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South Central LA: Watts Summer 1965

I remember it starting out as a regular monthly weekend drill.

Out of bed Saturday about 4:00 A.M. Search in the closet for my fatigues, combat boots, and patrol cap and put them on. Bump around quietly in the dark so as to not wake Mary and little Betsy, brew a thermos of coffee and go out the front door into the dark morning to drive from our home in Fair Oaks east of Sacramento all the way to our assembly armory, Fort Funston in San Francisco, 120 miles away. A few of us from different parts of northern California had volunteered to drill there instead of at our home armories because we were bored and tired of being cool and because we were promised different training that would be more interesting so we could just make the time go faster, speed it up, get it all done and over with, rid ourselves of our military obligation, and get on with the future adventures of our lives. 

That sweet little red ’61 Volkswagen: Fire her up, head south over the American River onto US 50, connect over to old US 40 (now I-80) head west over the Sacramento River and bring her up to a steady 60-65. “Music ‘til Dawn” going on the car radio, sun coming up behind me, driving past all that early morning northern California country: Valley pastures, fields and low hills all sweeping by, Davis, Vacaville, Fairfield, Vallejo, over the Carquinez Bridge and on, past Berkeley, over the Bay Bridge, then onto 101 and Army Street (now Caesar Chavez) and over to the west side of Lake Merced and up that little hill to Fort Funston. Park in the lot. Alight. Get the gear out. Lock the car. Check in. Fall into formation. 

“Special drill today, men,” says Lieutenant Myers. “We’re going up to Fort Cronkhite and do landing boat drills on the beach.” (Hard for you to believe, I know—me too now—but like I said we’d been promised special training.) So we load up into the deuce-and-a-halves and go north over the Golden Gate Bridge to Fort Cronkhite and actually get out and down onto the beach where it’s hard to chogy in the heavy soft sand, and drag down and launch the big heavy boats with their oars. But just before we actually climb into them, Myers comes running down the beach and yells, “Forget that. There’s been a change. Load back up into the trucks. We’re going back to Fort Funny. 

“And then we’re going to Watts.” 

If we’re surprised, we shouldn’t be. The rioting in Watts has been front page news for two days now. So next we know by that early afternoon we’re standing in solemn formation amongst other company-sized units of troops with guidon flags flapping in the wind on acres of flat grinder at Moffett Naval Air Station awaiting orders to board. Then loading and belting ourselves onto cramped benches shoulder to shoulder along the sides of the long transport planes, lifting off and heading south and landing about two hours later at some Los Angeles area airport, probably Van Nuys, piling out, forming up, loading up into trucks again and being dropped out at some vacant junior high school. Waiting in lines to make our calls, “Honey, I’m in Watts,” spreading our sleeping bags down on the bare floor of a classroom and crashing for the night.

We eat breakfast that morning on trays in the school cafeteria and then go outside and do PT on the playground. One of our guys, Nicholson, who’s really good at sit-ups, gets down and does 100 pretty fast, slowing down only towards the end. He gets up breathing a little hard and shakes himself off. Then Lieutenant Toledo, one of our three Rangers, walks over, says “That was good, Nicholson,” sits down on the asphalt where Nicholson had just done his 100 and cranks out 200 himself, each one fast and crisp, no slowing at the end, gets up, says “We should do that again sometime,” and saunters away, leaving us all kind of shaking our heads. 

Late that afternoon, they actually issue us live ammunition and we go out on the street. Corporal Cirino and I are detailed to guard an intersection on one side of the riot area. We’re supposed to keep people and traffic out of the area. It’s quiet when we get there, absolutely no activity, but it obviously had been violent earlier: Shattered store windows and broken glass all over the streets. The air is acrid and it’s LA August hot. But it stays quiet and gradually gets dark. At some point a car starts to drive into the area. We stop it. Inside are a white couple and their little kid. The woman passenger has a .22 rifle on her lap. She tells Cirino they have friends in the area and are trying to get to them. Cirino tells her politely that the area is temporarily closed and that they can’t go in. He asks her for the .22 and she hesitates and then gives it to him, and they drive away. All the time I’m thinking that I should be clear-thinking and deciding and acting, like Cirino is doing—I’m a sergeant, after all—but I’m having trouble getting my mind to work.

Much later that night, during curfew, a very old black man clutching a brown paper bag shuffles by us on the sidewalk heading south. A police cruiser passing on the other side of the street sets its siren off, so does another right behind it, and then a line of at least a dozen squad cars heading south on the other side of the street have their lights and sirens all going and actually jump the median curb each one right behind the other, flipping U-turns, roaring up and squealing to a stop beside the old man, who has stopped. Five or six officers jump out, yell at him to get up against a wall, and shake him down. About that time Lieutenant Lack and some of our other guys drive up in the three-quarter ton and pick Cirino and me up, and I don’t see what happens to the old man.

Late the next afternoon Cirino and I are assigned to guard a building that has been spray-painted “Burn Baby Burn.” We’re stationed on the roof. It’s quiet the whole time. Nothing happens while we’re there. Later that night we’re relieved and reassigned to foot-patrol in another area. Then we get the word that another liquor store has just been looted and that some dark guys are running our way. We see or are told that they’ve gone off into some bushes and we run after them with our rifles at port arms looking for where they’re hiding. We don’t find them and after a short while we’re called off the chase.

The next night, Lieutenant Lack, a driver and four of us are patrolling around in the three-quarter ton when we get the word to be on the lookout for a described stolen car. A few minutes later Lack from the passenger seat yells out “That looks like it!” and directs our driver into a gas station where a young black man is pumping gas into a late model sedan. We pile out, the four of us surrounding the car, our M-1s at port arms. Lack calls in the license number. He gets a response, we hear him say, “Yep, this is it,” and all four of us level our rifles at the young man and click our safeties off. There’s a girl in the car with terrified eyes. The man’s eyes are smoldering. Then, cocking his head to his radio, Lack says, “Wait a minute,” and pauses, then says, “This isn’t it, it’s some other car.” He turns to the man: “Sorry, buddy.” We all click our safeties back on, raise our rifles to port arms, climb back into the three quarter ton and drive away. Looking back, I see the young black man rage-staring at us.

A night or two later we’re assigned firehouse duty. Rioters have been setting fires and calling them in, and then sniping at the firemen when they respond. So four of us with a jeep are detailed to guard a firehouse and follow the firemen and guard them when they go out on a call. We stay there all night getting called out maybe three, four times. We’ll be sleeping deep and then there’s this massive BLATBLATBLAT noise that physically shakes the building and instantly startles and wakes us all up. The fire captain crouches next to a big radio receiver to get the location and description while the four of us pile into our jeep parked right behind a fire engine, the firemen come out and off we go, following it and its siren and sometimes other screaming fire engines out to the scene where we take up positions on the street with our rifles. I don’t see any fires burning at any of the scenes we drive to; all over the area reports of fires are turning out to be false. And we don’t encounter any snipers.

The next day we’re moved from the school where we’d been staying and billeted at the Sheriff Gene Biscailuz Training Center where we get to sleep on cots set up on an indoor basketball court. That day or the next day we’re assigned to provide perimeter security at the Los Angeles County Courthouse. Big, drab buses, one after the other with many dozens of black faces behind barred windows, keep driving in and later driving out. Small groups of suited young white men—young deputies district attorney, I assume—occasionally step out of the courthouse to stretch, smoke, talk and joke and laugh quietly among themselves while we in our fatigue uniforms, unwashed and smelly after about a week now, stand guard.

The day after we stop guarding the courthouse they keep us at the Biscailuz Center with no duty assignment. By mid-afternoon I’m bored and tired of sitting on my cot with nothing to do. I go out into the sunshine walking aimlessly, finally to a bus stop where I catch a bus going somewhere, probably downtown. I sit in the first row behind and across from the driver, who is black. I’m still in my stinking fatigues. We stop at bus stops where a few people get on and a few people get off. We keep going; more stops, busier streets, more people. More stops, fewer people getting off, more getting on, a few whites, a few blacks. More stops, nobody getting off, more people getting on. More blacks. We keep stopping and going. I’m just sitting there dull, not thinking.

We stop again. The bus driver turns to me and says, “You know, you might want to think about where we’re going. There’s a lot of black faces down there. You know?” 

My mind begins to sharpen a little. A stop later I thank the driver, get off and cross to the bus stop across the street and take the next bus back to the Biscailuz Center.

On the tenth day, we go home. I find out later that, of the 14,000 National Guard troops sent to Watts, the 54 of us who were assigned security duty at the courthouse are the last to leave. Apparently they called us “Task Force Barrena.” I didn’t know it at the time. I still don’t know what it means.

At the Van Nuys National Guard Base late that afternoon we load into a transport plane, and sit down again onto the benches along the sides. There’s plenty of elbow room this time, a lot fewer of us now than there were on the flight out. Between us there’s a jeep strapped down in the middle of the plane, and I watch it during the whole flight to see if it moves; it doesn’t. We land, probably back at Moffett Field again; it’s dark.

They transport us back to Fort Funston. We assemble and then fall out till the next drill. I find my car still there in the lot, get in, it starts, and I drive the three hours back home to Fair Oaks and Mary and little Betsy and our life.

I think that’s all I remember about it.

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