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The Bombing of Sterling Hall

By Chris Lee
Owner, Leemark Communications

Originally published online in 1999
Last updated: September 12, 2012

photo of the doors to the old part of Sterling Hall
The doors to the old part of Sterling Hall, as seen from Charter Street. (photos by Chris Lee)

Early on August 24th, 1970, a van loaded with six barrels of explosives blew up just outside the East Wing of Sterling Hall at the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. The bombing was carried out by four men in protest of America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

The bombing was directed against the Mathematics Research Center, a U.S.-Army-funded facility, which was located in the East Wing of Sterling Hall along with the physics and astronomy departments. "Army Math," as it was known, was despised by many antiwar activists who felt the center was contributing to the death and destruction in Southeast Asia through its research. They felt it had no place on a public university campus.

Ironically, the department hardest hit by the blast was not the MRC but physics, many of whose faculty were against the war. A 33-year-old physics researcher named Robert Fassnacht was one of those working late when the blast went off. He was killed in the explosion, and four others in Sterling Hall were injured. Years of research work was destroyed. In addition, at least one patient was injured by flying glass in University Hospital, which at the time was located across the street.

photo of the old part of Sterling Hall as seen from Charter Street
Sterling Hall, seen from Charter Street. A van loaded with explosives was driven up what was then Lathrop Drive (shown by arrow) and parked in a loading area by the newer East Wing of Sterling.

At least 26 buildings on the campus alone were damaged in the bombing, which was heard more than 20 miles away. The explosive used was ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO), the same type that would be used in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Less than a week and a half after the act, the FBI had pieced together what happened and put four men on its most wanted list: 23-year-old Karleton Armstrong and his 19-year-old brother Dwight, from Madison, 18-year-old David Fine, from Wilmington, Delaware, and 22-year-old Leo Burt, from Havertown, Pennsylvania. Fine and Burt were both students at Wisconsin. Karl had been an on-again, off-again student in previous years. The Armstrongs and Fine were eventually caught, convicted and served time in prison. Leo Burt has never been found.

photo looking northwest toward the East Wing of Sterling Hall, showing lighter-colored brick used to repair the building after the bombing
Scars from the bombing can still be seen in the newer brick used to repair the side of Sterling Hall. The area in front of the concrete wall (shown by arrow) was once Lathrop Drive. It is now a raised walkway. The loading area was next to this side of the building. The old part of Sterling Hall is at the left of the photo.

The Sterling Hall bombing is still a painful memory for many in Madison. A number of buildings are scarred from the bombing or other antiwar unrest during the '60s.

For many years, there was no physical public memorial to Robert Fassnacht's death, either in Sterling Hall or on the campus. However, in 2001, a number of plaques were installed at UW-Madison to recall the history of the campus. One plaque, located between Bascom Hall and Birge Hall, is titled "Reform and Revolt" and mentions the Sterling Hall bombing and notes that "the explosion killed a Physics researcher."

Then, on May 18, 2007, a plaque was dedicated in memory of the bombing and Fassnacht's death. It is located on the outside wall of Sterling Hall, near where the van exploded, and says:

photo of plaque dedicated in 2007 to the memory of the 1970 Sterling Hall bombing
Remembering: In 2007, a plaque was dedicated at Sterling Hall in memory of the bombing which killed a 33-year-old physics researcher.


This is the site of the Sterling Hall bombing, which occurred at 3:40 AM on August 24, 1970. An outstanding research scientist, Dr. Robert Fassnacht, was killed in the bombing while working during the night in his laboratory on a physics experiment studying a basic mechanism for superconductivity in metals. Three others were injured. Dr. Fassnacht was 33 years old, married, and had three young children.

Fassnacht's twin daughters attended the dedication.

Despite the Sterling Hall bombing's far-reaching effects, a number of people today, especially younger people, don't even know it happened. What's more, many of those involved in the event and its aftermath have died during the succeeding years, leaving fewer sources to tell the story.

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More Information ...

For more information on the Sterling Hall bombing, including the motivations of the four men responsible, check the following sources:

Rads: The 1970 Bombing of the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin and Its Aftermath. -- A 1992 book by journalist and UW grad Tom Bates. Rads is a gripping account of the bombing and that time period at UW Madison. New York: HarperCollins. 446 pages.

The Madison Bombings: The Story of One of the Two Largest Vehicle-Bombings Ever. -- This 1988 book by Michael Morris, a South African, is more difficult to find than Rads. It has been described as a police procedural on solving the bombing. 1st Edition. London: Research House. 418 pages.

The War at Home -- This 1979 documentary film directed by Glenn Silber and Barry Brown deals with Madison antiwar unrest in general during the Vietnam War. It also covers the Sterling Hall bombing. The War at Home is available on videocassette in some libraries and video rental stores and may also be found in some video stores for purchase. Length: 100 minutes (a 1980s update to the film is sometimes included after the original documentary).

Note: A VHS copy of The Bombing of Sterling Hall can be ordered by sending a check or money order for $23.70 to Leemark Communications. E-mail for more information.

Wisconsin residents please add 5.5% sales tax, for a total of $25.00.
Please allow 2-4 weeks for delivery.
Leemark Communications does not sell any of the other above titles.

The Bombing of Sterling Hall -- A 1999 documentary video by Leemark Communications owner Christopher Lee that looks back at the bombing and examines how some of those involved view the event nearly 30 years later. Included are interviews with Karl Armstrong, one of the men convicted of the bombing; Mike Zaleski, who as an assistant state attorney general helped prosecute Armstrong; Herb Hanson, one of the first police officers on the scene; and Michael Molnar, whose nearly completed doctoral research was almost wiped out in the blast and ensuing fire. The Bombing of Sterling Hall was broadcast statewide by Wisconsin Public Television on March 26, 1999. Length: 27 minutes.

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