Ronald and Betty Kerwood, June 30th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is June 30, 2016. My name is William Winkel. We are in Shelby Township. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit ‘67 Oral History Project. I am sitting down with Ronald Kerwood. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
RK: Thanks for being here.
WW: Can you please tell me when and where were you born?
RK: I was born in 1938 in Detroit, Michigan.
WW: Did you grow up in the city?
RK: Yes I did.
WW: Where did you grow up?
RK: On the east side, on Canton Avenue. I spent almost all my life on the east side of Detroit.
WW: Was the neighborhood you grew up in integrated?
RK: Yes it was, in the 1940s.
WW: Would you like to share any experiences from growing up?
RK: I had a good youth. I went to a neighborhood grade school. As a matter of fact, it was a block from my home. I did well in grade school, was captain of the safety patrol. From there I went to Barber Intermediate, kind of a tough school. From Barber, I went to Cass Tech. I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. I thought essentially at that time that it was just drawing airplanes. But I wasn’t that great at math and sciences, so I transferred to Eastern High School and prospered there. I played junior varsity football and pitched on the varsity baseball team. I was a member of the National Honor Society and was elected president of the senior class. By my classmates voted most likely to succeed and most studious. I received a scholarship to Wayne State University and attended my freshman year, one year completed, but I dropped out of college. I dropped out primarily because none of my friends were going to college. Frankly, I was tired of studying. I worked part-time at Kroger’s supermarket as a stock boy. I had met my wife while I was in high school, met her at a party. We married in 1959, had our first child in April of 1960. We had four children, three girls and a boy. I essentially had part-time kind of jobs. I had taken the civil service examination for the post office. I had even worked holidays for the post office. Eventually, just as I was being processed for the police department, I got an offer from the post office to work full time, but I chose the police department. I was interested in law enforcement. When I entered college at Wayne State it was in pre-law. I had intended to go on to law school and possibly the FBI, but when the opportunity came up with the Detroit Police Department.
WW: During this time, did you continue to live in the city?
RK: Yes, I did. I lived in the city until I retired.
WW: What neighborhood did you settle your family in, the same one you grew up in?
RK: No, I think we lived on Rochelle.
BK: for a few years and then 7 Mile and 94 area.
WW: What year did you join the National Guard?
RK: It was right after I graduated high school, it was in February of ’57.
WW: What drew you to the National Guard?
RK: I was always interested in the military, matter of fact I wanted to go to West Point, but I didn’t have the mathematical and science skills for West Point. My uncle was in the Army and National Guard at the time. I wanted to get a commission and they offered me an opportunity to have a commission but it turned out to be a long, drawn out kind of affair. It took me, let’s see, nine years I believe, before I got a direct commission to second lieutenant. I was a sergeant first class when I was commissioned. During the riots I was a second lieutenant in one of the battalions that was first deployed to the riots. As a matter of fact, in working a tactical mobile unit I was asked to lead the first battalion deployed, which was the 156th Signal Battalion. I led them to the Herman Kiefer grounds, where they were deployed as a staging area.
WW: Before we get to ’67, I want to go back a little bit. What year did you join the police department full time?
RK: 1960, April of 1960.
BK: The 25th.
WW: What precinct did you work in?
RK: The thirteenth.
WW: Progressing through the 1960s, did you see any growing tensions in the city?
RK: Absolutely, the ‘60s were a lot of turmoil. As a matter of fact, I knew two police officers that had been killed in the ’60s. It was so turbulent. There were a lot of protests and demonstrations. The police department organized the Tactical Mobile Unit and I transferred to that unit from the 13th Precinct.
WW: What’s the reason you joined that unit?
RK: It was considered an elite unit at that time. It was working different parts of the city. It just offered a different kind of situation than working ordinary patrol in a precinct. You’d move from area to area. It just seemed like a better opportunity.
WW: Are there any other experiences you would like to share from working in the police department before ‘67?
RK: When was it I was shot at the first time?
BK: That was 1970. I think.
RK: No, I was at the 13th Precinct.
BK: Oh, then I don’t know.
RK: Sometime before I transferred out the Mobile Tactical Unit, I was working at the 13th Precinct. We had just started midnights. We were on patrol and we spotted this car with no taillights. We approached the car and it sped off. This is on West Grand Boulevard. At Kipling, I think was the street, the first street beyond the Lodge Freeway. It made a sudden right turn and the guy bailed out of the car and my partner and I – I was the driver of the scout car. The guy ran through a hedge. My partner was the first to get to the hedge and I was right after him then BAM, the guy fired a shot and disappeared between a business building and a house that was there. Then we ran to an alley expecting the guy to come out that way. I started back towards the scout car and saw the guy crossing the boulevard to the other side. The guy was eventually captured by the cruiser crew hiding under a porch. He was charged with assault with intent to commit murder.
WW: Wow. Did the rank and file of the police department anticipate violence during the summer of 1967? Did you see it coming?
RK: Yeah, there was a lot of tension. Twelfth Street was notorious at the time. There was even some concern about patrolling on 12th Street because typically when officers attempted to make arrests on 12th Street crowds gathered and got nasty. The department, as I indicated, had already organized this tactical unit because of demonstrations and protests that were going on. The unit was trained for crowd control. As a matter of fact, we used to practice crowd control formations.
WW: You still were working with the mobile tactical unit in July of 1967?
RK: Was it July?
BK: When the riots started.
BK: When the riots started.
RK: Yeah, I was with them. At that time, the Tactical Mobile Unit didn’t work days on Sunday. That Sunday morning, it was around 7:00, I got a phone call to report to our headquarters at the garage at Chene and Jefferson. I was one of the first officers there. Initially, the tactical mobile unit was deployed to the east side in the 5th Precinct. I think because they were waiting to see if the disturbance in the 10th Precinct would die down. But eventually we went into the 10th Precinct from the east side. I remember – did I mention that I was sent to lead the first National Guard Unit?
WW: Yes, I was just about to ask you about that. At one point did you stop working with the police department and were deployed as a National Guardsman? How did that process work?
RK: I had to report to the National Guard when the National Guard was federalized. That’s when I left the police department.
WW: Do you know what day that was?
RK: No, I don’t. It took, I think, a couple days.
WW: Okay. Well, before that, would you like to share any experiences you had during those first couple days of the riot as you were working with the Mobile Tactical Unit?
RK: I personally knew two who were killed in the riot. I knew Jerry (Jerome) Olshove, who was a patrolman in the 13th Precinct. In addition, Sergeant Larry Post of the National Guard was one of my subordinates in the National Guard. I think I was at home when I got word about Sergeant Post. I remember crying. But also there was such emotional buildup. We worked long hours, lot of tension, lot of stress. It was tough physically and emotionally.
WW: Could you physically see the strain of the long shifts and the situation was putting on the police department as the week went on?
RK: I didn’t hear anyone complain about that. I don’t recall any complaints. I know, personally, I was tired and emotionally trained.
WW: Could you talk about leading the Signal Battalion in the National Guard down to Herman Kiefer?
RK: The 156th Signal Battalion was organized in the Detroit Artillery Armory. I was familiar with that armory. They knew within the tactical mobile unit that I was in the National Guard. So when the Guard was mobilized I was asked along with my partner to lead that battalion to the staging area at Herman.
WW: Did you stay with that unit?
RK: No, I went back to my own unit.
WW: What patrols, if any, were you a part of in those first couple days? Was the mobile unit stationed someplace and then just waited or did you move around the city?
RK: Initially, I said we were deployed to the 5th Precinct. But then we moved into the 10th Precinct. I recall mass arrests being made, the looting of stores, the arson. I think arson became a real problem in Detroit as a result of the riots in 1967. I hadn’t seen fires like I saw later, prior to ’67.
WW: So, you said you were stationed with the National Guard after the National Guard was federalized. What about the National Guard being federalized made you have to switch?
RK: It was long. The National Guard was given priority. At the time, when I joined the Detroit Police Department they wanted me out of the National Guard. I did get out of the National Guard but went back to it and it wasn’t a problem. But initially, the police department did not want me to be part of the National Guard because of the possible conflict. As it turned out, I think it was useful that I was in the National Guard and working with the National Guard unit because it provided – as a matter of fact, before the riots I had coordinated the Tactical Mobile Unit coming to my National Guard battalion and demonstrating riot control formations. So, that happened before the riot.
WW: Are there any other stories you’d like to share from during the week in ’67?
RK: It was a chaotic, crazy time. You could not imagine anything like that ever happening. It really drastically changed the city. It was a big change to the city that I had grown up in and loved. You could see a buildup -- the riots in Los Angeles that had occurred and there were problems throughout the country. So, I guess that eventually it was not a big surprise. Too many people died during the riots.
WW: The way you look at the city – did it change after ‘67?
RK: Yeah, it sure did. The arson with burning buildings, vacant buildings, vacant business places, it was an entirely different kind of environment, I think. I think it led to the circumstances we have in Detroit today. Not a lot of good things happened in Detroit after that. We had some disturbance in ’68 following the assassination of Martin Luther King. It wasn’t as bad because I think everyone – the police department, the city, the National Guard – were better prepared in reaction to it—what was occurring.
WW: You just reminded me of a question I didn’t ask earlier. Do you think that the Detroit Police Department and the National Guard were ready for the events of 1967?
RK: The National Guard definitely was not ready. I think the police department was better prepared but not to the extent that they needed to be. I don’t think anyone was imagining how bad it could become—I lost my train of thought.
WW: No worries! How long did you stay with the police department?
RK: I quit in September of ’66, I think it was.
WW: In what year?
BK: It was after the riot, I know that
RK: Oh, I’m sorry. I quit after the riot in ’67, I think it was September.
BK: And he was absolutely miserable
RK: I became an insurance adjuster for Motors Insurance Corporation. I went back to the department, the same mobile unit, same tactical mobile unit, same partners in April. You’re laughing because that was when Martin Luther King was assassinated. We had disturbances in April of ’68.
WW: And then how long did you stay with the department?
RK: Till I retired.
WW: What year?
WW: I lost my train of thought too. How did you see the city in those 25 years after the riot? Because you continued to stay there until then, correct?
RK: Things changed, there were some good changes. There were some changes that were not good. There was some more militancy after the riots, the Black Panthers became active. As a matter of fact they tried to kill me and another officer after they had ambushed two executives in the police department. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that incident or not?
WW: Not that incident, no.
RK: When was that, May of 1970?
BK: I believe so.
RK: I was a sergeant at the Fifth Precinct and the department, through its intelligence unit, had learned of a plot to ambush police officers on the east and west side and I had just come on duty on the midnight shift at the Fifth Precinct when Tactical Mobile Unit officers were shot at, at Harper and McClellan. We responded to the area and eventually to an address on Rollins. When I got there my lieutenant was on the porch of the residence, so I really don’t know how they got to that point. But apparently some of our officers in plainclothes had known where the gunmen had fled. So when I got there – it was an upstories flat – and the light was on at the top of the stairs in the stairway. Somehow, a woman came down and she said her baby was upstairs. So she went and got her baby and came down with the baby in her arms. She didn’t say anything and I don’t know to this day and I have never done it before and never did it since, but myself and a patrolman from the 5th Precinct, Victor Paige, we crawled up the stairs. One of the officers behind me said, “Watch it. He racked one.” What I hadn’t heard, but what they had heard, was one of the guys upstairs, there were two of them, had racked an Army Carbine, a U.S. Army M-1 Carbine. I was carrying a 357 Magnum in my hand and about the time that the gun went over the floor they opened up, two of them opened up and fired on us. It left plaster on my uniform from hitting the wall. As a matter of fact, some of the ammunition went into the house next door, through the wall and into the house next door.
BK: There were seventeen bullet holes three inches above where his head was.
RK: Yeah, I went back and slid down the stairs on my back and the lieutenant had been behind me thought I’d been hit. I ended up at the bottom of the stairs and had to scramble out of the way because I expected to see him in the doorway. It turned out to be a barricaded gunman situation. We put tear gas into the house and one of them had a gas mask. One of them, his father showed up, and eventually talked him out of the house. They both surrendered.
BK: That was a big splash in the newspapers.
RK: Yeah, it got a lot of coverage. John Nichols was superintendent at the time. He was on the scene, as a matter of fact. It was really eerie. Like I said, it was after midnight and the department at that time had floodlights that were set up on the house, it was something completely different.
WW: Just a couple final questions for you. Could you talk a little more about the working relationship between the National Guard and the Detroit Police Department? Was it a good working relationship or was it strained?
RK: I think it was a good relationship. I went back to the National Guard and my unit was feeding the police department. They were working 12 hour shifts. So the National Guard was feeding the police department. The police department had rifles and we supplied them with some of the ammunition that we had. I thought there was a good relationship.
WW: I just forgot to ask that question earlier. What was the reason you left the city in ’95?
RK: Retired, 35 years.
WW: Just wanted to get a different place?
BK: Just wanted to move up north.
RK: We moved to Canadian Lakes. As a matter of fact, we just moved back here.
WW: Oh nice!
BK: We spent our last year he was on the force at the Towers downtown. Riverfront Apartments.
WW: Very nice!
BK: We sold our house really quick. We thought we would take a year and we’d be ready to retire by the time we sold it. It sold in a week so we went down there and we really had a different experience living down there. The last year took a toll on Ron. His health went down and so we thought, we’re going to get away from this. It was a good 20 years that we had up there.
RK: I had good assignments with the department. I worked a lot in training. As a matter of fact eventually I became commanding officer of training sessions. I worked as a lieutenant at vice with Bill Hart, he was the inspector of vice at the time. I was a lieutenant in a tactical planning unit. I had good assignments.
WW: Thank you for sitting down with us today. Greatly appreciated.
RK: I hope I was helpful.
WW: You certainly were.