Sterling Hall bombing

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Sterling Hall bombing
Part of the Opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam
Sterling Hall rotated.jpg
Sterling Hall
Location Madison, Wisconsin, United States
Date August 24, 1970
3:42 am ( UTC-5)
Target Army Mathematics Research Center, Sterling Hall, UW–Madison
Attack type
car bombing of a school building
Weapons Car bomb ( Ammonium nitrate)
Deaths 1
Non-fatal injuries
Perpetrators Karleton Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, David Fine and Leo Burt
Motive Protest against the Vietnam War

The Sterling Hall Bombing that occurred on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus on August 24, 1970 was committed by four youths as a protest against the university's research connections with the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. It resulted in the death of a university physics researcher and injuries to three others.


Sterling Hall historical marker

Sterling Hall is a centrally located building on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. The bomb, set off at 3:42 am on August 24, 1970, was intended to destroy the Army Mathematics Research Center (AMRC) housed on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors of the building. It caused massive destruction to other parts of the building and nearby buildings as well. It resulted in the death of the researcher Robert Fassnacht, injured three others and caused significant destruction to the physics department and its equipment. [1] [2] [3] [4]Neither Fassnacht nor the physics department itself was involved with or employed by the Army Mathematics Research Center. The bombers used a Ford Econoline van stolen from a University of Wisconsin professor of Computer Science. It was filled with close to 2,000 pounds (910 kg) of ANFO (i.e., ammonium nitrate and fuel oil). [5] Pieces of the van were found on top of an eight-story building three blocks away and 26 nearby buildings were damaged; however, the targeted AMRC was scarcely damaged. [6] Total damage to University of Wisconsin–Madison property was over $2.1 million ($12 million today) as a result of the bombing. [7]

Army Mathematics Research Center

Sterling Hall after the bombing

During the Vietnam War, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors of the southern (east-west) wing of Sterling Hall housed the Army Mathematics Research Center (AMRC). This was an Army-funded think tank, directed by J. Barkley Rosser, Sr.

The staff at the center, at the time of the bombing, consisted of about 45 mathematicians, about 30 of them full-time. Rosser was well known for his research in pure mathematics, logic ( Rosser's trick, the Kleene–Rosser paradox, and the Church-Rosser theorem) and in number theory ( Rosser sieve). Rosser had been the head of the U.S. ballistics program during World War II and also had contributed to research on several missiles used by the U.S. military.

The money to build a home for AMRC came from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) in 1955. Their money built a 6-floor addition to Sterling Hall. In the contract to work at the facility, it was required that mathematicians spend at least half their time on U.S. Army research.

Rosser publicly minimized any military role of the center and implied that AMRC pursued mathematics, including both pure and applied mathematics. The University of Wisconsin student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, obtained and published quarterly reports that AMRC submitted to the Army. The Cardinal published a series of investigative articles making a convincing case that AMRC was pursuing research that was directly pursuant to specific U.S. Department of Defense requests, and relevant to counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam. AMRC became a magnet for demonstrations, in which protesters chanted "U.S. out of Vietnam! Smash Army Math!"

The Army Mathematics Research Center was phased out by the Department of Defense at the end of the 1970 fiscal year. [8]

The bombers

FBI wanted posters published shortly after the bombing

The bombers were Karleton Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, David Fine, and Leo Burt. They called themselves the "New Year's Gang", a name which was derived from a previous exploit from New Year's Eve 1969. Dwight and Karl, with Karl's girlfriend, Lynn Schultz (who drove the getaway car), stole a small plane from Morey Field in Middleton. Dwight and Karl dropped homemade explosives on the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, but the explosives failed to detonate. They successfully landed the plane at another airport and escaped. Before the Sterling Hall bombing, Karl committed several other acts with anti-war sentiments, including setting fire to a ROTC installation at the Red Gym and one meant for the state Selective Service headquarters which instead hit the University of Wisconsin Primate Research Center. Karl also attempted to plant explosives at the Prairie du Sac electric substation which supplied power to the ammunition plant, but was frightened off by the night watchman. [3]

"I still feel we can't rationalize someone getting killed, but at that time we felt we should never have done the bombing at all. Now I don't feel that way. I feel it was justified and should have been done. It just should have been done more responsibly." [9]
—Karleton Armstrong, in a 1986 interview

Karleton Armstrong

Karl was oldest of the bombers, and had been admitted into the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1964. He was changed by the Vietnam War and quit school a year later. He took on odd jobs for the next few years, and was re-accepted into the university in 1967. That fall he was witness to violence between police and protesters on October 18, 1967 when the Dow Chemical Company arranged for job interviews with students on campus and many students protested and blocked potential interviewers from the building where the interviews were being held. [3]

After the bombing, he went into hiding until he was caught on February 16, 1972 in Toronto. [10] He was sentenced to 23 years in prison, but served only seven years. [9] After this release, Armstrong returned to Madison, where he operated a juice cart called Loose Juice on the library mall. In the early 2000s he also owned a deli called Radical Rye on State Street near the UW–Madison campus until it was displaced by the development of the Overture Center. [11] [12]

Dwight Armstrong

The younger brother of Karl, Dwight was 19 at the time of the bombing. After the bombing, he lived in a commune in Toronto, Ontario, where he used the name "Virgo." After a few months he left the commune, went to Vancouver and then re-appeared in San Francisco where he connected with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), which was holding Patty Hearst at the time. It is believed he was not active in the SLA. He returned to Toronto and was arrested there on April 10, 1977. He pleaded guilty to the bombing, was sentenced to seven years in prison, and served three years before being released.

In 1987, he was arrested and then later convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison for conspiring to distribute amphetamines in Indiana. [13] After being released from prison, he returned to Madison and worked for Union Cab until January 2001 when he purchased the Radical Rye Deli with his brother Karl. [12] [14]

Dwight Armstrong died from lung cancer on June 20, 2010 at age 58. [15] [16]

David Fine

A 1960s Ford van, similar to the van used in the bombing

David Fine came to Madison as a freshman in 1969 at the age of 17. He wrote for the campus newspaper The Daily Cardinal, and associated with the other writers. He met Karl Armstrong for the first time in the summer of 1970.

Being 18 years old at the time of the bombing, he was the youngest of the four bombers. He was captured in San Rafael, California on January 7, 1976. He was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for his part in the bombing, and he served three years. [3]

In 1987, after passing the Oregon bar exam, Fine was denied admission to The Bar on the grounds that he "had failed to show good moral character." Fine appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Oregon which upheld the decision. [17]

Leo Burt

Leo Burt was 22 years old, and worked at the Daily Cardinal. Burt came to Wisconsin following his interest in rowing, and he joined the crew team. [18] He introduced David Fine and Karl Armstrong to each other in July 1970.

After the bombing Burt fled to Canada with Fine, [19] and as of September 2016 still hasn't been seen. [20] [21] In 2010, there had been new leads on his possible whereabouts, which came up inconclusive. [22]


Plaque on the south side of Sterling Hall. Dedicated on May 18, 2007.

Robert Fassnacht was a 33-year-old postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. On the night and early morning of August 23/24, 1970, he had gone to the lab to finish up work before leaving on a family vacation. [22] He was involved in research in the field of superconductivity. At the time of the explosion, Fassnacht was in his lab located in the basement level of Sterling Hall. He was monitoring an experiment when the explosion occurred. [23] Rescuers found him face down in about a foot of water. He was survived by his wife, Stephanie, and their three children, a three-year-old son, Christopher, and twin one-year-old daughters, Heidi and Karin.

Injured in the bombing were Paul Quin, David Schuster, and Norbert Sutler. Schuster, a South African graduate student, [24] who became deaf in one ear and with only partial hearing in the other ear, [25] was the most seriously injured of the three, suffering a broken shoulder, fractured ribs and a broken eardrum; he was buried in the rubble for three hours before being rescued by firefighters. Quin, a postdoctoral physics researcher, and Sutler, a university security officer, suffered cuts from shattered glass and bruises. [2] Quin, who became a physics professor at U. W. Madison, always refused to discuss the bombing in public. [25]


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