James Tessen, August 8th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 8th, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I am sitting down with Mr. James Tessen. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
JT: Pleasure being here.
WW: Can you please tell me where and when you were born?
JT: In Detroit, 1943.
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
JT: I was 6 Mile/Gratiot area.
WW: Was that neighborhood all white?
JT: Yes, it was. Yes, it was.
WW: What did your parents do for a living?
JT: Banking. My dad was Standard Federal, and my mother was Manufacturer’s Bank. I grew up in banking.
WW: What was your neighborhood like growing up?
JT: Fun. Memories of just playing a lot with the kids. The things I remember the most were the huge trees. All the neighborhoods were just huge, huge elm trees.
WW: Did you wander around the neighborhood or the city growing up, or did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood?
JT: No, I was fairly mobile at that time. We went just pretty much everywhere on bikes, Chandler Park, even went as far as Belle Isle on bikes. Even to the Woodward Fair Grounds on bikes. That was our mobility, and certainly the busses because the busses at that time would go everywhere and the reliability was incredible.
WW: Did you feel safe traveling the city growing up?
JT: Oh, absolutely. Never gave it a second thought.
WW: What schools did you go to growing up?
JT: Grade school was Welkins, and the high school was Osbourne. I think we were the first graduating class, the first summer graduating class at Osbourne high school.
WW: Were those schools integrated?
WW: Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, did you sense any growing tension in the city?
JT: No. I was probably too young to be aware of anything like that. The key to me was just playing baseball with the guys and my paper route. That was pretty much my life. That was fun.
WW: What did you do after high school?
JT: Went to Michigan State, and after graduating Michigan State, worked at Ford Motor Company in their management training program. Then eventually left there and went into banking.
WW: What drove you to join the National Guard?
JT: It was just kind of an afterthought. I had come down from Michigan State to actually apply to the navy as a fighter pilot, but then because I wore glasses that didn’t work. I was ready to go into the air force. They wanted me. I was getting ready to be sworn in there, but I had put my name in the Air National Guard and all of a sudden they called and said they had an opening. It was like only two weeks before the Air Force commission. I took the Air Guard.
WW: What drove you to join the Air National Guard instead of the Air Force?
JT: Just to be able to continue schooling, if I wanted, working and so on.
WW: What drove you to become a member of the armed forces in the first place?
JT: Well, at that time, you didn’t have much choice. If you didn’t go down there voluntarily, you already had your draft card, and you knew you were going to be called, one way or another. It was non-negotiable.
WW: You joined the Air National Guard, correct?
JT: Air National Guard, correct.
WW: What year was that?
JT: Probably late ’66. I think it was in the fall of ’66.
WW: What work did you do with them?
JT: It was administrative. I was in charge of training. That was my main function because all the guys that were in there had to have different status requirements, continuing education, so I was kind of in charge of all the ongoing training.
WW: What unit did you serve with?
JT: It was called the 127th Combat Support Unit. We were based, at that time, out of Metro Airport.
WW: During this time, did you continue to live in Detroit?
JT: I had gotten married—in fact, we had just gotten married in May of ’67 and we lived in Dearborn.
WW: Dearborn? What’s the reason you chose Dearborn?
JT: Moved in with my wife. She had an apartment there, and once we got married, that’s where we lived.
WW: In the late ‘60s, coming back from Michigan State, did you notice any growing tensions in the city? Did the city feel any different than when you had left?
JT: No, because I was pretty much removed from city involvement. I’m starting my new life, so my participation with Detroit itself was fairly limited. So I really didn’t notice anything.
WW: Going into the summer of ’67, did you anticipate any violence that summer, given the mood around the country?
JT: No. that’s a very good question, but it just didn’t register. We’re just caught up in our young lives, and anything you would read or hear was somewhere else. Nothing we thought for here. Just wasn’t in the cards.
WW: How involved were you with the National Guard? Was it your full-time occupation?
JT: No, you put in six months initially, then for the next six years, you would put in two weeks plus a weekend every month. I enjoyed being there and I took the role seriously and did my progressions. I really enjoyed the camaraderie at the time.
WW: Going into ’67, you’re still living in Dearborn, correct?
WW: How did you first hear what was going on in the city?
JT: Very good question. The first I heard about it, I was picking up my brother from Metro Airport. Ironically, he was in the Air Force, and he was coming up on leave. I heard my name on the speaker system at Metro Airport and my first thought was, this isn’t good. What’s going on? Come to find out the officers were calling everyone, tracking them down saying, “Report for duty.” That was the first I heard about anything. Huh? You know.
WW: Did they call your house first to find where you were at?
JT: They must have called my house, yes, that’s the only way they would’ve known I was at the airport. The either called my house or got ahold of my wife, because it was in the afternoon. I can’t remember, maybe she called the airport. That was probably it, maybe she called the airport.
WW: When you arrived, when you were reporting for duty, what was the mood of the officers?
JT: The mood was absolute confusion. This is in no means disrespectful to the unit, but no one knew what was going on. We were just like, huh? What’s happening here? Can I go into a little—?
WW: Yeah, go right ahead.
JT: What was interesting—you have to remember at the time, no one really had a handle on this and it was viewed as an insurrection. I’ll come back to that word later. We had no training, being in the Air Guard, for crowd control. Our first assembly when we had to report in was at Metro. They put us on busses, took us to the far side of the airport, and for hours, we were practicing crowd control. Flying wedges, Echelon Riot, how to move a crowd because I don’t think the officers, anybody really knew what was going on. That was the main concern at that time was crowd control. So we practiced for hours, pretending to move a crowd back, left, right, and so on. That was the very first that we knew what was going on. Then we were given our carbines and a limited number of bullets, and then we were obviously on active duty. We got on busses and were transferred to the headquarters, on Beaubien at the time. Everyone stayed on the lawns there until there was some action, something going on, and they would point to Huey, Dewey, Louie, get on the bus, we’re going to go out and see what’s going on. Oh, okay. It was just confusion, confusion, confusion.
WW: The people in your unit were actually given bullets when you went downtown?
JT: Yes, oh, yes. We didn’t load the rifles, but we had—
WW: You kept them unloaded?
JT: Yeah. I don’t recall—we had them in the clips, but you had them separately.
WW: Aside from not being trained for crowd control, was the training that you had received any help during the rest of your duties in Detroit?
JT: No, because we never did anything with crowd control. Never. At least my unit.
WW: What other duties did you perform, aside from crowd control, during the riot?
JT: Oh, quite a few. Can I elaborate?
WW: Go right ahead.
JT: First, as I said, you’d go on calls, getting on a bus to various hot spots, and that lasted, we were on duty for two or three weeks. That lasted a while. Later on, there were so many people arrested, they couldn’t find a home for them, so the bath house at Belle Isle was turned into a prison. I don’t know if you knew that. That was a fascinating experience just to watch what was going on. There were police boats patrolling the island, twenty-four hours, constantly. Our job was to sit on top where the roof looked into one of the yards, and then prisoners would come out for breaks and so on. They just needed people on the roof just in case there was a break-out or whatever. There were never any problems, but that’s what we were doing there. I do recall—and this is going to sound strange—driving around the island and I kept thinking of World War II movies because there were gun placements on the beaches. I remember thinking, oh my gosh, this is like John Wayne movie! My head was spinning at that young age, seeing this machine gun tower on the beach at Belle Isle. It still resonates with me.
WW: Wow. Were you stationed at Belle Isle for the majority of that week?
JT: Maybe four or five days, then we’d move around, different things. One thing I’d like to mention, early on, the 127th Combat Support was a reconnaissance unit. And the airplane was an RF-84, which means it was made by Republic—it was originally a fighter—but ours were converted to reconnaissance, so there’s a camera in the front of the airplane, in the bottom and in the nose. The planes would fly low across the city taking pictures. That sounds fine until you look at a picture of an RF-84F, because when you see a picture of it, you’ll see the wing tanks. They were huge gasoline wing tanks right underneath. The rumor started that they were napalm and that our unit was bombing, napalming the city with all the fires going on. You talk about a bad situation getting worse, oh my god. It wasn’t napalm, it was the fuel tanks! Low-level flying over the city taking pictures, so they finally figured out and they let the pilots leave the wing pods at the base because we were only flying from Metropolitan Airport to Detroit. They could do it on internal fuel. But initially they had the wing pods. Oh, my God, you talk about fear going throughout the city. We quickly changed that. Looking back, like oh, my gosh. Towards the end, you know where the I-75 bridge is near the Marathon Oil Refinery? Well on the other side of 75, there’s a park. I don’t know the name of the park, but there’s a park there. And in the park, I think it’s still there, I’m not sure, was a transmitting tower. At the time, this was pre-cellphone, and that transmitting tower, its function, it was the only link between the Detroit police and all the downriver police. That was the only communication. I go back to the word insurrection—no one really knew what was happening, so that had to be protected. So the Army Guard was there. They had a machine gun at the base of the tower, and then my guys from the Air Guard, we patrolled the perimeter. We were there for about a week, making sure no one tried to go in and destroy that tower.
WW: Was there any attempt?
JT: No. Oh, no. It was really kind of nice because the residents and would come over around five o’clock and bring food. That was great! I’m laughing because we really enjoyed the company of the people. There was a line they couldn’t cross, it was fine. We were well-fed, and then come curfew time, they’d have to go back home and we’d say, “See you tomorrow.” I’m not saying that we blew it off. We were trying to keep it light, but everyone was really friendly. They knew we had a job to do and that was it. There were no incidents whatsoever.
WW: In other areas of the city, did you find residents equally as welcoming?
JT: That was the only time we actually had—from my particular pocket—interaction with it.
WW: Aside from you and other fellow Detroiters, what was the mood of other National Guardsmen who weren’t from the city, coming in?
JT: What do you mean, like the mood?
WW: So, like, when you came to the city, you knew the city. For National Guardsmen who had never been to Detroit, do you know if there was a sense of fear with them?
JT: No. Everyone knew we had a job to do because as it progressed, then the—it was either the 82nd or the 101st came in. Then we remember seeing them commended. That was, I think, towards the last week, or maybe week and a half. Then they were deactivated before we were. We were the first in and the first out. Doesn’t make any difference one way or the other, but that was our only other interaction with full military was when they came in. It was primarily crowd control and so on.
WW: When the federal troops came in, was there a sense of relief that they were coming in or worry that it was that bad that they had to come in?
JT: Neither. Well, probably because they had a little more aggressive training. I don’t know if it was relief, but, oh, okay, fine. They didn’t look down on us, and we really had very little, limited communication. Okay, fine, come on in, guys.
WW: Are there any other stories from that week you’d like to share?
JT: No, that’s pretty much it. The bath house prison certainly left an impression. Wow. Just being there.
WW: You stayed with the National Guard, I’m guessing, for another four years after this?
JT: You had the six-year commitment.
WW: Did the riot have any effect on the training the National Guard received? Was crowd control added?
JT: No, not to my knowledge. We just continued with summer camps and training and having the pilots fly their missions and so on. To tie back, I would say no, there was no direct follow-through. Maybe, it could have transformed for new guys coming in in basic training, which I was already past that, but for us, continuing going up to the two weeks’ summer camps at Phelps Collins, in Alpena, I don’t recall any throwback.
WW: Being a Detroiter, what was the feeling coming to the city and seeing the city on fire for you?
JT: Quite sobering. You were trying to take it all in because really not being aware of problems, I mean, life went on. To see that and the smoke and seeing things on the news and hearing things, you wonder, it was just shock. Whoa, what’s happening? You just kept repeating that question to yourself: What’s going on? What’s going on?
WW: Did the events of ’67 change the way you look at the city? At least, at the time?
JT: Yeah. Yeah.
WW: Did the city become less inviting and welcoming, do you think, after that?
JT: Not to me, because I grew up in Detroit. I was always very proud of Detroit. Even now, all those years coming downtown, you just find joy by looking at different buildings. You drive by feel, you just kind of know where things are, even in different parts of the city. So for me, there was never any concern, fear, or trepidation of coming to the city because I didn’t grow up with that. Things were a little tense, but it was still Detroit. You participated as normal as you could.
WW: You and your wife never had any ideas of leaving the metro area?
JT: No. From Dearborn, then we went to Dearborn Heights, and then Riverview, and now Northville. We’re still kind of on the fringe and always will be.
WW: How do you see the city today?
JT: Better. I think there’s still tension. I think there’s more of an openness to talk and an understanding. You’ve gotta remember, for my age group, growing up late ‘40s, early ‘50s, you were kind of isolated from all this. Nothing registered. This is the way you grew up. There’s no right or wrong. That’s just the way you grew up. I don’t know if I’m answering your question, but okay.
WW: Are you optimistic for the state of the city going forward?
JT: Yes, yes, I am. Yes, I am. The recent—I forgot the names of it—going back to Detroit for the Osbourne clean-up, the Denby clean-ups, this is real. This is not phony. I’m in the Northville Kiwanis and we participated. It is not to get for publicity. This is truly felt that people want to be there. I think the people that go there are well-received. This is huge. This is huge. I think this is definitely making a difference. Yeah, this is good.
WW: Thank you so much. One final question I forgot to add: How do you interpret the events of ’67? You said the National Guard viewed them as an insurrection.
JT: Well, the government officials and so on, that was my interpretation of how they viewed what was happening. This thing was just escalating exponentially and out of control.
WW: Do you see it as a riot or a rebellion? How do you interpret the events?
JT: Just what it was called, a riot. Things just reached a point and it exploded. It was just a combination of events and the spark was there and just boom, that was it.
WW: All right. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I greatly appreciate it.
JT: Thank you. I enjoyed it.