FSM colleagues, Lee Felsenstein, was also on the tracks that morning. At the time, most of us were strangers to each other. The Planet would love to hear from others who were on the tracks that day or who participated in the larger Vietnam Day Committee demonstration that attempted to block a troop train in Oakland.
Coverage of the Troop Train Protests:
Reports from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Berkeley Barb (Thanks to the Berkeley Public Library for granting access to its rare historical collection of Berkeley Barbs.)
G.I. Train Scatters Bay Pickets Paul Avery / San Francisco Chronicle
BERKELEY, Calif. (August 6, 1965) -- A peace demonstration came within a terrifying split-second of ending in tragedy yesterday when pickets protesting US actions in Vietnam were almost run over by a troop train traveling through Berkeley.
The Santa Fe Special -- airhorn blasting a frantic morning -- was only a few yards away when it finally dawned on the pickets at the train wasn't going to stop.
There was a sudden scramble of several men who abandoned the positions they had taken up in the middle of the tracks.
Two almost didn't make it. The huge red-and-yellow diesel engine rolled by, at its normal crossing speed of 10 mph, missing the men by inches.
"I could have wiped my nose on the side as it went by," said Gar Smith, 22-year-old University of California graduate student.
"It scared the hell out of me," 16-year-old Gregg Williams said with a shudder. "We were sure it would stop if we just stood there."
The troop train didn't even slow down.
The engineer -- Santa Fe declined to identify him -- kept at his steady speed as he went through the University Ave., Crossing at 11:22 AM.
Aboard the train were about 300 soldiers clad in green field fatigues who made it obvious they took a dim view of the 150 demonstrators along the tracks.
One GRI leaned out of the window and grabbed at the placards the tickets were waiting. He grinned gleefully when he managed to snatch one -- reading "Fresh Bullet Bait" -- out of the hands of a bearded youth.
Two other soldiers stood at a window in another coach car with their hands cupped around their mouths looking "kooks… kooks."
It only took a couple of minutes for the train -- made up of two engines, several baggage cars, and 11 troop-filled coaches -- to rumble through the Berkeley Crossing and onto the Oakland Army Base.
Just where the soldiers came from is a military secret -- But the train was from out of state. It was assumed they were bound for Vietnam.
It was to protest the war there and America's role in yet that the 150 tickets gathered.
One of the protestants was folksong writer Malvina Reynolds whose "Little Boxes" -- poking fun at tract housing -- was a hit two years ago.
"I feel we shouldn't be fighting . . . . We should be negotiating for peace," she said. "That's why I am here."
Dr. Steven Smale, a 35-year-old UC mathematics professor, said he considered the demonstration successful "even though it didn't accomplish all that we had hoped."
"If the train had stopped, we were going to talk with the troops and explains why the war in Vietnam is wrong and try to talk them out of going," he said.
Smale, Chairman of the committee coordinating the efforts of several peace groups, scheduled a meeting late last night too late plans for new demonstrations.
"Don't forget there are two more troop trains scheduled to go through Berkeley Friday," he said to the crowd as it started to break up." Let's all turn out."
"And this time, let's stop the train," someone shouted.
There was a loud cheer. The train was out appearing by that time.
Protesters Injured. Train Protests Greatest Since 1916.
Peace Action: GIs Cheer; Trainmen Jeer Bob Randolph / The Berkeley Barb (Vol. 1, No. 1)
(August 13, 1965) -- The recent events at the Santa Fe stations in Berkeley and Oakland have been front-page news. It is not often that American citizens attempt to stop troop trains with their cargo of GIs headed overseas, this time to South Vietnam. Not since 1916 has such opposition to US war moves existed.
It was big news, yet the commercial press ignored the most revealing part of the story -- the crudely lettered signs in the windows of one of the trains, thereby some of the troops onboard. "I don't want to go," said one of them. Others said, "Lucky civilians," and "Keep up the good work, we're with you."
As the dingy old passenger cars passed the demonstrators at the Berkeley depot shopping "No! No! No!", dozens of GIs pressed their faces to the windows, some waiting to the crowds outside, some quiet and reflective, some in groups in the dining cars, holding their rifles and looking out with looks of sarcasm and hostility.
The day before, the first of the three trains pushed through Berkeley without accelerating speed and narrowly missed grinding two young tickets under the wheels. As I heard of this, I thought back to the days in the early 1950s, when I worked for this railroad, and I recall that warm Summer afternoon when a fireman on board one of the streamliners had risked his life on the engines cowcatcher on the Martinez trestle in a vain attempt to scoop up a two-year-old child plane between the rails, he reached at the last instant and missed, and the child was cut to pieces. Yet he had tried.
Now, in 1965, another trainman pursued his work under a different code, as did the conductor who leaned out of his vestibule and shouted invectives at the demonstrators in Berkeley as he attempted to do what they could to save more remote children caught in the path of another juggernaut in Vietnam.
The use of police in both Berkeley and Emeryville, advancing slowly along the tracks ahead of the trains, tearing down picket signs, roughly pushing the protesting demonstrators out of the path of the troop trains, also marked a new symbolic aspect of the accelerating American juggernaut.
What is perhaps not new is the series of actions taken by the Berkeley City Council. On the main issue of the developing war in Vietnam, the City Council, in spite of its liberal majority, failed utterly to express itself. It confined its actions to the relatively petty complaint that Santa Fe take its troop trains somewhere else, t of the Berkeley residential area through which they had run until recent years when all passenger trains from Richmond to Oakland were curtailed.
This is not new. In times of war and crisis, only the hardiest of the opponents of the government's war moves have taken their stand. It is an example of the liberal's propensity to ineffectualness when courageous, uncompromising action could count the most without regard to political consequences and that is why the Establishment never really has to take him seriously. He'll come around. The only question is how much pressure will it take before he does.
Well, Berkeley is only a microcosm of the world stage. And what difference does it make whether the troops bound for Vietnam come through Berkeley or East Oakland? Perhaps these railroad episodes may bring many of those here who call themselves "liberal" to question the sufficiency of that political position -- particularly at a time of growing world peril such as we face at the present.
Troop Train Protests Continue
August 12: A Black Day for Berkeley Roving Ratfink in The Berkeley Barb (Vol. 1, No. 1)
Thursday, August 12, 1965 -- A day of brutality in Berkeley. Some of it was subtle and some was gross, but it all bespoke a growing ugliness in American life.
The Vietnam Day Committee told this reporter that it notified the Santa Fe railroad, the City of Berkeley, and the Army of its intentions to demonstrate. It charges them with responsibility for today's injuries.
This is what happened.
1. A 20-car Santa Fe troop train forced its way into the ranks of demonstrators stretched along a mile and a half of track from Albany to the Berkeley station, scattering them indifferently, like cattle.
2. The engineer loosed clouds of live steam from the locomotive to clear them from the track, but in fact the steam blinded them to the danger of his rapidly advancing engine.
3. Berkeley police clubbed and dragged protesting demonstrators from the sides of the train. The civilians were cleaning there in an effort to reach the troops caged inside. Three demonstrators were injured, two with suspected broken limbs. (They have been released from the hospital and they're present condition is unknown.)
4. A plainclothesman knocked a woman off the track and, in his panic, left her lying stunned, 8 inches from the rail. A friend pulled her to safety at the last instant.
5. Paralysis of Berkeley's city Council continued in the face of the real elements of the crisis. This is guilt by inaction, a subtle form of brutality now central to American life.
6. The people of Berkeley and the rest of the country are generally and deeply ignorant concerning the issues in Vietnam, which this is all about.
This is every day, not just this August 12th, and politically it is the American way of life. It is for this more than anything else that many foreign visitors are horrified.
7. The quality of the American war rubbed off on Berkeley. The Vietnam war is beyond brutality. It is obscenity. It is the immediate and direct cause of the present events at the Santa Fe tracks in Berkeley.
What are railway engineers? Automatons of human beings?
Two more troop trains are due in Berkeley next week. Suppose 1,000 or more of the Berkeleyans who do have troubled feelings have a firsthand look? Perhaps they will find some of their comfortable liberalism dislodged forever, to be replaced by feelings of outrage.
What would they say on hearing the GI on today's radio who, in fact, shouted through the glass, "Stop the train! Stop the train!"
What does the cry of this prisoner tell us?
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