David French, August 20th, 2016
TV: Alright, we’re rolling. Hello, my name is Tobi Voigt, I work for the Detroit Historical Society. Today is Saturday, August 20, 2016 and I am with David French.
TV: At the Detroit Historical Museum. So, welcome! Let’s start with just some general questions. Tell me a little bit about where and when you were born.
DF: I was born in Detroit in January 19, 1946. I was to Isaac Newton Elementary and Cooley High School, and then I went to Lawrence Tech. I started working for Ford Motor Company in January of ’66, and retired from Ford Motor Company at the end of December of ’98.
TV: Tell me a little bit about the neighborhood you grew up in.
DF: It was Northwest Detroit, just middle-class, working people.
TV: Do you know what street, what intersection?
DF: Near Greenfield and Outer Drive.
TV: Okay. What was it like growing up there?
DF: It was great. There were three parks within two blocks. There wasn’t any crime, so to speak, you never heard of any crime. It was just a good time as a kid, you know? I had a paper route with 200 customers.
TV: Holy cow!
DF: Yeah, it was a lot [laughter].
TV: [Laughter.] What did you parents do for a living?
DF: My dad worked for Sinclair, which was bought out by BP. My mother, she worked at National Bank of Detroit.
TV: That’s good. Do you have any brothers or sisters?
DF: I have a twin brother, and I have a younger sister who’s—she’s a year and a half younger than myself. Her birthday’s Tuesday, as a matter of fact.
DF: Both my parents are deceased. My brother and sister live in Naples, Florida.
TV: Nice neighborhood there [laughter].
DF: Yeah [laughter]. Nice to visit.
TV: Well good. Well let’s talk a little bit about your experiences in Detroit in the 1960s: where were you at, what was going on in your life?
DF: I went to Cooley High School from January of 1960, and graduated in January of ’64. I worked part-time at an Ira Smith [??] Pharmacy Drugs, which was on Six Mile between Greenfield and Southfield. Last two years, I worked for Cars Auto Parts, which was on Schaffer near Outer Drive. Then after high school, I started at Lawrence Tech. Basically that was it. I pretty much worked and went to school.
TV: Worked and went to school, that’s great. So you’d mentioned something about the National Guard before we started recording. Were you in the National Guard?
DF: Yes. I got talked into it while I was going to Lawrence Tech, it was the worst mistake of my life, truly. These guys that I went to school with, they said, ‘Oh, you ought to join the National Guard. You get your service obligation out of the way.’ National Guard–I didn’t even know what they are. I mean I think I’d heard of it, but I didn’t know. I said, ‘Well, what do you do?’ ‘Basically just go over one weekend a month and play cards all weekend.’ He says, ‘we don’t really do anything, we go to summer camp in Grayling for two weeks.’ He says, ‘It’s great. You get paid.’ So, I said, ‘Well, what do I do?’ They said, ‘Go over to the artillery armory and put in an app.’ So I did, and they gave a test once a month, and I was one of the ten highest that took the test, so they called me and they said, ‘Get a physical.’ Swore me in. No sir, when that happened, it seemed like, less than a year and Vietnam really escalated. The unit I was in ended up being attached to the Indiana National Guard, which was an entire–what they called–“selected reserve force,” the first one to be called up. So instead of one weekend a month, we went two weekends a month.
Then, when the riots broke out, we had already been to summer camp. Our battalion, which I was in artillery battalion, 182nd Artillery Battalion, in an armored cab unit out of the East Eight Mile Armory, we were the only ones in Detroit. The rest of the National Guard–Michigan National Guard–was all up in Grayling doing their two weeks, we had already done ours. At any rate, the interesting, the ironic part of this whole thing is the weekend before the riots broke out, we had riot control training.
DF: The Detroit Police Department, the tactical mobility unit of the Detroit Police Department. But it was crowd control riot training, unlike when the riots broke out which was everywhere. After this weekend in going through this riot training, we had a Q&A, and the commander of that tactical mobility unit, one of the guys in my unit asked him, ‘Well, what are the chances of that having a riot in Detroit anyway?’ He says, ‘Oh, the police-community relationship’s at an all time high. I can’t really give you anything, just off the top of my head, it’s probably 10 million to one.’ The very next weekend we’re down for the riots.
TV: Oh. Wow.
DF: Yeah. Saturday during the day, this girl I was going with at the time, her older sister was in town with her two twin daughters, so we all went to the Tiger’s game, beautiful day. Then the next morning, I went over and we took ’em to the Detroit Zoo. Just before I was ready to leave, about a half hour or so before I was ready to leave, I got a call from my platoon sergeant. He said, ‘Where are you going to be?’ They were always having these alerts that call up automatic, and sometimes you had to go over there.
DF: And most of the time it was just, ‘Hey, where are you going to be in case we need to get ahold of you?’ So I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be here.’ Because I was so used to it. I’m ready to walk out the door and the phone rings again, and it’s my section chief. He says, ‘Hey Dave, where are you going to be?’ I says, ‘Wokie just called me, what’s going on?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, I understand there’s some trouble downtown.’ I said, ‘What kind of trouble?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, just probably some kid threw a rock through a gas station window, how am I supposed to know?’
DF: I said, ‘I’m going to be here.’ So, I took off, and I noticed–didn’t pay attention on the way–but coming back, and after everything happened, I noticed there really wasn’t any traffic, and there was nothing on the radio about any trouble, disturbance, whatsoever downtown. They kept it hush-hush, off the TV and everything. So, get back, I think it was about one o’clock we get back to my girlfriend’s place, and they say, ‘Hey, they been calling here, they want you there right away.’ I say, ‘Ah Jesus, it’s probably one of their drills again.’ So I says, ‘Well, I’ll either see you tonight or see you tomorrow.’ I ran home, grabbed the uniform, no shaving gear, no toothbrush, nothing else, just one uniform and went over there. The Detroit Artillery Armory, which is really in Oak Park and it isn’t there anymore, it used to be a factory I guess back in the ’40s or ’50s. Anyway, I went down Greenfield to Eight Mile, which you’re probably familiar with.
DF: Turned Eight Mile heading east and the armory is between Greenfield and Coolidge. You had to go to the far side of the armory to turn in across Eight Mile. As soon as I crossed in, I noticed this huge state police van, like an 18-wheeler, all blue with the big state police emblem and these about seven or eight antennas coming up. The tractor wasn’t connected, but it was sitting there on the side, and I thought to myself, ‘What the heck is that doing here?’ Then I pulled behind the armory, then I saw it. There must have been 350 state police cars and another hundred Detroit police cars sitting there.
DF: And they were all forming up. So, I just parked my car anywhere, run inside, and these guys in my unit are putting 30 caliber machine guns on the jeeps. I’m going, ‘What the heck is going on?’ He says, ‘They’re rioting downtown. Come on, we got to go!’ I just changed into my uniform, we went out, we had a police escort, and probably got ahold of not even half the battalion initially. So we had a police escort, and we took Eight Mile down to Livernois, and then we turned on Livernois, and between Eight and Seven Mile was called the Fashion District, okay?
DF: Nice shops and everything. And I noticed that some of the windows were broken out and looted. By the time we got down to Six Mile, it looked like the burning of Rome to me–nothing but smoke and from U of D down Livernois to Davison to Linwood and Linwood into Central High School.
DF: And it just got worse and worse, smokier and smokier. Crowds everywhere, and it was hot. Anyway, we pulled into the high school, and we are taking our stuff–we had a sleeping bag–into the high school gym, and all the Detroit high schools were the old three story, and you seen ’em, the windows opened up, big windows. We’re going up, and all the sudden, chips of brick come in, and somebody was shooting at us from across the street. So we’re ducking down and all the cops up front are ducking down. We get our stuff, and then we get an assignment, and just before I’m ready to leave the armory, cab units come in with armored personnel carriers, a couple tanks and stuff.
DF: Just ripped up the whole football field. Me and another guy in my unit, we were assigned to guard at 12th and–let’s see, the riots–12th and Tuxedo, the riots were at 12th and Euclid, Tuxedo’s like two blocks from Euclid. There’s a World Medical Relief Center building there, and I think it’s still there. It’s like an eight story warehouse where they send drugs and medical supplies all over the world.
DF: It’s all charitable stuff.
DF: So we were there to guard it because of the narcotics and everything in there.
DF: I went out Sunday afternoon, and the first time I came back in for any sleep at all was Wednesday morning. It was so hot. The savior to us, we had these sea rations, World War II stuff, was the Salvation Army. I didn’t see the American Red Cross the whole time, the Salvation Army they were there, they fed us sandwiches and coffee and water and everything. They were great.
My experience there was nobody tried breaking in, but we grabbed looters. They were looting all the stores and dragging safes out in the middle of the street and stuff. We’d grab ’em. It got so bad all the jails were filled, we’d call to have police pick ’em up, and we’d end up having to let ’em go after several hours because they couldn’t get anyone to pick ’em up. We even got this one kid, he was probably 11 or 12 years old, he had a shopping list, a grocery list, that I’m sure his mother filled out for him with the items, like everything for spaghetti dinner–the spaghetti, and the sauces, and the mushrooms. This is amazing. We got this one guy, it was probably 2:30 in the morning, and he was down with a hooker and he didn’t even know what was going on.
DF: He was trying to get home, apparently took a taxi there–of course there weren’t any taxis or anything running. They had the curfew on, and nobody could go anywhere, so we grabbed him and, ‘What’re you doing here?’ He says, ‘[Mimics yelling.]’ Lived in Warren, so.
DF: Yeah. We ended up letting him go [laughter].
DF: I don’t know how he got home if he did.
TV: That’s interesting. Yeah.
DF: Then, like I said, other than on and off in the jeep periodically, the first sleep we got was Wednesday. And then after a few hours, my Sargent says, ‘Hey, let’s go, go home and take a shower.’ We took a jeep, and I dropped him off, then he took the jeep and I took a shower. All the kids in the neighborhood wanted to take the 30 cal’ off the jeep because the kids in the neighborhood [laughter].
DF: –a machine gun on it. Then, from that point on it was primarily your assigned whatever. I rode shotgun in ambulances, and they were shooting at ambulances. It got so bad we had to shoot out all the streetlights. Because when you drove under a light, somebody would take a shot at you.
DF: I didn’t, but other guys in my unit had to ride shotgun on fire trucks and the fireman are trying to put out the fire and they’re shooting at them. It was crazy, absolutely crazy.
My sergeant was killed. He was the only guardsmen, and he worked at Ford, he was an engineer. His name was Larry Post. My girlfriend’s brother that I went to the zoo with and everything, he as a Detroit cop, and his partner was the only one killed.
DF: Olshevie I think was his name. Greg Olshevie or something. I know his last name was Olshevie, I can’t recall his last name. It’s sort of ironic that I knew both of them.
DF: I just couldn’t believe it, you know? I had never seen anything like that before: I mean there were fires everywhere, and crowds.
DF: And the looting that was going on. And the only ammunition we had was black tip which was armor piercing–it’d take bricks off buildings. All the cops, they had car beams, so they wanted, ‘Hey, can you get me some ammo?’ There was no restriction whatsoever. The generator building is where we had the ammunition supplies, so when you went out, you’d stop by and – ‘How many clips you want?’ ‘Give me four,’ you know, whatever.
DF: Yeah, yeah. In ’68, I was down there again when Martin Luther King got killed, and it was totally different. We all had polaroid cameras to take pictures, and all the ammunition was assigned out by rounds.
DF: But nothing really happened, just normal police work.
TV: And that was here, in ’68?
DF: Yeah. Because they were concerned that the riots might start again. But it was just all stuff like B&Es and stuff, we went out with the cops.
TV: Do you think what happened in ’67 influenced–they made those changes kind of in how things were done because of that?
DF: They definitely did. Because it was like here say that–especially with ones that we had to let go, if we had a camera we’d take a picture of ’em and then they could identify them.
It was so bad, they had the busses filled. I had duty on a bus, prisoner bus, that was sitting out in the sun, I mean it was horrible. I had to relieve a police officer, and we had M1 rifles, these big M1 rifles, and I went to get on the bus, and he says, ‘Is that what you got?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m issued.’ He says, ‘Well here, take this.’ He handed me this Thompson Son machine [??] gun. He says, ‘If any of them give you any trouble, you just let a few rounds go toward the back of the bus,’ I couldn’t believe it.
TV: The cops said that?
TV: Oh my gosh.
DF: Oh yeah, the cops, I mean, it was like a war down there with a lot of ’em. This one time we saw they got the sniper and they brought him out of the building and they were walking him down the sidewalk, and they put him in the squad car, and they take his head and just smash his forehead in the top of the squad car. This other sergeant came running up and he says, ‘Not here, there’s too many people.’ But this other friend of mine, he was guarding prisoners at the jail, he said a lot of ’em were really beat up when they were brought in.
DF: Yeah, yeah. I really felt sorry for the north and southbound streets. Your Linwood, your Brush–
DF: Beaubien and all those streets. That’s where it seemed like the winos and drug addicts lived for the most part. The East and West streets around there–the Boston Boulevards and Chicago Boulevards and the big houses and stuff–those are the people I really felt sorry for because they were really worried about their places and they used to bring us stuff to drink every once and while and stuff, they didn’t want any of what was going on.
TV: Yeah. It doesn’t sound like anybody did, it sounds like it was pure chaos.
DF: Yeah, it was. Of course it started when they busted that blind pig. I think tensions must have been simmering. But it was so blasted hot, it was like in the 90s every single day, so people tend to get short-tempered there. One something starts, it tends to snowball, I think.
DF: I was 21 years old, I had never seen anything like that, and I thought everything was great in Detroit [laughter].
TV: So in all those endless days and nights you’re standing there guarding, what was going through your head? What were you feeling about?
DF: When you’re were first there at night, you’re scared. You’re hearing all this gunfire all around you, and you got to be crazy not to be. But by the time Tuesday rolled around, you were so tired and exhausted and hot, somebody could have walked up and pointed a gun at my head and I wouldn’t have cared. You’re just sort of oblivious to everything that’s going on.
I felt bad for a lot of the people. They were burning down this one on Davison, and a lot of the area around there had the stores on the bottom and they had apartments up top, and there was crowd and they were burning this one store down there and of course apartments go up, and you hear this guy yell out, ‘Hey, that’s my apartment, that’s my place.’ It was unbelievable. We were down there for two weeks.
Afterward, we got back to the armory, they had some Michigan attorney general’s office people there and said that if you needed any legal counsel or whatever. I got a call almost a year later from the FBI wanting to know if I was at such and such a place and such and such a time.
DF: I says, ‘How am I supposed to know, I can’t remember.’ [Laughter.] Because various things that happened–I’m sure there were lawsuits going on. I heard stories of these supplies places, they [unintelligible] couldn’t carry the big color consuls out while the owners make a deal with the cops or whoever: ‘Hey, I’ll sell you this thing for 25 bucks’ and they’d write it off as a total loss on their insurance.
TV: Yeah. So shady dealings even as the stores are being burned down.
DF: Oh yeah. It’s one of those things you just can’t imagine it happening. You’re like, ‘this is really going on?’ The hookers, they were all put out of business, they were soliciting us [laughter], it was hilarious.
DF: Then you had all the people from the suburbs trying to come in to view what’s going on. Then you had Mayor Hubbard of Dearborn with all his police force lined up along the border over there. A lot of it’s overplayed. I think the rest of the Michigan National Guard got down I think it was Tuesday or maybe Wednesday.
TV: I think that sounds about right.
DF: Right about the same time, they flew in the 121st Airborne. We were federalized right away.
DF: We were under federal control. It was the first three days that were really the worst. Out of the two weeks, that was the worst part.
TV: So they say that most of the everything of the actual burning and looting kind of wound down after day seven, five to seven. And you said you were there for two weeks. So that second week after things had stopped, what were you working on?
DF: It was just more or less guarding various things.
DF: Just making sure it didn’t fire up again.
DF: They had us stationed even though the 121st was still there.
DF: Yeah. I don’t think anybody packed up until after two weeks. I lost my train of thought there.
TV: Oh, no problem. I wanted to ask about real quick, you had mentioned at one point, you had to relieve a cop guarding these prison buses. Where was that?
DF: It was in Detroit somewhere.
TV: Somewhere? Because I’ve heard about the busing, and I’ve heard about Belle Isle, I just wasn’t sure if all the bussing was on Belle Isle or whether it was just all over the city.
DF: No. Yeah. It was down here in midtown somewhere.
DF: Yeah, and I don’t remember exactly where. They were sort of holding patterns so they could book them, but the Wayne County jail was filled. All the jails were filled, so there was really no place to put ’em.
TV: So the folks that were on these busses arrested were folks that were arrested for looting or just various things?
DF: For the most part it was looting. Some may have been curfew violations, I don’t know. I know I didn’t arrest anybody for curfew violations, or seize anybody, just basically looting. I think anybody that was caught shooting, they were treated differently, taken to jail cells. It was crazy.
This friend of mine who I went through grade school with, high school and everything, he was in my unit, he got stuck driving the gas tankard that would refuel us.
DF: Talk about a nasty job. What they did was they made it look like a steak truck; they put steaks and put canvas all inside so you couldn’t discern whether it was a gasoline tankard.
TV: It’s explosive!
DF: Nothing like getting hit with a few bullets in that!
TV: Oh man.
DF: He was telling me he was filling vehicles, I can’t remember where, but he was talking to this cop while he was filling the cop says, ‘Where are you headed now?’ And he says, ‘Well I got to go back to the tenth precinct.’ He says, ‘Oh really? That’s where I’m headed.’ He says, ‘Can you give me a lift?’ He says, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So, just before they’re ready to take off, the cops asks him, he says, ‘What kind of truck is this?’ Oh–I’m sorry–he didn’t know, he had been done refilling and he was just waiting, okay?
DF: And the cop didn’t know that. He asked him, he said, ‘What kind of truck is this?’ He says, ‘Well, it’s a gas tank.’ [Laughter.] The cop says, ‘No thanks.’
TV: I’ll walk.
DF: ‘I’ll find a ride somewhere else’ [laughter].
DF: That was hilarious.
TV: Yeah. But he made it out unscathed I’m guessing [laughter]?
DF: Yeah, yeah, fortunately. It was something. My lieutenant shot himself in the foot, fortunately it was in the webbing.
DF: The officers were down on the first floor, and we were up on the second floor at Central High School. It was I think about the fourth or fifth night, and all the sudden we hear this ‘Bam!’ I mean it just echoes like crazy.
DF: It was a 45 round. One of the guys there with me says, ‘Some dummy just shot himself up there.’ Sure enough, it was the lieutenant. But he was fortunate because it went through the webbing between his big toe and his second toe in.
TV: Oh my gosh.
DF: Because otherwise, if it had hit the bones, it would’ve just shattered all the bones in his foot.
TV: Oh my god.
DF: But he let out a scream [laughter] you know. Afterwards, after we got back to the armory and everybody’s talking, one of the guys says, ‘Does Lieutenant Bercammen [??] get a Purple Heart?’ [Laughter].
DF: Everybody was laughing.
TV: Wow. So, you were on the streets for like the first 72 hours, so did you actually sleep in your sleeping bags at Central High School, or?
DF: We tried.
TV: You tried.
DF: I mean it was hot. You just put ’em up as a place to–
TV: Something soft.
DF: A place to rest and lie down. As far as sleeping, you didn’t get much sleep. And then you never knew when you were going to get rustled up and get called out to someplace–
DF: –to be at. The first Sunday-Monday-Tuesday were the absolute worst. Sunday afternoon, all day Monday and all day Tuesday were the absolute worst. After that, it got better. There was still sporadic gunfire and stuff like that, but the first couple nights, it was like gunfire all the time, and some of it was automatic fire, and I don’t know if it was the police that was using automatic fire or what, or some guys in our unit with 30 caliber machines guns, I don’t know.
TV: Wow. Hhmm.
DF: Or armored cab units, armored personnel carriers, I don’t know. Some of it was often in distance, and some of it was only a couple blocks away. Like I say, some of it was directed at us when we were with ambulances. Buddies of mine I was in with, they were riding fire trucks, you know?
TV: Huh. Any other anecdotes or stories that you can recall that you want to share?
DF: No, I think the restaurateurs–what’s the name?–Carl’s Chophouses Don [??], he had a bunch of guys in my unit were assigned around that area. He brought ’em all in for dinner, and made a great big dinner for ’em and everything one night.
DF: Anything you wanted on the house. A lot of businesses were really grateful for the protection that was offered to ’em. A lot of businesses were just burnt to the ground, peoples’ places to live. It was just horrible. And the rubble, and smoke, and stink, and rats. That was another thing: rats with bodies like this.
TV: Like two feet? Eighteen inches?
TV: Oh my gosh.
DF: And at night, I mean it looked like cats in the moonlight, you know?
DF: You know they’re not cats.
TV: There’s an aspect I had not thought about. Because the places where they hide are burning, they’ve got to come out.
DF: Plus a lot of places we were at weren’t in very good shape to begin with, you know?
DF: I don’t think that dumpsters were a thing back then. I don’t recall ever seeing a dumpster like you have today.
DF: A lot of stuff was piled up behind the buildings and stuff.
TV: Rats had it good back then.
DF: Ah yeah they sure did.
TV: [Laughter.] Before we wrap up, do you have any thoughts, personal thoughts that you want to share about the causes or the impacts or anything that you thought about, and how you pieced your experiences together?
DF: Afterwards, I thought about it. It’s like we were hoodwinked into thinking everything was so great between the police and the community down here and it wasn’t at all, it was just the opposite.
TV: Do you think that they believed that that was true, or they knew that they were lying?
DF: I think that was the story they were told to give the public. I don’t think any government organization’s going to get up and say, ‘Oh no, we’ve got a battle going on.’
TV: That’s true, that’s true. But we hear that a lot, you know, everybody with the Johnson Administration funneling federal funding for poverty issues and stuff during the 60s, with Cavanaugh’s Administration being so close.
DF: Yeah, he was the mayor then.
TV: Yeah. And then them saying, ‘Oh, Detroit’s the model city for race and social issues,’ and–I wasn’t alive then–but it’s interesting that some folks say that certain folks actually believed that Detroit was the model city even though they were in it, but other folks–like you said–might have known but they’re not going to advertise the fact that there’s a problem.
DF: Or maybe it was a model city, but out on the fringe area, whereas the central area where your drug addicts and winos and homeless and everything were pretty much congregated. Because now for years it’s been the West Side and the East Side, the North Side and everything has a lot of crime a lot of crime areas in it and so forth, it’s gotten better of course, but it used to be where none of those areas had any crime so to speak. The only crime that you saw was in the central city area.
TV: Right, the downtown where the winos and the–
DF: Right. So I don’t know much of that aid/help went to that area, if any.
TV: That’s interesting, I didn’t think about that. Huh.
DF: Because I remember they used to have the housing projects along Southfield–I can’t remember the name of them. They had a few of them, and they had them down off Chene and stuff too, they tore ’em all down years and years ago. But they never really had any problems that I heard, so to speak, there’s a problem every once in a while but nothing on an ongoing basis. You can drive through those areas–Rouge Park and all those places–and really not have to worry about anything. This is back in the’60s [laughter].
TV: Yeah, it’s a different place today.
TV: Well good. Well thank you. Anything else, last words or anything?
TV: Well wonderful, thank you.
DF: You’re welcome.
TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 36:05
End of Track 1
David French Interview Part II
Interviewer: Julia Westblade
JW: Good morning. Today is October 4th and I am on the phone with David French, who is telling us a few more stories from his interview. Alright, Mr. French, can you tell me a little bit more of what you said you remember from the week of 1967?
DF: Okay, first of all, I’d like to make a correction to what I said originally, where we had sleeping bags, more I thought about it, we didn’t have sleeping bags, we just had a mat to lay on. And then the other thing was, when we first got down there, about a half an hour after we got to Central High School, the armored cab unit showed up with armed personnel carriers and some tanks and they had taken chalk and they posted in green letters in chalk that spelled out “green power,” which, about a year or so earlier, the Black Power Movement had been formed so they put this on the vehicles and of course they were made to take it off right away.
JW: Did they put it on signs or did they write it straight on the vehicles?
DF: No, they took chalk and they put it right on the vehicles themselves.
JW: Oh wow. But you said they had to take it down then?
JW: How long did the signs last before they were made to take them down?
DF: Shortly after they pulled into Central High School, which means they drove all the way from the armory all the way to Central High School with that on there.
JW: Did any of the people that they passed, did they make a complaint, or was it just their commanding officer who said, ‘you can’t do this’?
DF: I think it was the commanding officer, whoever was in charge, as soon as he saw it he said, ‘No. Get it off.’
JW: Were there any other stories that you remember?
DF: No that’s about it, really.