COVID-19 Updates: The Wisconsin Historical Society hours have changed. See a full list of COVID-19 Closures and Events HERE.

Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Sterling Hall Bombing Engine Fragment

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Sterling Hall Bombing Engine Fragment | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeSterling Hall bombing engine fragment

Sterling Hall bombing engine fragment, 1970

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1994.8

EnlargeAuthorities review debris

Authorities review debris, 1970

Authorities review debris of the van at the scene of the bombing. Some of the damage to Sterling Hall can be seen in the background of the photograph. The engine section now in the Museum is indicated by the red circle. View the original source document: WHI 33886

EnlargeKarl Armstrong

Karl Armstrong, 1973

Silkscreened image of Karl Armstrong from a T-shirt produced by a pro-Armstrong group near the time of his Madison hearing in 1973. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1986.446.3

Engine fragment from the van used in the Sterling Hall bombing, 1970.
(Museum object #1994.8)

This twisted piece of metal is the largest known fragment of the van that carried the bomb that rocked the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on August 24, 1970. In the early hours of that day, four young men parked a stolen Ford Econoline van next to Sterling Hall. They had filled the van with close to 2,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and topped it off with fuel oil. At 3:42AM, shortly after they lit the fuse, the homemade bomb exploded, destroying a large portion of Sterling Hall, injuring four men inside, and killing Robert Fassnacht, a post-graduate student and promising young physicist. By the next day police had found a few remnants of the van including this piece of the engine block.

Karl Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, David Fine, and Leo Burt, the four bombers, were members of the New Year's Gang, an anti-Vietnam War group that opposed the war through violence to property. The Gang targeted Sterling Hall because it housed the Army Mathematics Research Center, which helped create new weapons to be used in the Vietnam War. The group thought if they bombed the building on a Monday morning while school was not in session and if they notified the police prior to the impending explosion that no injuries would result. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned.

After hearing of Fassnacht's death, the four fled Madison, first to New York City where Fine and Burt parted company with the Armstrong brothers, and then to Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police caught up with Karl, essentially the group's leader, in Toronto on February 16, 1972. After an extradition hearing in Canada the following year he was sent back to Madison, where the courts sentenced him to 23 years in jail. He was released in 1980. David Fine and Dwight Armstrong were both caught in 1976 and sentenced to seven years in jail. Leo Burt remains at large.

Historians have called the Sterling Hall bombing a watershed moment in American history. The sobering impact of Robert Fassnacht's death brought a sudden halt to the violence to which anti-war protesters and police had resorted. A calmer mood spread over the country that deterred extreme violence from occurring in the name of peace or revolt. This may explain why the Sterling Hall bombing remained the largest act of domestic sabotage for twenty-five years until the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

[Source: Bates, Tom. Rads: The 1970 Bombing of the Army Mathematics Research Center of the University of Wisconsin and Its Aftermath. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.]

Learn More

Have Questions?

For more information or to purchase an image of one of the objects featured in Curators' Favorites, contact our staff by email below:

Posted on August 18, 2005