Howard Unruh and his P08 Parabellum: The Sordid Tale of the Alpha Monster

Thanks to two decades of combat since 9/11, the United States today is covered in a thin patina of valiant, productive, selfless combat veterans.

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.

Our combat vets are national treasures.

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.

The crucible of combat can change a person.

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.

Raw Material

Howard Unruh was an unremarkable student. However, something deep within his soul was horribly broken.

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.

As near as I could ascertain, Unruh drove an M7 Priest armored artillery vehicle like this one during WW2. He purportedly liked pulling the lanyard and was most taken with firing the gun against direct fire targets.

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.

In the Army Unruh found his calling. This was finally something he was truly good at.

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.

Howard Unruh carried an M1 Carbine as a personal weapon during combat in Europe.

Koehn did note, however, that Unruh was a deadly serious soldier and a superb marksman.

Unruh held a morbid fascination with the details of the men he killed.

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 Transition

Trench art like this ashtray formed from the base of an artillery shell was a common combat souvenir. Most everybody of that era smoked.

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.

Unruh was most taken with his German-issue P08 Parabellum pistol.

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 constructed a shooting range in the confined space underneath his home. He had to shoot from the kneeling or prone positions, but he made ample use of the facility.

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’s behavior grew ever stranger. On the left is his house as it stood in 1949. The middle image is of the building today.

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.

Unruh was strange, and living as a gay man in 1949 definitely placed you outside societal norms. He responded by documenting perceived wrongs on the part of his neighbors.

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.

The Setting

Unruh’s inability to establish healthy relationships led to isolation and ultimately chaos.

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.

The theft of this gate was apparently the catalyst that precipitated Howard Unruh’s rampage.

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.

The monster Howard Unruh dressed for the occasion. The morning of the shootings he ate breakfast with his mother but then threatened her with a large wrench.

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.

The Crime

Unruh walked into the barbershop intending to kill the barber. While there he shot a 6-year-old sitting on this horse in full view of his mother.

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.

In the deranged hands of Howard Unruh, a Parabellum pistol like this one stoked with FMJ ammo was devastating.

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 Gun

The C93 Borchardt inspired Georg Luger’s Parabellum.

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.

Though relatively susceptible to battlefield grime, the P08 Luger was a prescient design.

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.

Magazines on the Luger pistol do not drop free, but the dimpled baseplate is included to assist in extraction.

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.

From top to bottom are the Lange Pistol 08 (Artillery Luger), the standard 4-inch-barreled Infantry model, and the Pistole 04 Navy Luger.
The 32-round snail drum magazine (Trommelmagazin) was more complicated than the space shuttle, but it offered serious compact firepower to German soldiers fighting in the trenches during WW1.

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.

The P08 Artillery Luger was originally designed for use by artillery crews for whom a GEW 98 rifle might have been unduly cumbersome. It found favor with Stormtrooper assault squads as well.

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.

Denouement

Once he had expended all thirty-three rounds he carried on his person Howard Unruh returned home and crawled in bed. Cops subsequently surrounded the building as did more than 1,000 enraged townspeople.

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.

Cops with Thompsons slathered Unruh’s house in bullets, apparently injuring a few bystanders in the process.

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.

The cops dragged out anything they could find to engage Unruh. Despite his terminating his slaughter due to a lack of ammunition, he was found to have had another 700 rounds inside his room.

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.

This part of New Jersey was awash in military veterans recently returned from WW2. A local private citizen used a P38 pistol like this one to engage Unruh during his rampage.

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 briefly hospitalized for his leg wound.
The Trenton Psychiatric Hospital was first christened the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum when it opened in 1848.

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.

This picture of Howard Unruh was taken in 1998, nine years prior to his death. Because of his obvious psychiatric deficits, his case never went to trial.

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.

Howard Unruh was one of America’s first spree killers. The two things that slowed him down were an armed citizen and his lack of ammunition. He purportedly never showed remorse despite decades of confinement.
A madman armed with a Luger pistol and ball ammo wrought unspeakable terror on Camden, New Jersey, back in 1949.

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • James Nye November 3, 2020, 8:19 am

    I was only a kid when Unruh did this, but I have remembered this crime and his name ever since.

  • D.J. October 27, 2020, 3:30 pm

    Good show , yet again Mr. Dabbs !
    I always enjoy your contributions . Keep them rolling on , Sir .

  • Lance October 26, 2020, 7:06 pm

    By definition, one would have to be mentally ill to commit murder. But all murderers are in essence mentally ill. I find that a poor excuse not to permanently remove them from society. They will never serve the common good.

  • Mike in a Truck October 26, 2020, 3:00 pm

    Well, as a 13Bravo I can tell you that not all of us are gay. But I can attest that all Field Artillerymen are nuts! Especially those in self-propelled.

  • Ti October 26, 2020, 2:48 pm

    Excellent article, as always.

    In recent history, this reminds me of a ex navy vet/ cop going apeshit in CA awhile back. Of course a flurry of legislation for the law abiding gun owners. Christopher Dorner was the angry man.

  • JCitizen October 26, 2020, 1:33 pm

    Sadly this cook probably did more damage to his neighbors than the German enemy he fought in WW2!

  • John Boutwell October 26, 2020, 1:20 pm

    Another good and interesting article, please keep them coming.

  • Clayton October 26, 2020, 11:04 am

    Awesome article!

  • Robert W. Kocher October 26, 2020, 10:37 am

    Mr. Dabbs, I enjoyed your story very much, Keep them coming.

  • krinkov545 October 26, 2020, 10:25 am

    Sod0mite! Filled with ALL unrighteousness Romans 1

  • Charlie Craig October 26, 2020, 7:39 am

    I thoroughly enjoy all of your articles and always look forward to the next one.

  • Jimboecv October 25, 2020, 1:18 pm

    Thanks, Will. Keep it up.

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