The vast majority of combat veterans are well-adjusted, law-abiding, responsible citizens. They come home from the savageries of war ready to recover, contribute, and create. This was the reason the decade of the fifties was such a productive time in America.
By definition, these veterans are those who have shown willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. They have known comradeship, deprivation, and stress that normal folk cannot imagine. They are the best of us.
However, a certain tiny percentage of combat vets, like the rest of society as a whole, are simply not wired correctly. When these pathological personalities are subjected to the catalyst of protracted combat something dark and terrifying can result. In the case of Howard Unruh, this toxic process birthed a monster.
As is so often the case, this monster’s upbringing was chaotic. The shy older son of Samuel Unruh and Freda Vollmer, Howard was raised by his mother after his parents separated. He graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in East Camden, New Jersey, in 1939. His ambition was to become a government employee.
Howard Unruh enlisted in the US Army less than a year after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. After training as an armored vehicle driver he served from October of 1944 until the end of the war in Europe. He fought during the Battle of the Bulge. His service in the war zone was exemplary.
Norman Koehn, Unruh’s section chief, praised the young man’s soldiering skills. He neither drank, cursed, nor chased women, and spent most of his downtime reading his Bible and writing letters to his mother.
Koehn did note, however, that Unruh was a deadly serious soldier and a superb marksman.
Combat is arguably the most inhuman of human pursuits, and it is expected to illicit strange behaviors. In Unruh’s case, however, the man took an unnatural interest in the details of the German troops he killed. He maintained extensive notes on those he shot, documenting the time and place of the action. When opportunity allowed he also described the condition and positions of their bodies.
The problems began after Howard returned from Europe in 1945. He had earned several decorations while in combat and collected a fairly typical array of souvenirs from his service. Among these were several large-caliber German shell cases he meticulously turned into ashtrays.
One of his most prized possessions was a P08 Parabellum Luger pistol. One narrative I found claimed he brought it back from Europe. Another stated that he bought the gun at a Philadelphia sporting goods store for $37.50. That would be about $362 today.
Unruh lived with his mother who supported them both by working at a soap factory. Howard enrolled in pharmacy school using the GI Bill but dropped out after three months citing, “poor physical condition.” He built and sold a few toy trains but otherwise remained unemployed. He constructed a makeshift shooting range in his basement. Neighbors reported that he spent large amounts of time practicing with his Luger.
Howard was a regular church attender. However, he began to act strangely, earning the derision of his neighbors. There simultaneously arose some odd conflict over access to his house. He had been entering his home from the back via his neighbor’s yard, but they had complained. Howard was weird, and tempers flared.
Howard became ever more reclusive but fixated on his neighbors, presuming that they were talking about him behind his back. Throughout it all, he kept detailed notes, listing “Retal” (short for retaliation) beside their names in his journal.
Howard Unruh was a terribly confused young man. On September 5, 1949, he went to the local Family Theater to meet a man with whom he had been involved in a weeks’ long affair. However, this evening he was delayed by traffic. He stayed at the theater alone until it closed at 3 am and then returned home in a dark mood.
When he arrived back at his mother’s house he found that someone, presumably his neighbors, had removed the gate he had just erected behind his house. This event lit his fuse. He nonetheless still crawled in bed and slept until 8 am.
Unruh arose and donned his finest clothes–a brown tropical-worsted suit and a white shirt with a striped bowtie and his Army boots–before sharing breakfast with his mother. He equipped himself with a teargas pen gun with six cartridges, a six-inch knife, his loaded Luger, a spare magazine, and another sixteen loose rounds of 9mm. In the course of thirteen minutes, Howard Unruh then shot and killed twelve people. He also severely wounded another four, one of whom subsequently died.
Unruh walked around his neighborhood methodically shooting those he felt had wronged him. Most of his victims were meticulously shot first in the chest and then in the head. Some of his victims were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He shot a six-year-old dead as he was sitting atop a wooden horse getting a haircut. He killed a toddler who had been peeking out of his second-story bedroom window. He murdered one neighbor as she cowered behind a closet door as well as four passing motorists who were unfortunate enough to drive into his killing zone.
Unruh was terrifyingly efficient. Using his German military pistol firing 9mm ball ammo he killed like some kind of mindless machine. Survivors said later that his face was cold and expressionless throughout.
The P08 Parabellum was the world’s first truly successful autoloading military handgun. Georg Luger adapted the design from the previous C93 Borchardt pistol in 1898. While the Borchardt was revolutionary but impractical, the P08 was an efficient combat tool.
The action of the P08 was inspired by the human knee. You can take an unloaded example, press the muzzle against a hard surface, and appreciate the mechanism. The engineering was inspired.
As the barrel assembly cycles, the toggle action impinges upon the top of the frame and breaks upward. Recoil forces then drive the toggle up and the barrel yet further back, ejecting the empty case. A recoil spring in the butt of the gun runs the action back into the battery with a fresh cartridge. The magazine holds eight rounds.
Later versions featured six and eight-inch barrels and were designated the Navy and Artillery variants respectively. Each of these guns had unique long-range sighting systems and accepted detachable buttstocks. There was also a complicated 32-round snail drum produced to increase the gun’s onboard firepower.
Parabellum pistols were used by conventional German ground troops, pilots, naval personnel, and elite Stormtroopers. The P08 Lange Pistole (Artillery Luger) equipped with drum magazines and a board stock was popular for violent close-quarters trench raids. Production continued through 1943 until the gun was supplanted by the Walther P38 in Nazi service. The Luger was the alpha souvenir for Allied combat troops fighting in Europe.
Howard Unruh was technically the third prolific spree killer in American history. However, his utter cold-blooded ruthlessness set a template for countless psychopathic losers to come. At the terminus of his “Walk of Death” Unruh retreated back home and ultimately engaged in a protracted shootout with police.
Mass killings were essentially unheard of back then, and Law Enforcement didn’t know much what to do. Cops surrounded the house and raked it with automatic weapons fire. While police shot up Unruh’s house with pistols, shotguns, and Thompson submachine guns, sharpshooters attempted to pick him off through the windows.
A local journalist named Philip Buxton actually got Unruh on the phone during the shootout. This is some of their exchange:
“How many have you killed?”
“I don’t know yet, because I haven’t counted them…but it looks like a pretty good score.”
“Why are you killing people?”
“I don’t know. I can’t answer that yet, I’m too busy…I’ll have to talk to you later…a couple of friends are coming to get me…”
The police eventually flushed him out with tear gas.
Several hours later into his interrogation it was found that Unruh had been shot in the leg with a 9mm bullet fired by a local tavern owner named Frank Engel wielding a German P38. Despite the gunfight with the police back at his home, this was Unruh’s sole injury.
Unruh was remanded to the New Jersey Hospital for the Insane (now Trenton Psychiatric Hospital). He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a generic catch-all sort of diagnosis at the time. He admitted later to being sexually attracted to both his mother and his younger brother. What a piece of work.
Unruh was never tried and lived out his days incarcerated at the psychiatric institution until his death in 2009 at age 88. In retrospect, Unruh was undeniably mentally ill, but he did not meet the criteria for schizophrenia. Had he committed his crimes today he would have been ruled competent and been tried for them. His last public statement made during an interview with his psychologist was, “I’d have killed a thousand if I’d had enough bullets.”
Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the cool replica gear used in our photographs.