Baltimore Riot Was Maryland Air Guard's Largest Mobilization

  • Published
  • By Capt. Wayde Minami
  • 175th Wing Public Affairs
Part One of a Two-Part Series

The decade from 1963 to 1973 was one of social and political unrest in Maryland. Beginning with the racial conflict in Cambridge, Md., and ending with the anti-war riots at the University of Maryland, the Maryland National Guard repeatedly found itself called up to restore order when local authorities were unable to do so.

But the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, was a watershed event for civil unrest in the state, and would lead to the Maryland National Guard's first federal mobilization since World War II.

For the Air Guard, such events as the rioting in Cambridge had been largely matters of news interest, but of little professional concern. As a part of the state militia, members of the Air Guard were capable of being called into state active duty to suppress civil insurrection and began receiving civil disturbance training, but in practice this duty overwhelmingly fell to their Army Guard counterparts.

When rioting broke out in Baltimore on April 6, the scale of the violence quickly grew so great that National Guard troops were required. Shortly after 10 p.m., Gov. Spiro T. Agnew gave the order, and approximately one hour later, the first troops deployed out of the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore.

Nearly every unit in the state was called out. Only the state's air defense units, a unit already on duty in Cambridge and a small number of units standing by in case rioting in neighboring Washington, D.C., spread into Maryland weren't committed to the effort in Baltimore.

Violence quickly spiraled out of control, and on April 7, Governor Agnew requested federal help. Troops were soon on their way from the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C. They would later be augmented by the Army's 197th Infantry Brigade, from Fort Benning, Ga. The federal force would be known as Task Force-Baltimore.

Although there is a common perception that federal troops cannot engage in law enforcement due to the Posse Comitatus Act, in fact the Insurrection Act allows the use of such troops in cases of lawlessness beyond the ability of state authorities to control.

During the 1950s and 1960s, it was common practice that when federal troops were deployed to deal with civil unrest, National Guard troops on riot control duty would be mobilized into federal service, so that all military forces reported to the same chain of command.

Accordingly, Maryland National Guard troops on riot duty, including the Air National Guard, were federalized and placed under the command of Lt. Gen. Robert H. York, the regular Army commander of Task Force-Baltimore, on April 7 at 10:15 p.m. In terms of the number of troops called up, this would be the largest single federal mobilization in Maryland Air Guard history.

Troops of the Maryland Air National Guard's 135th Air Commando Group and 175th Tactical Fighter Group were formed into a provisional battalion, which was further organized into companies, platoons and squads. Within six hours, nearly all of the state's 1,300 Air Guardsmen had reported.

Although the Guardsmen were armed with M-1 carbines and had been issued ammunition, they were under strict orders not to load their weapons unless told to do so.

Maryland Airmen guarded critical infrastructure around the city, including utilities and the reservoir at Lake Montibello. Air Guardsmen also rode along on city buses traveling through dangerous areas, helped secure food shipments and relieved city police providing security at the 5th Regiment Armory, the location of the state military headquarters.

The Martin Company Airport, home station to the Maryland Air Guard, was meanwhile pressed into service as a debarkation point for federal troops arriving in Baltimore, with the Maryland Air Guard called upon to handle the associated logistics.

As the riot progressed, the number of rioters apprehended by police and military forces soared, and the city jail soon exceeded capacity. The Baltimore Civic Center was pressed into emergency service as a detention facility, and Air Guard troops were called in to help provide security. Hundreds of prisoners would ultimately be held there.

The Maryland National Guard remained federalized until regular Army troops withdrew from the city on April 12, at which time they reverted to state control. On April 14, Governor Agnew declared the riot over and released the Guard from riot control duty.

In the end, the National Guard earned considerable praise for the discipline and restraint it demonstrated during the riot, with only four shots being fired by Guardsmen throughout the entire ordeal - none by Air Guardsmen.

Although the Maryland Air National Guard would occasionally be called upon to provide support to Army Guard troops performing riot control duties - as when the 135th used loudspeaker-equipped aircraft to broadcast instructions to student demonstrators at the University of Maryland in the early 1970s - the wholesale call-up of April 1968 would not be repeated.