My Memories of the 1992 L.A. Riots

A soldier's view of the time: On the front line, on the street, from start to finish

By Frankie Firme, Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: April 26, 2017

My Memories of the 1992 L.A. Riots

Originally published May 2, 2012:

It was about 4:30 pm on April 29, 1992. I was driving home to Monterey Park on the 605 freeway from my job as a nurse at a hospital in Bellflower.

Not able to afford one of those big cell phones with the battery suitcase that came attached at that time, my "beeper" kept going off and I couldn't do a thing about it till I got home. My car radio was reporting "Rioting has just erupted in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict! "

I got home and found that I had 5 flashing messages on my answering machine box.
(I don't think they make those anymore).

I was a Sergeant in the Army National Guard at the time. Having just missed being called up for the conflicts in Panama and Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, and having served in the Marine Corps during Viet Nam in the early 1970's, I felt I had served my country adequately, and was looking forward to discharge in August.

The calls had been from officers at my unit, Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 144th Field Artillery, stationed in Arcadia, just across the street from Santa Anita Racetrack, Arcadia Methodist Hospital, and next door to the Arcadia Police Station.
(building is no longer there)

Upon answering the call, I was told, "We have a situation, Sergeant. Drop whatever you're doing, call your men up, and report to the armory immediately!"

I was there in a half hour after making calls. Upon arriving, I could see that the streets had been blocked off, and at least 30 Arcadia police officers were in the parking lot, all wearing bullet proof vests, and pulling out shotguns and other weapons out of the trunks of their squad cars, as they gathered in small groups getting organized and ready to leave.

At the Armory, men were showing up in uniform, and were being issued weapons and getting in line to have their M-16 rifles fitted with a small device that prevented automatic fire. Officers & NCO's were on every phone available making calls. By 6:30 pm, almost 200 men had assembled, all in uniform.

We all gathered around 3 TV sets, nervously watching the news as Los Angeles exploded into violence and looting as the sun began to set. Gallons of coffee was being served, everybody was nervously smoking cigarettes!

Roll call was taken. We were formed into 3 platoons of 40 men each, while buses & troop transport trucks began lining up in the street just outside the Armory.

This was real!

We were soon gathered into the large assembly hall of the Arcadia armory, where senior officers and NCO's began announcing that, "Civil unrest has broken out in the streets of Los Angeles. We have been assigned the mission of assisting law enforcement of helping restore and maintain the peace and safety. From this point on, nobody shall leave without prior permission, no phone calls will be made, do not talk to reporters,and be prepared to move out on a moment's notice. NCO's, make sure all weapons are operational, and all your men are accounted for"

By 9 pm, we had been given our first staging location assignment: Lynwood Sherriff's Station.

I remember arriving to the station that night and noticing that the doors and windows had been protected by sandbags. Broken glass littered the front of the building, as rioters had taken to throwing bottles & rocks at the station. Shots could be heard in all directions.

We pulled into the back parking lot behind the building, and as we got off the trucks, you could immediately smell burning smoke, and hear sirens and people screaming in all directions. It seemed like madness, yet everybody kept a serious sense of calm, everybody listened to their leaders, and everybody had a loaded weapon at the ready in their hands.

I remember the Sheriff Deputies wearing bullet proof vests welcomed us with coffee and light snacks, and warned us to stay out of the driveway, where a stray bullet "might screw up your day", as leaders gathered to make plans, and the men were again organized into platoons as roll call was again called.

Police vehicles from different parts of the state, along with Highway Patrol & Border Patrol vehicles, began arriving and staging in the parking lot, all packing shotguns and rifles and extra pistols.

Everybody was armed, police officers all carried shotguns and tear gas grenades in addition to their pistols, and soldiers all had M-16 rifles and gas masks. NCO's such as myself also carried pistols. This was real, I thought!

Despite the madness & chaos of the moment, both 1st level police & military leaders at the station surprisingly worked together smoothly, and I was impressed at how organized we were, and morale was good, as we all bonded quickly considering the situation.

About 70% of the men in my unit were combat veterans from conflicts in Viet Nam, Panama, and most recently Iraq, so there was NO shortage of experienced leadership. VERY comforting to the career Reservists and younger men in the unit !

Many of the police officers were also military combat veterans, so working together as a cohesive armed force was not a foreign concept here...we all shared a sadness that this was happening on American soil...

We got word that the three other Battery's of our battalion had also hit the street in different locations as we did, along with other National Guard units, so we felt a sense of pride and power at the moment, as soldiers began being sent out on short foot patrol missions around the surrounding area, and police cars were on patrol 4 at a time together in convoy, 4 officers in each car, everybody armed to the teeth.

I remember checking on some of my men who had been assigned to guard a large gas station where rioters had attempted to set ablaze earlier. As I stood on the corner of Imperial & Long Beach Boulevards, I could see that every block was ablaze and burning as far as the eye can see. I could see the flashing lights of police and fire department vehicles through the burning smoke, sirens blazing, and see & hear several police and news helicopters in the air.... It looked and sounded like a war zone.

It seemed that just as the fire department had turned off one burning building, another fire erupted right next to it. I thought to myself "these poor firefighters are outnumbered"...and then I heard what sounded like gunshots so I took cover.

About a hour later, one of the guys said "Hey, Sarge! Look at this!"...about 20 feet away from where I had taken cover, 2 bullet holes were found in one of the gas station's thick glass windows...that was close!

The next day, we were bused off to the Lennox Sheriff Station, where rumors had it these guys had a lot of action the night before, and made numerous arrests of looters. They had worked through the night and were exhausted.

Cots had been set up all over the station, and police officers and soldiers took a chance to lie down and rest as we arrived and set up a defensive perimeter around the station. The sight of 50 to 60 armed soldiers gave them some comfort as they rested.

Coffee and food was everywhere, as people began arriving to the station at sun up to bring food and cases of water to the police and soldiers in gratitude.

We sent out on foot patrols covering a 6 block radius from the station in all directions. In addition, as soon as word came, we mounted our vehicles and followed police cars to businesses that were being looted. On almost every street, you could see dropped and broken merchandise looters left as they were being pursued down the street, dropped TV's and small appliances, clothes, food, and cases of stolen beer.

Every so often, bottles broke & shattered in the street as looters would throw them at us from hidden positions, and scream obscenities at us...sometimes we heard whats sounded like gunshots,bu thank goodness none of were hit as we walked the streets of Los Angeles.

Sundown was the most dangerous time...

At one point, power went out over a 6 by 6 block area about 9 PM, so we were sent out out on foot patrol in almost pitch darkness to provide cover & security for power company trucks & workers.

I later remember arriving to a large supermarket that was being looted, following 5 police vehicles.

We were in 4 military Humvees, 3 men in each vehicle. As soon as we entered the parking lot, HUNDREDS of people came running out in all directions. I was literally in shock to see adults & children of all ages, smiling and laughing, carrying stolen food and merchandise.

We arrested about 1 in 15 looters, as there were just more of them than us. When I entered the market, I saw that the meat, deli, liquor, and bakery sections were stripped clean, and began to wonder what these riots were really about...I mean, who steals pampers & baby food during Civil unrest?

All about the store were deserted shopping carts filled with canned foods, as if people had been shopping instead of looting. We also found about 8 employees hiding in the back stockrooms in total fear ...they cried as we escorted them out to their cars.

The next day, we were told that we had been activated to active duty as part of
"Operation Garden Plot" and that active duty Marines from Camp Pendleton and soldiers from Fort Ord would be coming in to support us.

I worried a bit about this because these guys were bringing machine guns. Many of them were just back from the war zone in Iraq, and about 15 people had already been killed so far. Rumors had it that looters were coming in from all over the state and that gang members had looted 3 gun stores and were now armed better than us...was L.A. going to be lost, I thought?

The next day, we were assigned to protect a Korean merchant strip mall that had fought off looters for 2 days, and a mob was rumored to be planning to attack it at sundown. 3 bodies had been found in the parking lot bushes the night before, and one of our duties was to establish a perimeter around the mall and keep reporters out as the coroner did his job.

After assigning my men positions, I went into the mall with 3 other sergeants and an officer to make contact. We first came in contact with an older couple, both showing signs of having been beaten up. Both carried pistols, but greeted us warmly, offering us food and drink. The woman cried as she told us how hundreds of people had smashed windows,beat her up, and grabbed whatever merchandise was on display, and how scared she was of them returning.

Further into the store, I noticed a lot of damage and about 3 ladders leading to the roof. When I asked one merchant about this, he called out and 3 men came down from the roof to greet me, all carrying rifles and pistols.

One of them had a "ROKMC " tattoo (Republic Of Korea Marine Corps) and we quickly bonded when he saw "USMC~ 72-77" written on the cover of my helmet. He told me that his mother & sister had been beaten up by looters 2 days before, and he had come to L.A. from San Diego with 4 friends the same night, all ready to protect their family and the mall.

By his bloodshot eyes, I could tell that he hadn't slept.

He seemed relieved when I told him that we had a squad of armed soldiers and 4 police cars, protecting the mall for the night. He calmly asked, "How many men is that?" I told him about 25 men, as we left to take our positions for the night.

In about an hour, 3 of the merchants came out with the Korean Marine to our positions, bringing hot burgers and fries for all of us! We tried to take up a collection to help pay for the food, but they refused our money, thanking us for being there and going back into their stores. Throughout the night, they brought us coffee and water.

And that's the way it was for the 9 days I was there in "the zone".

Throughout the violence and chaos of the riots, grateful merchants and citizens generously gave us food & drink at every opportunity, and refused to take our money. People came out in the daytime with their children, saying they hadn't felt safe to do so in a long time.

...never had so much pizza, burgers, donuts, water, and sodas in my life !

By the 5th day, local radio stations were talking about how most of the violence and looting had ended, most fires were under control and order had been restored, although small pockets of "copycat" rioting had erupted in many directions outside of the city proper.

We stopped watching the TV news for morale reasons, especially when we were criticized for "taking so long to restore order" (more than LAPD Chief Daryl Gates and his senior Commanders lack of leadership at the initial moment) by reporters & politicians who weren't there on the ground.

So that was our only source of news, but at least radio Station KLOS FM gave us props & compliments all the 9 days we were out there,and played good music for us, Thank You !!

Don't remember who the female DJ was at the time who gave us and Pizza Hut props all day long, but we all loved her!

At our different staging areas, I met cops and firefighters from all over the state, and we all made friends and took pictures if we had a camera. We all had a sense of pride that we had accomplished a historic mission together, and Los Angeles was still standing, thanks to us!

We were finally ordered to stand down and go home after 9 days, and it all became a memory.

20 year later, all the political banter, news & psychological analysis, and eye witness accounts all fail to describe the bravery and commitment of the National Guard soldiers and police & firefighters who were on the front line, on the street, from start to finish... the one's that "got the job done!"

I forget most of their names and faces 20 years later, but I remember some of the guys who stood their posts and walked the streets on night patrol with me without question...guys like "Snake", Carlos, "Pancho", Bobby Wong, Jesse Hong, "Bear" Herrera, "Archie", Auby Taylor, 1st Sgt Pierce, Mando, Tarango, Walker, and all the other guys of HQ, 2/144, 40th ID, U.S. Army National Guard ~ April 29th ~ May 8th 1992 .

Thanks, guys....if nobody else ever says so!

About Frankie Firme, Contributing Editor:
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