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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
Sterling Hall bombing after explosion
Historical marker

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 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 Math 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 Math Research Center. The bombers used a stolen Ford Econoline van filled with close to 2,000 pounds 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

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. The director, Rosser, was the head of the U.S. ballistics program during World War II and a contributor 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 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 army research.

Director J. Barkley Rosser, an eminent logician, publicly minimized any practical role of the center and implied that AMRC pursued only pure mathematics. The 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 bombers


Karleton Armstrong

Wanted Posters put out by the FBI shortly after the bombing.

Armstrong 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 had arranged for job interviews with students on campus and many students turned out to protest and block potential interviewers.

After the bombing he went into hiding, but was caught on February 16, 1972 in Toronto. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison, but served only seven years.[7] Armstrong returned to Madison and operated a popular deli called Radical Rye on State Street near the UW–Madison campus until it was displaced by the development of the Overture Center. Armstrong continues to reside in Madison and operates a juice cart on the library mall called Loose Juice just four blocks from Sterling Hall.

While being interviewed about the attack in 1986 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

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

The younger brother of Karl, he was 19 at the time of the bombing. After the bombing, Dwight 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) who was holding Patty Hearst at the time. As far as is known, 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 for ten years for conspiring to distribute amphetamines in Indiana. [8] After being released from prison, he returned to Madison and worked for Union Cab until January 2001. [9]

David Fine

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.

At 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 Oregon Bar by the Oregon State Supreme Court based upon his participation in, and alleged lack of remorse for, the bombing of Sterling Hall and the murder of Robert Fassnacht.

Leo Burt

Leo Burt was 22 years old, and worked at the Daily Cardinal. Burt came to Wisconsin following his interest in crew.[10]He introduced David Fine and Karl Armstrong to each other in July 1970.

After the bombing Burt fled to Canada with Fine, [11], and as of January 2010 remains at large.<refname ="wanted">"FBI Fugitive's list". FBI. Retrieved January 4, 2010.  </ref> [10]


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. He was involved in research in the field of superconductivity, which had potential applications to everything from power distribution to high-speed trains. 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.[12] 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.


  • "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.[13]
  • "[Fassnacht] was a dedicated person. This is what killed him." - Friend and coworker, Erhard H. Behr, August 25, 1970.[13]
  • "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]


  • 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.  


  1. ^ Donald Pfarrer (August 25, 1970). "Bomb in Stolen Truck Caused explosion at UW". The Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved January 4, 2010.  
  2. ^ a b "The Injured Remember," Wisconsin State Journal, August 23, 1971.
  3. ^ a b 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. ^ ""Armstrong faces Prison Term"". The Milwaukee Journal. September 6, 1988. Retrieved January 4, 2010.  
  9. ^ Sharif Durhams and Peter Maller (August 20, 2000). ""30 years ago, bomb shattered UW campus"". The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.  
  10. ^ a b Doug Moe (Summer 2005). ""The Last Fugitive"". On Wisconsin - UW Alumni magazine.  
  11. ^ Katherine M. Skiba (June 1, 1986). ""Where is Leo?"". The Milwaukee Journal's Wisconsin Magazine. Retrieved January 4, 2010.  
  12. ^ Hague, Bob (2007-05-19). "UW honors Robert Fassnacht". Wisconsin Radio Network. Retrieved 2007-05-19.  
  13. ^ a b "Van's blast at UW center kills one hurts four," Wisconsin State Journal, August 25, 1970.

See also

External links


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