Sterling Hall bombing

Sterling Hall bombing
Sterling Hall bombing

Once home to the physics department at UW–Madison, Sterling Hall also housed the Army Mathematics Research Center which made it the target of student protests. It currently houses the Astronomy Department.
Location Madison, Wisconsin, United States
Date August 24, 1970
3:42AM (UTC-5)
Target Army Mathematics Research Center, Sterling Hall, UW–Madison
Attack type bombing (Ammonium nitrate)
Death(s) 1
Injured 4
Perpetrator(s) Karleton Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, David Fine and Leo Burt

The Sterling Hall Bombing that occurred on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus on August 24, 1970 was committed by four young people as a protest against the University's research connections with the US 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 3:42AM 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] Neither Fassnacht nor the physics department itself were involved with or employed by the Army Mathematics Research Center. The bombers used a stolen Ford Econoline van filled with close to 2,000 pounds (910 kg) of ANFO (i.e., ammonium nitrate and fuel oil).[4] Pieces of the van were found on top of an eight-story building three blocks away and 26 nearby buildings were also damaged; however, the targeted AMRC was scarcely damaged.[5] Total damage to University of Wisconsin–Madison property was over $2.1 million as a result of the bombing.[6]

Army Mathematics Research Center

Sterling Hall bombing after explosion

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, known for research in 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 US 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 bomb missed its target of the AMRC. The truck was pulled up beside a physics laboratory on the floor below the AMRC, destroying that laboratory. One physics researcher was killed and another seriously injured. The AMRC lost only one day's work.[citation needed]

The bombers

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 driving 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 of terrorism, including arson attacks on ROTC installation at the Red Gym and one meant for the state Selective Service headquarters which instead hit the UW 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]

Karleton Armstrong

FBI wanted posters published shortly after the bombing

Karl was oldest of the bombers, and had been admitted into the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1964. He was radicalized 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 protesters and police 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. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison, but served only seven years.[7] After this release, Armstrong returned to Madison, where he operated a juice cart called Loose Juice on the library mall just four blocks from Sterling Hall. 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.[8][9]

In a 1986 interview about the attack, Armstrong said,

"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."[7]

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.[10] 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.[9][11]

Dwight Armstrong died from lung cancer on June 20, 2010 at age 58.[12][13]

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 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. In its decision the court wrote:

"He has not shown himself to be a credible person and did not establish that he now has the good moral character required to practice law. We base our decision on applicant's present statements about his past acts. We recognize that persons can and do reform. However, in this case applicant's deceitful, self-serving conduct persisted at the time of the hearing."[14]

Leo Burt

Leo Burt was 22 years old, and worked at the Daily Cardinal. Burt came to Wisconsin following his interest in crew.[15] He introduced David Fine and Karl Armstrong to each other in July 1970.

After the bombing Burt fled to Canada with Fine,[16] and as of September 2010 remains at large,[17] though at that time there were new leads on his possible whereabouts.[18]


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

Robert Fassnacht was a 33-year-old post-doctoral 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.[18] 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.[19] 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.

Also injured was David Schuster, a South African graduate student, who suffered fractured ribs and a broken eardrum, amongst other injuries,[18] and had to be dug out of the rubble by firefighters, after his professor, Henry Barschall, had to be physically restrained from going in himself.

Barschall's laboratory was destroyed by the bombing—and the records of 25 years of his research, measuring nuclear cross-sections under neutron bombardment, were destroyed, there having been no off site data storage.


  • "The movement against the Vietnam War reveals the double standard of government...It was a remarkably nonviolent movement. There was one instance, so rare that it must be noted, where antiwar protesters in Madison, Wisconsin, planted a bomb in a military research building, timed to go off in the middle of the night, when no one would be in the building. But one man was working there, and he was killed." - pg. 143 of Declarations of Independence, by Howard Zinn
  • "This I believe is a conspiracy of a small minority who do not believe in our system of government and are set to destroy our present way of life." - Wisconsin Governor Warren P. Knowles, August 25, 1970.[20]
  • "[Fassnacht] was a dedicated person. This is what killed him." - Friend and coworker, Erhard H. Behr, August 25, 1970.[20]
  • "Sometimes I still think about [the bombing]. It sends a shiver up my spine when I'm working late on Sundays." - Paul Quin, a physics researcher injured by the bombing. August 23, 1971.[2]

See also

Cultural influence

  • Inspiration for Running on Empty (1988 film)


  1. ^ Donald Pfarrer (August 25, 1970). "Bomb in Stolen Truck Caused explosion at UW". The Milwaukee Journal. pp. 8-. Retrieved January 4, 2010. 
  2. ^ a b "The Injured Remember," Wisconsin State Journal, August 23, 1971.
  3. ^ a b c d Michael Fellner (May 18, 1986). "The Untold Story:Part 1". The Milwaukee Journal's Wisconsin Magazine. Retrieved January 4, 2010. 
  4. ^ Wisconsin Historical Museum. Sterling Hall Bombing Engine Fragment.
  5. ^ Sterling Hall bombing, Wisconsin State Journal.
  6. ^ "Sterling Hall toll set at $2.1 million," Wisconsin State Journal, August 17, 1972.
  7. ^ a b Michael Fellner (May 25, 1986). "The Untold Story:Part 2". The Milwaukee Journal's Wisconsin Magazine. pp. 4–19. Retrieved January 4, 2010. 
  8. ^ Samara Kalk (2001-01-05). "KARL ARMSTRONG TAKES OVER RADICAL RYE ON STATE STREET". Capital Times. 
  9. ^ a b Juohn L. Pulley (2002-07-19). "Radical Consequences". Chronicle of Higher Education. 
  10. ^ "Armstrong faces Prison Term". The Milwaukee Journal. September 6, 1988. Retrieved January 4, 2010. 
  11. ^ Sharif Durhams and Peter Maller (August 20, 2000). "30 years ago, bomb shattered UW campus". The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. 
  12. ^ Deborah Ziff (2010-06-21). "Dwight Armstrong, Sterling Hall Bomber, dies at 58". Wisconsin State Journal. 
  13. ^ Margalit Fox (2010-06-26). "Dwight Armstrong, Who Bombed a College Building in 1970, Dies at 58". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2010. 
  14. ^ Lexis-Nexis, In the Matter of the Application for Admission to the Oregon State Bar of DAVID SYLVAN FINE, Petitioner 1987-04-29. Accessed 2010-08-24
  15. ^ Doug Moe (Summer 2005). "The Last Fugitive". On Wisconsin - UW Alumni magazine. 
  16. ^ Katherine M. Skiba (June 1, 1986). "Where is Leo?". The Milwaukee Journal's Wisconsin Magazine. Retrieved January 4, 2010. 
  17. ^ Mungin, Lateef. 24 August 2010,, "40 years later, FBI still hunts alleged bomber". Accessed 24 August 2010.
  18. ^ a b c Markon, Jerry (2010-09-21). "After 40 years, search for University of Wisconsin bombing suspect heats up again". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-09-24. 
  19. ^ Hague, Bob (2007-05-19). "UW honors Robert Fassnacht". Wisconsin Radio Network. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2007-05-19. 
  20. ^ a b "Van's blast at UW center kills one hurts four," Wisconsin State Journal, August 25, 1970.

Further reading

  • Bates, Tom (1993). RADS: The 1970 Bombing of the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Its Aftermath. Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092428-4. 
  • Morris, Michael (1988). The Madison Bombings: The Story of One of the Two Largest Vehicle-Bombings Ever. Research House. ISBN 0-947002-30-8. 

External links

Coordinates: 43°04′28″N 89°24′19″W / 43.074507°N 89.405408°W / 43.074507; -89.405408

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