Dennis K. Laurion
I have read accounts of the 1967 Detroit riots. They generally cite the roles of the Duluth Police, the Wayne County Sheriff's Police, the Michigan State Police, the Michigan National Guard, the 82nd Airborne, and the 101st Airborne. Most accounts relate that Belle Isle, scene of the 1943 riots, was sealed off.
During the Detroit riots of 1967, I was a member of the Coast Guard Station on Belle Isle. I was a 20-year-old Seaman. Our station had a crew of 15. Each night, the Officer in Charge and 7 crew-members went home. Seven members stayed overnight - boat coxswains, engineers, and non-rated boat seamen. The station was adjacent to the Detroit River. A chain link fence surrounded the other three sides of the station. However, there was no gate. A chain covered the gateway. A sign hung from it: "Keep out by direction of the Commandant." Anybody could step across it or crouch under it.
On the evening of June 23, 1967, our station and the Army Nike Base a few blocks east of us were warned by telephone that a mob would besiege us for our weapons.
We ran a 40-foot patrol boat out of the slip and tied it to the sea wall behind the station. The twin engines were left running.
A large crowd gathered outside the fence. The Officer Of The Day, a First Class Petty Officer (equal to an Army Staff Sergeant), opened the armory and distributed weapons to us. In addition to bedding and basketballs, the armory had three M-1 rifles, three .45 caliber pistols, one .22 caliber pistol that looked like a .45, a double-barrel shotgun that somebody had left there, 24 bayonets (for three rifles), 12 nightsticks, and more Shore Patrol armbands than our full crew could wear. There was a box of plastic helmet liners painted white. A recruiter had stuck on decals that said, "If you have what it takes, take the Coast Guard." As I put on my helmet, I thought the decal might send the wrong message to the crowd. I put a clip into my rifle and affixed a long chrome bayonet. I knew the Army had newer M-16 rifles with fully automatic fire.
The front door of the station faced the driveway. The back door of the station faced the sea wall. There was a small porch with three steps at the front of the station. We assembled on the steps with our plastic "come and get us" helmets and our shore patrol armbands. Three men stood on the lowest step, holding .45 caliber pistols against the side of a leg. Three men stood on the top step, holding M-1 rifles with affixed bayonets. Our First Class Boatswain's Mate stood beside the steps, holding the shotgun and wearing the .22 caliber hand gun. Our front door was propped open. We were told, "If they cross the chain and rush us, everybody fire once, retreat down the hall to the back door, jump on the boat, and move into the river." We were told not to fire until the First Class Boatswain's Mate directed us to do so.
The Boatswain's Mate used a bullhorn to shout to the crowd that they must stay out of the property, and that we had regular station personnel inside in addition to the security force outside. We did not. We seven were the regular station personnel.
After about thirty minutes of standoff, three Detroit Police tanks swept in front from the East, the direction of the Army Nike Site. They were blue steel armored vehicles with three huge rubber tires on each side. There were gun ports. The Police tank crew pushed the Nike site crowd and our crowd to the west.
The Detroit Harbormaster Police patrolled the island by car and boat. Our missing crew-members reported to the Harbormaster Police and were brought by boat to the station as they trickled in. Although we continued to see crowds of people, no one attempted to enter our station. We maintained a 24-hour armed guard. No one got liberty to go home for about 7-10 days.
Within days of the riot's declared end, I was transferred to a school at Great Lakes Naval Training Center.