Inspiring Memoir of an Unrelenting Nuclear Resister

By Patrick O’Neill

In the middle of the night on Easter Sunday, April 22, 1984, eight people — all religious pacifists — got out of two cars on a dark Orlando road ready to commit a sensational crime to make a faith-based statement against the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Having previously been to this spot to case our route, and despite intense fear, I somehow managed to lead my co-conspirators through the darkness to a fence that surrounded a work yard at the then-Martin Marietta bomb plant. Inside the fence, in full view, was a Patriot missile launcher. Nearby was a door with the  words “Pershing Kit Area” stenciled on it, a reference to the Pershing II missile, a weapon then manufactured by Martin Marietta that was the primary target of our protest.

The Pershing II, which was later deployed in Western Europe as a deterrent to the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, was seen by many Europeans and others as a provocative, first-strike weapon that could increase the risk of nuclear war because of its short-range distance to Moscow and other Soviet bloc targets. Thankfully, 40 years later, those nuclear weapons on both sides of the Cold War divide were never launched.

Calling ourselves The Pershing Plowshares, based on the Old Testament injunction in Isaiah 2:4 to “beat swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks,” we used bolt cutters to open a hole in the fence to gain access to the weapons components. Inside we split into two groups; I joined the group that set upon the Patriot missile launcher. We poured our own blood on the launcher and used household hammers to bang on the solid steel launcher, doing negligible damage. The other group broke into the Pershing kit building and poured blood and hammered on a few components. 

Part of our nonviolent commitment was to accept the consequences of our actions. As we awaited arrest while the Easter sun rose, we sat together on a wooden pallet for our sunrise service in which we sang hymns and used matzah as our communion bread. Our eight mugshots were plastered on the front page of The Orlando Sentinel Easter Monday morning, and we were all in jail.

April 22, 1984 was also a convergence of important events: Easter, Passover and Earth Day. One of my codefendants was Todd Kaplan, a devout Jew. Wearing his Yarmulke, Todd blew a shofar after our disarmament was complete. The Martin Marietta security woman who discovered us that morning, saw the shofar, and called Todd a schmuck.

We subsequently faced a federal trial in Orlando, were found guilty, each of us receiving sentences of three years incarceration and five years probation. The two women in our group, Sr. Anne Montgomery and Christin Schmidt, have since died. I remain in touch with my other codefendants. Todd is a defense attorney; Tim Litzke is a farmer who has pastored several churches; Jim Perkins lives and works at a Buddhist Temple; Per Herngren remains a peace activist in his native Sweden, and Paul Magno has worked with many peace and justice organizations in Washington D.C. 

Today I am the father of 8. My wife, Mary, and I also have three grandchildren, and another on the way. My hope and prayers to reverse global warming, and to abolish war and weapons of mass destruction now also include my legacy. Needless to say, I worry about what our world will look like as my family grows into the 21st century and beyond.

According to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who administer the “Doomsday Clock,” created in 1947 by J Robert Oppenheimer and other scientists, the world has never been closer to nuclear war than it is today. The clock stands at 90 seconds to “Midnight Doom.”

The Bulletin cites that China, Russia and the United States are all spending huge sums to “expand or modernize their nuclear arsenals,” which adds to the “ever-present danger of nuclear war through mistake or miscalculation.

“The war in Ukraine had also created an ‘ever-present risk of nuclear escalation’,” it said.

“A lack of action on climate change and risks linked to ‘misusing’ emerging biological technologies and Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools were also cited.”

Despite these ominous events, most people find it easier to trust the government than to ponder the possibilities of nuclear weapons being deployed.

We just hope our leaders will protect us in perpetuity.

Throughout my work to abolish war, I have encountered many people who think our Plowshares action was foolhardy or worse treasonous. 

In my many court cases for nonviolent direct action judges have always upheld the laws that protect the bomb specifically and militarism in general. In their jury instructions judges have always told jurors to “only consider the criminal elements of this case” during deliberation. I am prevented from telling juries “why” I acted as I did.

In 2018, I participated in another “Plowshares Action,” with six Catholic codefendants at Naval Station Kings Bay in St. Marys, Georgia, the home port of U.S. Trident submarines, arguably the most dangerous weapons system ever built. Again we used hammers to make some dents in idols. All seven of us received federal prison sentences; I received 14 months. 

In my Georgia sentencing statement, I said, “my hope is to never be vindicated.

“I want my efforts to essentially be viewed as misguided, foolish and in vain; in essence, I want to be judged wrong — not just by the findings of this court — but by the world. For me to be a failure and a fool would be so much better than the calamity I fear for future generations if the Kings Bay Plowshares´ message turns out to be the horror we fear will come.”

Patrick O’Neill and his wife, Mary Rider, cofounded the Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner, NC.

This account was sent by Patrick O’Neill to peacevoice editors on April 22, 2024.

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