Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert C. Bundt was waiting for his ride home outside the Pentagon that November evening when he heard yelling and saw the man on fire.
He couldn’t see the man’s face, because his whole body was wrapped in flames, and he didn’t hear anything, other than the people who were hollering at the man to drop the baby he was carrying.
Bundt, then 30, tore off his uniform coat and rushed at the blazing man to try to smother the flames. An Army officer joined him. They didn’t have much luck. Bundt recalled that it took the fire department to put him out.
Afterward, Bundt stood by, his hands and neck scorched. A bystander was holding the chubby baby, which was dressed in blue, kerosene-soaked overalls, but uninjured. Firefighters were spraying the incinerated body.
It was Nov. 2, 1965, and Bundt, now 80, had witnessed the self-immolation of Quaker antiwar pacifist Norman R. Morrison, who had just carried out one of the most horrific public protests of the era of the Vietnam War.
Scarcely remembered now, Morrison’s suicide 50 years ago Monday was front-page news at the time, across a country that was increasingly torn by protests over the war.
Morrison had set himself ablaze 40 feet from the Pentagon office window of then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, one of the chief organizers of the U.S. involvement in the war.
Years later, a contrite McNamara wrote that Morrison’s death was a tragedy “for me and the country.”
By the close of 1965, about 2,300 Americans had been killed in Vietnam, well short of the 58,000 who would eventually die there, according to the National Archives. But Vietnamese people had perished in untold numbers, the bombing of North Vietnam was underway and antiwar furor was growing.
Draft cards were burned. Student protests were spreading. In March 1965, an 82-year-old Detroit pacifist set fire to herself to protest the global arms race and U.S. foreign policy.
Eight months later, on the morning before his death, Morrison asked his wife, Anne: “What can we do that we haven’t done?”
It was then that this intense, impatient, devout man received the sudden inspiration that he must destroy his life publicly to protest the war in Vietnam.
He succeeded, and struck a chord in some. But he also broke his wife’s heart, shattered his young family and left it with wounds that went unhealed for decades.
“Please don’t condemn me,” he wrote to his wife in a letter she received the day after he killed himself. “For weeks . . . I have been praying only that I be shown what I must do. This morning with no warning I was shown.”
Morrison, 31, had brought his 11-month-old daughter, Emily, with him, for reasons that remain murky to this day. Back in Baltimore, Anne and their other children, Ben, 6, and Christina, 5, had come home to an empty house.
About 5 p.m., he had put on his favorite tweed jacket, bundled Emily and some extra diapers into the old Cadillac he had been taking of care for vacationing friends and began the 50-mile drive to the Pentagon.
Once there, he left the keys in the car, picked up Emily and the container of kerosene and went to a main entrance of the Pentagon, where people were streaming out of work.
Bystanders saw him pacing, according to eyewitnesses and historical accounts. At some point, he doused himself in kerosene. It’s not clear whether he doused Emily, too, or just got some of the liquid on her.
As he prepared to ignite himself down around his shoes, bystanders yelled, “Drop the baby!” Accounts varied as to whether he dropped her or whether someone took her. But Emily wound up safely in the arms of an onlooker as her father went up in flames.
“I seen the smoke, and the noise from people yelling, and I looked over and I seen him on fire,” Bundt, the Air Force staff sergeant, said last week by phone from his home in Michigan. “A ball of fire. I never seen his face.
“I took off my coat and went at him, [to] push him down so we could try to smother the flames,” he said. Others piled on their coats, but “we never really got it out. When the fire truck got there, they put a spray mist and they put him out.
“As they were spraying, they would take the coats aside and keep spraying until they got it down and they could remove him,” he said.
No photographs appear to exist of Morrison’s self-immolation, unlike the shocking images of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who burned himself to death at a busy intersection in what was then Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1963.
The monk was protesting the oppression of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, according to news accounts, and his suicide was captured on film and in a famous news photograph.
Morrison’s act was seen only by witnesses.
“When I got there, just looking at the state of the man, I knew he wasn’t going to make it,” Robert Ruderman, a military physician, told the Baltimore Sun in 1995. “The fire was out but he was totally burned from top to bottom. . . . There was nothing anybody could do for him.
“He died officially within two minutes of taking off in the ambulance,” said Ruderman, who died in 1998.
Friends drove Anne Morrison to Fort Myer, where Emily was being cared for.
“I sat in the back of the car stunned and frozen,” she wrote in a 2008 memoir. “I recalled that Norman and I had been awed and moved by Buddhist monks who had protested through self-immolation.”
And they knew about the suicide of Alice Herz, the woman in Detroit. But they didn’t dwell on these events.
Anne Morrison, who is 80 and living in North Carolina, declined to be interviewed for this article, saying in an e-mail: “My sentiments and experiences that I shared in the memoir still pertain today.”
Her daughter Christina, 55, also declined to comment during a brief telephone call. And daughter Emily, 50, declined to speak, via her mother. Their older brother, Ben, died of cancer in 1975 at age 16.
During the ride to Fort Myer, Anne wrote in the memoir, she reviewed the earlier part of the day for clues. Her husband had a cold and stayed home from his job at the local Quaker meeting.
She made them a lunch of French onion soup. He sat on a stool in the kitchen and talked about the war.
She remembered him wondering what else could be done to stop it. “I really don’t know,” she replied. “All I know is that we mustn’t despair.”
After lunch, he suddenly asked her: “What would you do if anything happened to me?”
“What a question!” she said.
They had been married eight years. She was a native of Georgia with a degree from Duke. He was from Erie, Pa., the son of a dentist, with degrees from what is now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio.
They had both become Quakers, and, in 1962, he had landed the job as executive secretary at the Baltimore’s historic Stony Run Friends Meeting. It was a great opportunity but not a great fit.
A man of passionate opinions, he “brought a radical Quaker posture to a meeting that didn’t fully embrace . . . his prophetic vision,” she wrote in her memoir. “His occasional bluntness and lack of social graces exacerbated tensions.”
He had been angry about the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in 1958. He was an eager supporter of civil rights and a determined opponent of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
“As the horror of the war grew, it finally overwhelmed Norman,” Anne Morrison wrote. His was “a soul burdened beyond endurance with the world’s suffering.”
“Though I was aware of the Quaker injunction to ‘let your life speak,’ I was totally unprepared for this kind of witness,” she wrote.
When she arrived at the Fort Myer dispensary, she went to a private room, where a nurse handed over Emily, wrapped in a white blanket. Anne was shown Norman’s tweed jacket and was amazed that it was only slightly burned. She was shown his wallet, comb and wedding ring.
“Yes, these are his things,” she told the authorities.
She faced a dilemma. Her husband had just violently and publicly removed himself from the lives of her and her children, and she had to try to explain why to the reporters waiting outside.
A friend, George Webb, jotted her thoughts on an envelope and went out and read a statement:
“Norman Morrison has given his life today to express his concern over the great loss of life and human suffering caused by the war in Vietnam. He was protesting our government’s deep military involvement in this war. He felt that all citizens must speak their true convictions about our country’s actions.”
The next day, newspapers carried headlines such as “Vietnam War Fueled Pacifist’s Fiery Death” and “War Critic Burns Himself to Death Outside Pentagon.”
Morrison had made his point. In North Vietnam, he was a hero. Back home, some thought him crazy, and some thought him a martyr.
His family was left it in “state of frozen grief,” Anne wrote in the memoir.
“I believed I had no right to grieve,” she recalled. “And it was very difficult to be angry at someone who had just given his life . . . to stop a war.”
The suffering children were told to be strong.
Although she remarried twice, she remained “Norman Morrison’s widow.”
She tried to establish herself as someone other than that. But, she wrote, “I have come to accept my life as it was, and is.”
“Healing has come little by little, bit by bit,” she concluded. But to this day, she can’t eat French onion soup.
Fifty years later, it still tastes too much like loss.