Public Enemies

No, this isn’t a post about U.S. Trade Representatives, past and present, although this would be a great title for such a post.  Instead, I thought I’d have a little fun and go completely off-topic. 

My wife and I took in the “Public Enemies” movie today (starring Johnny Depp).  It’s a movie we’ve looked forward to for a year, since we learned of its filming.  You see, my grandfather, a cop in South Bend in the 1930s, engaged in a gun battle with the Dillinger gang, including Baby Face Nelson and Howard Van Meter, when they came to town to rob the bank.  The other source of our interest in the movie is that, during our visits to our cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin, we occasionally have dinner at the Little Bohemia lodge in Manitowish where a key sequence of the movie, the FBI raid on the Dillinger gang at Little Bohemia, was filmed.  (It was there that we learned of the movie a year ago.) 

It was a great movie, though it does take some liberties with actual history.  In the movie, only Dillinger escapes the raid at Little Bohemia, with Baby Face Nelson killed and Howard Van Meter mortally wounded.  The fact is that Dillinger’s entire gang escaped the raid scot-free, fleeing out the back and along the lake shore while the Feds continued to riddle the front of the building with bullets.  (The movie accurately depicts Nelson then flagging down a G-man’s car on the highway and shooting the agent.  But Nelson then escaped in the car instead of being killed by other agents.)  The bungling of this raid, with the loss of innocent civilian lives, almost cost J. Edgar Hoover his job. 

It was after the raid on Little Bohemia that the bank job in South Bend took place, with the whole Dillinger gang taking part.  My grandfather had the drop on the gang as they exited the bank but discovered only then that his partner had handed him a sawed-off shotgun instead of the rifle he’d asked for.  With bystanders in the background, he couldn’t risk the shot, but blasted away at the car during the getaway.  (The car was later found, peppered with buckshot.)  My mother’s cousin, also a cop, was shot dead by Van Meter as they exited the bank.  In fact, the bank robbery scene in the movie that takes place just before the Little Bohemia raid in actuality may very well have depicted the South Bend robbery, out-of-sequence with actual events.

As depicted in the movie, Dillinger relished his image as a sort of Robin Hood hero figure.  (Remember, this was during the Great Depression and banks weren’t exactly admired institutions in those days.  Sounds familiar, huh?)  In the beginning, the bank robberies rarely involved the firing of a shot.  However, as time wore on and the gangster ranks were depleted, Dillinger was forced to accept Baby Face Nelson into his gang.  Nelson was truly a psychopath who loved shooting and killing, so dangerous that Al Capone had only recently expelled him from his gang.  It was then that the Dillinger gang bank holdups began to turn extremely violent. 

The Little Bohemia lodge remains much as it did in the 1930s.  In fact, the north wing of the building still has the windows, riddled with bullets from the actual gun battle, preserved between sheets of plexiglass.  One wall of the restaurant that separates two dining rooms is still riddled with bullet holes.  There is a small display of Dillinger gang artifacts, left behind when they fled the FBI raid. 

The armory of the ship I served aboard in the Navy (the armory was my division’s responsibility) included in its arsenal a .45 cal. Thompson machine gun with a 100-round drum magazine, just like the “Tommy guns” used by Dillinger’s gang.  Seems like I could have been more creative and come up with some reason for needing to test fire it.  I always regret that I never did.

Anyway, it was a good flick and it was fun for me to see these stories I’d heard since I was a kid come to life.  See it if you get the chance.

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2 Responses to Public Enemies

  1. mtnmike says:

    Pete,

    I’m originally from Indiana and we were just in Daleville and Montpelier where Dillinger robbed those town banks.

    You made a point that I once used in an article. Dillinger enjoyed hero status and the banks were seen as the villains. Many achieved newspaper stories of the day bear this out as being factual. As government continues to assist the banks in our current reverse Robin Hood manner, we could see public sentiment take a drastic left turn as unemployment takes its toll on America’s Middle Class.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      I would imagine that most people in the country would stand up and cheer if someone held up the AIG office in New York, walked away with billions and then handed it out to ordinary people.

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