Presidio 27 mark 50th anniversary of historic San Francisco protest

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- This weekend, visitors to San Francisco's Presidio will have a chance to relive one of the most emotionally charged episodes of the Vietnam War. It was a pivotal moment in the protest movement that happened here in the Bay Area, and the men who participated in it paid a steep price.

Keith Mather still remembers the sound of the jail doors slamming half a century later. In 1968, the Stockade at San Francisco's Presidio was his unwelcome home.

"So here's solitary confinement," Mather says pointing out a cell.

Mather had joined the growing ranks of American soldiers protesting the Vietnam War. Historians say the military had started to take notice.

"In 1968, there's about one soldier every three minutes going AWOL," says Presidio historian Barbara Berglund Sokolov, Ph.D.

Many taken into custody in Northern California were crowded into the Presidio stockade, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. As conditions deteriorated, clashes with guards grew more heated, until a fateful incident that would trigger the so-called Presidio Mutiny.

"The reason this demonstration came about was because Richard Bunch got shot and killed and he was one of us," Mather remembers.

He says the 19-year-old soldier was having mental issues, and one day as he was running away from a guard, Bunch was shot in the back and killed. By the next day, crowds of protesters swarmed the Presidio gates.

Tensions were running so high, that more than two dozen Stockade prisoners, including Keith Mather, decided to stage a demonstration of their own -- a protest that would earn them the name The Presidio 27. That morning, they broke ranks and refused to fall out for a work detail. Instead they sat in circle on the ground and read out a list of demands, including an investigation into Bunch's death.

"Right after that we were read the Mutiny Act. And we sang to try to drown out our captain so we couldn't hear. But evidently, that didn't work in our courts martial," says Mather, remembering the slew of prosecutions that would follow.

"The three first trials that resulted in sentences were 14, 15, and 16 years," says defense attorney Howard de Nike, who was actively defending resisters in the 1960's

He agrees with historians who believe the highly publicized trials and harsh sentences that followed were meant to send a chilling message to the ranks, and crush the expanding protest movement.

"It was a catalyzing effect because it was pretty early in the resistance," says de Nike.

And Berglund Sokolov believes that military leaders believed they had to take a stand.

"Army officials, military officials were concerned that they were losing the Army, that they were losing control of the military," she says.

Mather managed to escape from the Presidio Stockade, eventually spending more than a decade in Canada before returning and serving time. A half a century later, the struggle of the Presidio 27 is now enshrined in an exhibit at the former officers club. Richard Bunch's name can still be seen, carved into the wall of a cell.

"Worth it? Yeah, absolutely," says Mather. "I mean I wouldn't turn the clock back and try to change it. But I wish there would have been more guys involved with us."

This weekend, the Presidio will be offering two programs to mark the anniversary of the Presidio Mutiny, free to the public. For information, visit this page.
Copyright © 2022 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.