by Terry Messman
On September 1, 1987, S. Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran born on the Fourth of July, sat down on the railroad tracks at the Concord Naval Weapons Station in a valiant effort to block trains carrying deadly shipments of bombs, anti-personnel weapons and other devastating weapons of mass death and destruction.
The military veteran nonviolently blocked the tracks to protest the “war crimes” and “crimes against peace” committed by the United States in Central America — crimes against peace as defined by the Nuremberg war-crime trials of Nazi leaders after World War II.
In a stunning turn of events that still shocks the conscience, this nonviolent protester of war crimes became a victim of a crime himself when a munitions train roared down the tracks, and instead of slowing down at the sight of nonviolent protesters, gathered speed and ran over Willson, severing his legs, fracturing his skull and spilling his blood all over the tracks.
Twenty-five years later, on September 1, 2012, the victim of that nearly lethal assault returned to the train tracks where his blood once flowed — and began dancing. He was compelled to dance on two artificial limbs after both his legs were severed — but still, he was dancing.
As Willson began dancing on the thin, prosthetic legs that jut out of his cut-offs, I held my breath because he looked so fragile due to his disability. He seemed to be balanced precariously on the two skinny metal rods that have replaced his legs, but it soon became evident that he is very sure-footed, having had 25 years to become expert in their use.
Willson danced in resistance to the weapons of mass murder shipped from the Concord port to be rained down as a deadly fire on peasants in Central America. He danced in defiance of the train that maimed him and changed his life forever. And he danced in the hot sun in a swirling, joyous celebration of life.
It was an amazing testament to the strength of the human spirit.
It seemed clear that Willson was not only dancing in celebration of his own survival and recovery, but in celebration of life itself — and especially, for the lives of innocent people in impoverished countries who are most threatened by the weapons he once risked his life to stop.
After a few moments, virtually every peace activist who has come to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Nuremberg Actions began dancing with Willson. They danced while songwriter Mark Levy sang a powerful anti-war anthem he wrote to honor Willson’s brave stand for peace.
Levy’s song illuminates the reason why Willson made his supreme sacrifice on those railroad tracks.
“Down in Nicaragua and El Salvador
bombs rain down once more
to kill and maim,
but this time I say no,
this time I just have to go
to try to stop the train
that carries murder in my name.”
Those gathered at the tracks this year on September 1 join Levy in singing the chorus of this anthem of resistance:
“You can’t move that train,
you can’t move that train
without moving my body.”
Yet, 25 years ago, the train did move Willson’s body. Moved it, maimed it, and crushed it. And that horrific assault seemingly also crushed the hopes of the handful of peace activists and anti-war military veterans who had gathered on the tracks to begin a fast against the U.S.-sponsored wars in Central America.
Instead of crushing the movement, the train that nearly ended Willson’s life sparked a massive anti-war demonstration of 10,000 activists who gathered at the tracks only four days after the tragic collision. It also gave rise to years of round-the-clock train blockades by members of Nuremberg Actions who carried on Willson’s vigil as a sacred calling.
Born on the Fourth of July
As a young man, Brian Willson had entered the U.S. Air Force as a second lieutenant, and befitting a patriotic young man born on the Fourth of July, he proudly went to Vietnam to serve his country. But, after witnessing the massive death toll unleashed on the people of Vietnam by the U.S. military, Willson became a convert to the peace movement.
With increasing conviction, he joined other veterans-turned-peacemakers in resisting his own nation’s nuclear weapons and opposing President Ronald Reagan’s scorched-earth policies of mass murder in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Invoking the Nuremberg principles that call on citizens to disobey their nation when it commits war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace, Willson sat on the Concord train tracks on September 1, 1987.
A munitions train appeared to deliberately pick up speed and momentum as it bore down on the defenseless protester who was clearly visible to the observers sitting on the front of the train.
In the next moment, a sickening collision ended in blood on the tracks. Horrified screams burst out from several people who saw Brian Willson’s body being crushed by the train. One leg was torn completely off at the knee, and the other was crushed and would soon have to be amputated. His whole body was mangled and tossed under the train like a lifeless doll. Those who rushed to comfort him saw that a piece of Brian’s skull had been torn off so that his head was bleeding and part of his brain was visible.
Labeled a ‘domestic terrorist’
Now, it is 25 years after that moment of terror on the tracks, and so many things have changed. The Concord Naval Weapons Station has been renamed the Military Ocean Terminal Concord, a name-change that has done nothing to dispel its mission to ship the weapons of mass death to other countries.
In those 25 years, Willson has endured a prolonged and painful period of recovery. Somehow, he found the strength and courage to outlive his near-crucifixion on the Concord train tracks. He has been honored as a hero in his own country and celebrated by tens of thousands of people in Latin America. He has just authored a moving new book, entitled Blood on the Tracks, a beautifully written account of his journey from the jungles of Vietnam to the tracks at Concord and onward to the peace activism and ecological living he practices today.
He now walks with grace and strength on prosthetic limbs — thin metal rods that look, for all the world, like the legs of some metallic skeleton.
In the intervening years, Willson also learned some disquieting facts about the background of his nearly fatal “accident.” He found out that, a year before the collision in Concord, his nonviolent peace activism had resulted in his being labeled by the FBI as a domestic terrorist suspect under then-President Reagan’s anti-terrorism task force. And he discovered that the train crew at Concord that day had been advised not to stop the train that dismembered his body and fractured his skull.
Celebrating Nuremberg Actions
On September 1, 2012, Willson joined other members of Nuremberg Actions in returning for the 25th anniversary of the moment when his blood flowed on the tracks. The peace group was formed to uphold the Nuremberg principles established by the United Nations after World War II.
Beginning on October 18, 1945, the U.S. government and Allied forces put Nazi leaders on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg, Germany, the symbolic birthplace of the Nazi Party. Nazi Germany’s political, military and economic leaders were tried, and many were executed, for war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace.
The Nuremberg principles confirmed the primary importance of the individual conscience even in times of war by establishing the principle that no one — whether the highest military officer or the lowliest private or civilian — could justify war crimes by saying they were only following superior orders.
Flash forward 32 years from the Nuremberg war crime trials of 1945, and American peace activists in 1987 were charging the U.S. government with committing war crimes of its own, including the shipment of devastating anti-personnel weapons, 500-pound bombs, white phosphorus and other highly destructive weapons, and the storage of nuclear weapons in clearly visible underground bunkers at the Concord Naval Weapons Station.
Since these weapons indiscriminately massacred civilian noncombatants, experts in international law and the Nuremberg principles warned that their use constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity.
These weapons were shipped into the Concord Naval Weapons Station by train and truck and then shipped out to prop up dictatorial Central American regimes that used U.S. weapons and U.S. military advisers to bomb, incinerate and massacre civilian populations in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras — killing women, children and peasant farmers indiscriminately.
A bittersweet remembrance
The bittersweet 25th anniversary of Nuremberg Actions was held on a beautiful, sunny day near the tracks that had transported the weapons of genocide to Central America. Introducing the event was David Hartsough, a friend of Willson who was sitting right at Brian’s side when the train roared down on the nonviolent vigilers. At the time, in 1987, Hartsough was the director of the Nonviolent Movement Building Program of the American Friends Service Committee.
In the aftermath of that moment of tragedy and heartbreak, Hartsough went on to dedicate the next months and years of his life to nonviolent peace vigils and blockades with Nuremberg Actions.
It now seems almost impossible to believe, but Nuremberg Actions maintained a round-the-clock vigil on the tracks every day of the year after Willson’s sacrifice, and blocked every munitions train and truck that came into Concord for the next two-plus years.
As we gathered to commemorate Brian Willson’s sacrifice, and to honor the dedication of all the activists who were arrested for stopping trains and trucks going into the Concord port, the inspiration of those days is a shining legacy in the minds of everyone in attendance.
The deeply felt emotions of those days of inspiration, arrests, and round-the-clock peace blockades are clearly evident in Hartsough’s voice as he describes the formation of Nuremberg Actions.
Hartsough told the gathering, “Twenty-five years ago today we came together as a part of Nuremberg Actions to stop the death trains and the death trucks that were coming along these tracks and these roads. We estimate that millions, millions of human beings were killed as a result of bombs that came along these tracks and these roads. We felt we had a responsibility to God, but also to international law, the Nuremberg principles, that we could not stand idly by while death was going from our neighborhoods to people’s homes and communities in Central America.”
Veterans fast for peace
The vigil on the tracks had begun with a 40-day fast started by, among others, Brian Willson, Duncan Murphy and David Duncombe. All three men were military veterans who had since dedicated their entire lives to working for peace.
Hartsough said, “They announced to the Navy that they’d be fasting and that they’d be blocking the trains and trucks — and the Navy had the choice of stopping that shipment of death trains and trucks, or arresting us, or running over us. We never imagined they would actually run over us.”
When the train came roaring down on the peaceful protesters at 11:57 a.m. on September 1, 1987, Hartsough was sitting on the tracks next to Willson and he saw, heard and felt the terrible impact of the collision. Photos taken in the moments after Willson was struck down show Hartsough holding his hands over the gaping hole in Willson’s skull, helplessly trying to stop the bleeding and protect the exposed brain of his friend.
Perhaps the most astonishing part of the whole story is what happened in the days, months and years after Willson was run down. The “boomerang effect” is well known in nonviolent movements, when the powers-that-be unleash the forces of repression and brutality on nonviolent, seemingly powerless protesters, only to have their most violent efforts backfire on them and create a broader resistance.
Not only do these government-ordered acts of violent suppression fail to end the movement, they often serve to build up a stronger movement.
Hartsough said, “Instead of stopping Nuremberg Actions by running the train over us, 10,000 people came out the next weekend — including many of you who are here today, I’m sure — and Nuremberg Actions continued blocking every train and truck for 28 months.”
The boomerang effect
Ellen Danchik, the legal coordinator of Nuremberg Actions during this period (and, in full disclosure, my marriage partner), witnessed this boomerang effect.
Danchik said, “Brian’s stand at the tracks was an act of redemptive suffering. His blood was spilled on the tracks as he exposed the truth to the world, that the Concord Naval Weapons Station was sending weapons to El Salvador to kill innocent men, women and children.
“The Navy tried to silence him, but instead, his suffering and the spilling of his blood exposed their dirty little secret to the entire world. The U.S. Navy tried to stop his voice and attempted to silence him forever. Their plan backfired and four days after Brian was nearly killed, 10,000 people came to the Concord Naval Weapons Station, outraged at what had happened.”
Danchik said that Willson had seen at first-hand the terrible suffering caused by his own government in Vietnam, and was determined to never let the massacre of innocent civilians happen again.
“Brian’s blood was poured on the tracks in self-sacrifice to save others,” Danchik said. “The love that he showed on that day was the same love that the martyrs before him had shown — Martin Luther King, the four young girls in Birmingham, Gandhi and the Kennedys.”
In the years that followed, Hartsough was arrested many times at the tracks, and had his arm broken by a police officer who used a pain-hold in arresting him. He and other Nuremberg activists later won a lawsuit and a court order prohibited these torturous pain-holds from being used at Concord against nonviolent protesters.
At the anniversary rally, he said, “All of us together have played an important role in saying no to this export of death and destruction and war all over the world.”
Hartsough then introduced Brian Willson to the anniversary gathering, and we listened spellbound as the Vietnam veteran described his feelings about that fateful day on September 1, 1987.
A sacred spot
“It’s a thrill to be here, because you are all here,” Willson told the rally. “It’s like a celebration of a sacred spot and a sacred moment and a sacred campaign. I’m very grateful for the five people who huddled over my body after the Navy ambulance came and left and wouldn’t help, delaying my going to the hospital for 17 minutes.
“It was those five people who kept my blood and my spirit alive with my brain wide open from the fractured skull and all my legs gone. It’s pretty amazing that I’m alive and I’m thankful for those people that were with me. I was thankful for waking up in the hospital. I woke up on Saturday, September 5, and was told there were 9,000 or 10,000 people at the tracks.”
The fires of dissent still burn visibly in Willson. He described the need for all citizens to resist the military leaders who plague the world with warfare, and begin non-cooperating with the corporate polluters who wage war on the earth.
Willson said, “I wake up every day knowing I live in a country that is bombing multiple peoples and multiple countries. That’s incredible for me. I witnessed the bombing in Vietnam. That’s what changed me so deeply — seeing the aftermath of the villages we bombed. I still hear the moaning of the people that weren’t immediately killed in those villages.
“So when I know we are bombing, I kind of viscerally experience this incredible, diabolical imposition of suffering on other people. So that’s why I’ve been thrilled about the Occupy movement. I’ve been thrilled about notions of an uprising in this country, an uprising that says we are not going to cooperate anymore, we are going to be in non-cooperation as we build a new society from below — not from above, but from below.”
Bob Lassalle-Klein, currently a professor of religious studies at Holy Names University in Oakland, was present at the Concord tracks on September 1, 1987. He addressed part of his remarks to Brian’s son, Gabriel, who as a very young boy, witnessed the full horror of his stepfather being mangled under the train wheels.
‘You killed my father’
A radio reporter had taped the entire tragedy, and recorded the horrified voice of young Gabriel telling the naval station’s personnel: “You murderers! You killed my father! You killed my father!”
Speaking to the now-grown Gabriel at the 25th anniversary, Lassalle said, “I will never forget Brian’s foot completely detached with the bone sticking out of it, sitting there on the track.
“Most of all I want to say, Gabriel, how deeply moved I am that you are here today, because I will never forget you running away from Brian’s body screaming, ‘They just killed my father.’ The pain you felt that day has to mark your life. I want to say, though, that the willingness to accept that pain … has touched many people around the world.”
Lassalle described how the story of Willson’s suffering for the cause of peace has traveled to many other countries and has inspired people thousands of miles away. Two years ago, Lassalle traveled to Argentina with other faith-based activists. In discussing the redemptive power of peacemaking, he described Willson’s self-sacrifice to people in Argentina who had never before heard about it.
Lassalle said, “I showed them the clip of Brian being run over by the train. I was so moved by the reaction of the crowd there because they had never heard the story and they couldn’t believe that someone from the United States would do something like this. And the depth of response I received to the story of what had happened showed me again that pain has a power of its own, particularly when it’s pain taken on for love.”
Ken Butigan, the director of Pace e Bene, a peacemaking organization initiated by the Franciscans, said that witnessing Willson being maimed by the weapons train transformed his life.
“My life divides into those two parts — everything before September 1, 1987, and everything afterwards,” he told the rally. “I was about five feet away and to see my friend rolling under that train over and over like a rag doll is etched fully in my consciousness.”
Butigan said that Freedom of Information requests filed by peace activists had unearthed documents showing that the Concord weapons station was shipping out “thousands of 500-pound bombs and white-phosphorus canisters and fuse extenders, which could be swiveled into the top of those bombs so they explode two feet above the ground and become anti-personnel weapons.”
Only one year before Willson sat on the tracks, Butigan said, Congress and the general public were virtually unaware of the deadly role of the Concord Naval Weapons Station in shipping these weapons of mass murder. All that was changed from the moment Willson’s blood was spilled on the tracks.
“I knew that our larger society didn’t know much about this place and the death it was wielding,” Butigan said. “One year later, after Brian was run down and miraculously survived and came to Washington, D.C., he appeared in a hearing on Capitol Hill with all these members of Congress and now we had a series of admirals pointing at a map where the Concord Naval Weapons Station was.”
It took Willson’s courageous nonviolent action to make Congress and the public more aware of Concord’s arsenal of mass death. Butigan said, “I learned through that process something about nonviolent action — that it can raise the visibility, it can show us what’s right under our noses.”
Daniel Ellsberg’s reflections
The last speaker at the anniversary was Daniel Ellsberg, a lifelong peace activist who has committed civil disobedience many times, beginning with the release of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. He told the gathering how powerfully he had been affected when he learned of Willson’s being run down by the train.
Ellsberg recounted how he and his wife Patricia came to the Concord Naval Weapons Station on September 2, 1987, the day after Willson was maimed, intending to commit civil disobedience by blocking the next train.
At the time, Ellsberg said, he told Patricia that “there’s going to be another train coming through there today and there’s got to be people on the tracks and I think I have to go out there and be on the tracks. Patricia said, ‘I’ve been thinking the same thing. We’ve got to go together.’
“So we came out and sat right in the place where Brian had been and his blood was still on the tracks — rusty-colored blood on the tracks. They chose not to bring a train through that day. They backed off on that one.”
Willson’s sacrifice raised the question in Ellsberg’s mind of “what is it worth risking and doing to oppose the kind of evil and violence and destruction that we’re facing and, as Brian said, that is still going on now.”
Ellsberg said he had long pondered over a “profound” insight that Willson had uttered about the true humanity of the victims in other countries who are threatened by the U.S. war machine. Ellsberg explained why Willson’s words struck him like a Zen koan.
According to Ellsberg, “Brian said a phrase that, as this train goes by, it will carry munitions that will kill children and other people in Nicaragua. Their lives are not worth less than mine, mine is not worth less than theirs. Now I have never read anything like that, I have never heard anything like that said before.”
After urging everyone to read Willson’s “marvelous” book, Blood on the Tracks, Ellsberg eloquently described how Brian’s sacrifice is a deep sign of hope for a human race that desperately needs to learn to overcome its tragic history of warfare and mass extermination.
Ellsberg said, “Brian is calling us prophetically to a possibility within our human selves of not being a participant in, not being complicit, not tolerating, not being silent about the extermination and massacre of any other humans. That would be just a profound change. So Brian’s example gives us a picture of what human life can be.”
‘I walk on Third World legs’
Standing under the green, glowing leaves of trees swaying beneath the bright blue sky, shining radiantly in the sun, Ellsberg reminded the gathering that the beauty of nature and trees, the presence of loved ones and friends, and our shared commitment to the ideals of peacemaking help make life worth living. In the same breath, he spoke of the beauty of Willson’s great sacrifice.
Ellsberg said, “We come back finally to the fact that this is what makes life worth living — people who are ready to sacrifice themselves for other people, nonviolently and truthfully, and to do what they can, what they can.
“Brian’s legs were worth losing. He didn’t choose it, but was it too much? No. What he was looking at was that those trains would take off the legs of children and others in the Third World. And he said, ‘I walk on Third World legs now.’ That made him a symbol that can help change things.”
As the rally concluded four hours after it had begun, the entire group marched to the exact spot where Brian Willson was run over by the train 25 years ago. Once there, everyone immediately formed a circle around Brian as he used his cane to point out the very spot where he had been hit.
People asked him questions about the accident and his recovery. Willson said of his recovering from his near-fatal maiming and his use of prosthetic limbs: “You go with what you’ve got and celebrate it.”
He talked about using acupuncture to treat phantom-limb pain and how a well-known prosthetic specialist has created prosthetics for him completely free of charge. Willson then removed both prosthetic limbs to bravely and openly show everyone what his legs look like now.
At the end of the anniversary event, everyone held hands in a circle around Willson and sang to celebrate the moment. Both David Hartsough and Daniel Ellsberg put a hand on Brian’s shoulder during the closing song.
We shall overcome
Earlier in the day, Hartsough offered a powerful explanation of how Nuremberg Actions and Brian Willson had overcome the tragedy of these events by building a stronger movement for peace.
He said, “Brian had not been killed at all by this train and held a determination that we’ve got to continue this struggle and a commitment to nonviolence — a belief that nonviolence can really overcome this tragic death place at Concord Naval Weapons Station. And then the 10,000 people that came out the next Saturday and the hundreds of people coming out to block trains for the next 28 months and continuing the vigil for many years.”
His next words were simultaneously an elegy, a blessing and a prayer of hope for Brian Willson’s sacrifice and the beauty of the movement that it inspired.
Hartsough said, “Those were the most beautiful and powerful moments of my life. We had transformed this horror into something which I think is historic. I don’t know if there is any other place on the planet where people would actually put their bodies on the line day after day after day, night after night after night, just to stop this madness. So I hate what this Navy base did to Brian and attempted to do to our vigil, but I really do feel that we shall overcome.”
Thanks to Ariel Messman-Rucker for contributing greatly to this article.To view a photo-essay of Nuremberg Actions 25th Anniversary event click here.
To find S. Brian Willson’s book click here.
For more information about Nuremberg Actions visit their websites, http://www.peacehost.net/na/ and http://www.NurembergActions.info/