Presidio mutiny

Presidio mutiny
Part of the Opposition to US involvement in Vietnam
Date October 14, 1968
Location Presidio of San Francisco
Methods Sit-in
Result Arrest of protesters

The Presidio mutiny was a sit-down protest carried out by 27 prisoners at the Presidio stockade in San Francisco, California on October 14, 1968. The stiff sentences given out at courts martial for the participants (known as the Presidio 27) attracted attention to the extent of sentiment against the Vietnam War in the armed forces.


Two events set the stage for the protest. The first was the death of Richard Bunch, a prisoner in the stockade, who was killed on October 11 with a shotgun blast after walking away from a work detail.[1] Other prisoners stated that he taunted guards to shoot him.[2] That evening there was a vocal protest against the killing. Conditions in the stockade were overcrowded, with up to 140 prisoners housed in a space intended for 88, and there were charges of mistreatment by guards.[2]

The protest was set into motion, however, by a group of four AWOL soldiers who turned themselves in the next day at the end of a large anti-war march in San Francisco, where the Presidio is located.[3] The military had made attempts to prevent service members from participating in the march, ordering up mandatory formations and special maneuvers which would keep men on base.[4] Nevertheless a large contingent of several hundred active duty and reserve servicemen marched at the front of the parade.[4] The four AWOL soldiers (Linden Blake, Keith Mather, Walter Pawlowski, and Randy Rowland),[5] having been put in the stockade, met with prisoners over the weekend and convinced them to participate in a protest over prisoner conditions and against the war.[3]

The protest

The protest was carried out during the morning formation on Monday the 14th. 28 prisoners broke ranks and sat in the grass, singing "We Shall Overcome".[1] One of them returned to ranks when challenged, but the remainder continued to sing, with Pawlowski reading a list of demands.[3] After orders to disperse were ignored, the camp commandant read the articles of mutiny, and eventually the protest was broken up by military police, who removed the protesters one at a time.[2][3]

The trials

The protesters were tried in small groups in the spring of 1969, with future star criminal lawyer Brendan Sullivan among the defense counsel. By that time three of the prisoners had escaped.[1] As the first defendants were sentenced to 15, 14, and 16 years at hard labor, national attention was focused on the severity of punishment for a non-violent protest.[2] The charge of mutiny was particularly denounced, given that it potentially could carry the death penalty (though prosecutors had agreed in advance not to seek such extreme penalties); even the officer in charge of the preliminary investigation recommended reduction of charges to "willful disobedience", but was overruled by Lt. Gen. Stanley Larsen, commander of the Sixth Army.[2][6]

On appeal, the long sentences for mutiny were voided by the Court of Military Review in June 1970,[7] and reduced to short sentences for willful disobedience of a superior officer.[8] Rowland, for example, was released in 1970 after a year and a half imprisonment.[3] The three escapees (Blake, Mather, and Pawlowski) fled to Canada, with Mather remaining fugitive until 1985.[5] At the time of his release from the Army disciplinary barracks at Ft. Riley, Mather's lawyer Howard DeNike described his client as America's "last prisoner of conscience from the Vietnam War." [9]

Supporters of the soldiers involved painted a hand brushed poster in blue, red and green lettering that called for a candlelight vigil to be held at 8 p.m. at S.F. Civic Center in the evening of Tues March 4. It read " VIGIL // Support the 27 // Mutiny is a big word // (Candlelight) // Tues. Mar. 4th// Civic Center // 8 pm

The painter used the back side of a 28 1/4" x 22 1/8 " black and white commercially produced Vietnam Protest poster from 1967 entitled "THOUSHALT NOTKILL" It depicts a long haired male, dressed only in a white kilt-like cover, shouting in anguish to the sky. He is superimposed over a sea of Vietnam soldiers in photo that appears to have been taken at a USO show or similar entertainment/speaking event. Inscribed to the left in black lettering is "The highest virtue is always against the law" by Emerson, and another inscription to the right reads: "To my kill in war is not a whit better than to commit ordinary murder" by Einstein. The poster is copyrighted "1967 American Newspaper Co. 243 Collins St San Francisco Ca 94118"


The Presidio mutiny was the first of a number of protests and riots that drew attention to anti-war dissent within the military.[5] It brought press investigation of the conditions at the stockade[1] and of the situations of the protesters. For example, it was determined that none of those convicted had been given the non-combatant assignment promised by recruiters.[10]

The book The Unlawful Concert by Fred Gardner (Viking Press, 1970) reviews the affair in detail. In 1980 the movie The Line depicted a fictionalized version of events.[11] The episode is also examined in the 2005 documentary Sir! No Sir!, which examined military resistance to the Vietnam War.


  1. 1 2 3 4 "Presidio Mutiny Case - Barbed Beauty". St. Petersburg Times. April 12, 1969. Retrieved 2008-11-25.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 "Mutiny in the Presidio". Time. February 21, 1969. Retrieved 2008-11-25.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Rowland, Randy. "The Presidio Mutiny". National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force. Retrieved 2008-11-25.
  4. 1 2 Cortright, David (2005). Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War. Chicago: Haymarket Books. pp. 57, 58.
  5. 1 2 3 Moser, Richard R. (1996). The New Winter Soldiers. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. p. 74.
  6. Jeschke, Paul R. (January 28, 1969). "G.I.s Face Mutiny Charge Amid Protest in California". Columbia Missourian. UPI. p. 11. Retrieved 2008-11-25.
  7. Crowley, Walt; William Crowley (1997). Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle. University of Washington Press. p. 287.
  8. Thompson, Erwin N. "Chapter XXI: Sixth U.S. Army, 1946-1980". Defender of the Gate: The Presidio of San Francisco: A History from 1846 to 1995 (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-11-25.
  10. D'Amato, Anthony A. (1995). "The War Crimes Defense". International Law and Political Reality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 55.
  11. Berg, Rick (1990). "Losing Vietnam: Covering the War in an Age of Technology". In Dittmar, Linda; Gene Michaud. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
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