A Terrorist Bombing at Home

June 2017

The explosion at the Army Math Center blew in the window near my laboratory desk

On Monday, August 24, 1970, I was a graduate student in organic chemistry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. My research laboratory was in the chemistry building, and that morning I rode over on my bicycle to find broken glass everywhere. More than a thousand windows in 26 campus buildings had been shattered. One of them was mine.

Four Vietnam War protesters calling themselves the New Year’s Gang had stolen a van and loaded it with over 2,000 pounds of an ammonium nitrate and fuel-oil mixture. At about 3:40 a.m. they parked the van outside the physics building that housed their target, the Army Mathematics Research Center, and detonated it. Army Math was reputed to have developed the technology to find and assassinate Che Guevara, but it was more likely using Department of Defense funding to conduct mundane theoretical research, just as I was using National Institutes of Health funds to do mine.

The protesters took their name from their failed attempt the preceding New Year’s Day to bomb the nearby Badger Army Ammunition Plant. They concocted the much larger Madison bomb near tranquil Devil’s Lake State Park, where my girlfriend and I had camped that weekend.

The window by my laboratory desk faced the Army Math Center, a block away across University Avenue, the main campus thoroughfare. The explosion blew in the glass and window shade, knocking over the small shelf on the windowsill where I stored my painstakingly synthesized research compounds. I was grateful I hadn’t been sitting in my chair that night; it was covered with chemicals and shards of glass. A bottle containing deuterium-labeled sulfuric acid, which I had prepared to do tracer studies, lay broken on my desk. Labeled or not, sulfuric acid is sulfuric acid, and it charred my irreplaceable nuclear magnetic resonance spectra. It took me about a month to replicate my data; some physics students lost a year of work.

The city of Madison liked to call itself the Athens of the Midwest. If so, the bombing marked the ending of its Periclean Age. Most of us were opposed to the Vietnam War. But this bombing pretty much ended our taste for protests. The blast had caused six million dollars’ worth of damage; it also killed a physics graduate student who was the father of three children. After a final four-month marathon to finish my thesis, I graduated that January and left for a job in Europe. Three of the bombers were eventually caught and served modest sentences. The fourth disappeared, and his fate remains a mystery.

—Heinz Stucki spent many years working in the polymers industry. He now directs a community-development agency.

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