On June 30, 1934, the German Schutzstaffel (SS) under orders from Adolph Hitler executed Operation Hummingbird. This decapitation strike against their erstwhile brothers in the Sturmabteilung (SA) was intended to remove the reprobate SA commander Ernst Rohm and consolidate supreme power in pre-WW2 Germany under Hitler’s personal control. Between 85 and 200 Germans fell to these brutal extra-judicial killings. History has come to refer to Operation Hummingbird as the Night of the Long Knives.
On this same day on the other side of the planet Patrolman Howard Wagner was walking his beat in South Bend, Indiana. It was a beautiful summer Saturday, and the citizens of South Bend were going about their business looking forward to the upcoming Independence Day holiday. Officer Wagner heard what he thought were Fourth of July fireworks in the direction of the Merchant’s National Bank and headed over on foot to investigate.
Inside the bank Public Enemy Number 1, John Dillinger and three of his associates were busy cleaning out the coffers. When Dillinger announced the holdup not everybody in the bank could hear him. A burst into the plaster ceiling from his Thompson got the crowd’s attention.
The robbers entered the bank with their weapons wrapped in pillowcases. Now they used this same bedding to carry the $29,890 they had stolen. The gang’s two most trigger happy members, Lester Gillis aka George “Baby Face” Nelson and Homer Van Meter, stood lookout outside, weapons at the ready. Howard Wagner never had a chance.
The Origins of a Killer
Homer Van Meter was born in December of 1905, the son of an alcoholic train conductor. Van Meter ran away from home in sixth grade and was arrested in Chicago as a teenager for drunk and disorderly conduct. His first stint in jail was in 1923 at age eighteen for larceny. A year later he was remanded to the South Illinois State Penitentiary for auto theft. At the time he had the word “HOPE” tattooed onto his forearm.
Van Meter was paroled less than a year later and promptly robbed a passenger train. He was apprehended in fairly short order and sentenced to between 10 and 21 years in the Indiana Reformatory. There he met John Dillinger.
Van Meter, in addition to being a criminal sociopath, was also an inveterate prankster. His antics endeared him to the frequently ebullient and charming Dillinger. Others of Dillinger’s subsequent gangs despised the young Van Meter on general principle. George Nelson purportedly hated him.
Prison breaks, sundry crimes, shootouts, and assorted gang members came and went. Throughout it all, Van Meter remained by Dillinger’s side. By the time Dillinger had strolled into the Merchant’s National Bank, his criminal crew was a finely oiled machine.
As Patrolman Wagner approached the bank he could sense that something was amiss and reached for the .38 revolver he carried in a full flap holster. Nelson brandished a Thompson with a 50-round drum magazine on one side of the building. Van Meter carried a modified Winchester Model 1907 rifle on the other. Before Wagner could clear his gun Van Meter shot him down with his .351.
The kill shot struck Wagner in the abdomen. The spunky 180-grain bullet perforated the poor cop’s entrails, shredded his kidney, and exited his back. Wagner fell to the street and bled out in short order.
The Lebman-Modified Winchester M1907
In its pedestrian form, the M1907 was a revolutionary weapon for its day. A blowback-operated semiautomatic rifle, the gun broke down into two pieces for easy portage. The M1907 was a popular Law Enforcement arm and was offered in “Plain,” “Fancy Finish,” and “Police” versions. The rifle’s production run spanned half a century. In 1907 the plain version sold new for $28. That equates out to about $740 today.
Van Meter’s 1907 had been modified for the specific mission of bank robbery by legendary mob gunsmith Hyman Lebman. The barrel was shortened and fitted with a modified Cutts compensator. A Thompson vertical foregrip was fitted to the forearm, and the weapon was converted to full auto. The gun fed from an extended magazine.
Hyman Lebman has also been known as Lehman. His son Marvin espoused the Lebman spelling. Lebman was a depression-era gunsmith and leatherworker based out of a modest shop in San Antonio, Texas. A gifted tinkerer, Lebman had a well-deserved reputation for modifying weapons to make them more tactically effective. His clients included such legendary gangsters as Dillinger, Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Roger “The Terrible” Touhy, and others.
Lebman sold quite a few M1921 Thompson guns through his shop. In the heady days before 1934, the National Firearms Act machineguns could be purchased openly through the mail. It was also legal to convert weapons to full auto without any ancillary government involvement. One of Lebman’s most popular conversions was called the “Baby Machinegun.” This was a Colt M1911 pistol in either .45ACP or .38 Super converted to full auto and fitted with the vertical foregrip from a Thompson, a muzzle compensator, and an extended magazine. Lebman maintained a test range in his basement and once inadvertently loosed a burst from one of these weapons upward through the floor of his home, narrowly missing his son Marvin.
Lebman claimed he thought the sundry gangsters buying his guns were wealthy Texas oilmen who were simply firearms enthusiasts. In 1933 Lebman even hosted Baby Face Nelson, Nelson’s wife Helen, and Homer Van Meter in his home for Thanksgiving. Hyman Lebman continued gunsmithing until 1976 and died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1990. At least two of Lebman’s weapons are on display at the FBI headquarters in Washington DC as part of the Dillinger arsenal.
The South Bend shootout was a spectacle of Wild West proportions. A local jeweler named Harry Berg snatched up his personally owned sidearm and engaged Nelson at close range, shooting him squarely in the back. Unfortunately, the criminals wore quality body armor either stolen from police stations or bought commercially for the truly princely sum of $300. Nelson subsequently hosed the downtown area with .45ACP rounds from his Thompson.
An insanely brave sixteen-year-old passerby named Joseph Pawlowski jumped Nelson from behind and began beating him about the head and neck with his fists. Baby Face Nelson subsequently threw the fearless young man through a plate glass window and sprayed him with a burst from his Thompson. As luck would have it, Nelson’s rounds struck all around the remarkable kid, hitting him but a single time in the palm of his hand. The pain of the wound caused Pawlowski to pass out. Nelson subsequently lost interest as more police officers arrived on the scene. Young Joseph eventually recovered fully and gained fame as a concert violinist and symphony conductor.
Dillinger favored powerful cars, and he easily outpaced the patrol vehicles and motorcycles sent to catch him. Two patrolmen did maintain the chase for forty-five miles until a fistful of roofing nails thrown from the gang’s ride ventilated their tires. The gang eventually made its way safely back to Chicago.
The Rest of the Story
A few days before the South Bend robbery Dillinger and Van Meter had undergone plastic surgery at the home of Jimmy Probasco, a local bar owner. By this time the heat was so intense they needed some way to disguise their identities. Dissatisfied with both the cosmetic result as well as the perioperative pain, Van Meter attempted to kill Wilhelm Loeser, his freelance plastic surgeon, on the spot.
A month after the Indiana job John Dillinger was gunned down in front of the Biograph Theater in Chicago by famed G-men Melvin Purvis and Samuel Crowley. That same night Van Meter and his girlfriend Marie Comforti fled Chicago for St. Paul, Minnesota.
Dillinger’s Sidekick Meets His Gruesome End
By late August Van Meter’s number was up. On a street corner in urban St. Paul Van Meter was confronted by four heavily armed lawmen. Police Chief Frank Cullen led a group that included Detective Tom Brown and two others armed with rifles and Thompson submachine guns. Brown was a former police chief renowned for his willingness to accept bribes. Van Meter himself had helped fund Brown’s failed bid for sheriff. Brown was at the time under investigation by the FBI for corruption.
The officers later reported that they had ordered Van Meter to stop and that he had fired upon them with a Colt 1911 .45ACP pistol. Chief Cullen raised his rifle but held his fire out of concern for nearby civilians. The other three opened up with their Thompsons.
Van Meter fell immediately, but Brown continued to pump bullets into his inert form. In addition to numerous hits to his body, Van Meter had several fingers shot off. Van Meter’s family later complained that the 28-year-old’s body had been used for “target practice.”
The four cops reported that Van Meter’s corpse possessed a Colt 1911 pistol and $1,323 in cash. Van Meter’s associates reported that he had at least $10,000 on him that day. The FBI later determined that St. Paul crime boss Harry Sawyer had split Van Meter’s money with the four lawmen who had cut him down.
Thus died John Dillinger’s closest criminal associate. Together Dillinger and Van Meter had escaped from prison, traveled the country robbing banks, shot it out with the cops, killed fairly indiscriminately, and inextricably woven themselves into American Depression-era gangster lore. In the end both men died as they lived, gunned down like dogs.
The Winchester M1907
|Caliber||.351 Winchester Self-Loading|
|Barrel Length||20 in|
|Feed System||5, 10, 15, and 20-Round Magazines|
|Sights||Open Iron with Optional Tang-Mounted Aperture|