17 timeless lessons learned from the 'Little Bohemia' shootout
What would you have done differently to have better results if you had received the call to arrest the Dillinger Gang?
As a trainer, I often used the examination of historical moments in law enforcement – both victories and defeats – to have classes evaluate them and determine what lessons could be learned from each event. One example from which much can be learned was the failed attempt to arrest the Dillinger Gang at "Little Bohemia."
In April 1934, John Dillinger, also known as "Public Enemy Number One," was in hiding and licking his wounds at Little Bohemia Lodge near Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin. He had just survived a shootout in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 31, 1934. George "Baby Face" Nelson, Homer Van Meter, John “Red” Hamilton, Tommy Carroll and two female companions were with Dillinger.
After discovering who their notorious guests were, lodge owners Emil and Nan Wanatka smuggled a note to a friend. They asked that it be delivered to federal authorities since they believed the gang was too heavily armed for the local sheriff’s department.
Assistant Director Hugh Clegg of the Bureau of Investigation organized a "Flying Squad." These agents flew immediately to the Rhinelander Airport, located 50 miles away.
Clegg’s team rented cars and raced to the lodge, guided by a local constable. Short of vehicles, some team members sped through the freezing night riding on running boards.
Arriving on Scene
It was April 22, 1934, at 8 p.m. when the team rolled into the area of “Little Bohemia” and bailed out, rushing toward the front of the lodge. Their advance faltered when they unexpectedly tripped through a ditch and crawled over a barbed wire fence, both catching them by surprise in the dim light of a half moon. The commotion set the local dogs howling.
With agents still scattered haphazardly throughout the woods to the front of the lodge, three men carrying rifles nonchalantly exited the lodge and climbed into a parked 1933 Chevrolet Coupe.
As the vehicle rolled down the long driveway, agents shouted from the woods: "HALT!"
The driver continued toward the exit. The agents opened fire. The driver, John Hoffman, and passenger John Morris stumbled out of the car, wounded and bewildered. They both would survive, but their friend, Eugene Boisneau, died in the front seat.
These men were two Conservation Corps workers and one luckless traveling salesman leaving the restaurant after treating themselves to drinks and a meal.
The Gang Escapes
Inside the lodge, the "Dillinger Gang" ignored the barking dogs, but the gunfire inspired them to initiate their pre-arranged escape plan. They delivered a barrage of automatic weapons fire toward the agents from the upper windows of the lodge.
With that done, they leaped unseen out the side windows, onto the side roof and down to the ground, abandoning the women who remained hunkered down inside the lodge. They disappeared into the woods, using a lakeside embankment for cover and concealment.
Assistant Director Clegg failed to assign agents to cover the lakeside of the lodge after he incorrectly assumed "on the lake" meant the lake was a barrier to escape.
The agents sprayed and prayed rounds into the criminal-free lodge, luckily hitting no one else. After the cease-fire, Clegg belatedly sent agents to "cordon off the area" and "summon help."
While engaged in this effort, Special Agent Jay Newman, Special Agent W. Carter Baum and local Constable Carl Christensen spotted an occupied vehicle parked near the lodge.
Agent Newman, stopped beside the parked car, and casually asked, "Who are you, gentleman?"
"Baby Face" Nelson whipped out a pistol and ordered the lawmen out of their vehicle. As Newman compliantly exited, Nelson shot him in the head. A grazing impact knocked out Newman, who would survive.
Nelson then shot Agent Baum dead and severely wounded Constable Christensen. The gang then fled, leaving behind an empty-handed, shot-up "Flying Squad" to contemplate: "What just happened?"
One way to debrief historical incidents like this is to ask: "Using your available resources, what would you do differently to have better results if you received this call?"
Here are some elements of a successful tactical operation that officers bring up regularly.
- Hire the best suited, not the best suits: J. Edgar Hoover deliberately recruited neatly dressed lawyers and accountants, who lacked tactical skills and street sense. Hoover openly expressed a bias against candidates who "looked like truck drivers." After "Little Bohemia," Hoover began recruiting "truck-driver types" like Oklahoma PD Officers Clarence Hurt and Delf A. "Jelly" Bryce, who were tough, gritty, accomplished man hunters and seasoned gunfighters. To acquire Bryce, who some say was the fastest police gunfighter in history, Hoover personally waived the college requirement.
- Train, train and train some more: The agents at "Little Bohemia" had very little tactical training. Even today, police leaders fail to grasp that officers need to be given a great deal of training up front, followed by continual updates and refreshers on an ongoing basis. Not only should individual knowledge and skills be trained, but also team skills.
- Don't rush when there is no rush: The agents rushed unnecessarily into the fight. There are times when speed is essential, like an in-progress active shooter. However, when there is time, as in this case, take your time to do it right.
- Pre-raid intelligence gathering is essential: The simple act of reconnoitering a target can tell you where entrances and exits are, what kind of locks are on the doors and windows, where lookouts, cameras and occupants are, the best avenues of approach and escape, where the target is, what the weapons might be, where the dogs and booby traps are, barriers and hazards to approach, as well as where innocent bystanders, hostages, evidence and children might be located. Simply put: having situational and environmental awareness makes for a better plan.
- Formulate a viable plan: A viable, detailed plan must be thoughtfully prepared in all high-risk operations. Before heading toward the target, everyone involved needs to know what their job is, but still be able, when conditions change, to improvise, adapt and overcome.
- Have available specially trained personnel, equipment and weapons: High-risk operation assignments require the proper number of tactically trained team members to deal with the unique threats posed by the individuals you are pursuing. The team needs access to protective equipment, ballistic shields, breaching tools, animal control options and a chemical/special munitions operator. Negotiators, with their exceptional de-escalation skills, along with their equipment, including phones, bull horns, or long-range acoustic devices, are a requirement.
All officers should also have technology that turns darkness into light and know, through specialized training, how to use darkness and light to their tactical advantage.
- Rehearse the plan: When possible, physically rehearse the plan in a similar environment and make appropriate adjustments.
- Include an inner and outer perimeter: In tactical situations, there needs to be an inner perimeter to control and contain the problem, and an outer perimeter to limit access, allowing in only people, vehicles and equipment which offer a solution to the problem. Officers assigned to hold the inner and outer perimeter must remain alert to deadly situations, which can develop suddenly on the perimeter.
- Have the right vehicles: Acquire the right number/types of vehicles needed for the task. Stage marked vehicles just outside the inner perimeter, ready to pursue fleeing suspects.
- Approach unseen: On the approach, get as close to your position of advantage as possible without detection.
- Have protective overwatch: Establish a protective overwatch using counter-sniper observer teams with optics.
- Have a toolbox filled with tactics: The "Flying Squad" possessed few trained tactics in 1934. To defeat dangerous criminals, officers need to possess a toolbox filled with pre-trained superior tactics.
Some of these critical skills and tactics include negotiation/de-escalation/crisis management/communication skills, advanced defensive and physical control tactics, advanced firearms tactics, area and room clearing, high-risk arrest rituals and stop tactics, vehicle clearing, hostage rescue, investigative skills, technological skills and tactical emergency medical skills.
- Have an ambulance on standby: You will save lives by having an ambulance on standby for every high-risk operation.
- Include like-trained leadership: A trained team needs to have a designated officer in charge and team leaders who have trained and operated with the team extensively to ensure success. The officer in charge must have on scene authority to act as needed to achieve success. Having a trained team, controlled by an untrained leader, is like having an airline CEO, who has never piloted a plane, suddenly decide to land a 747. That plane will most likely crash and burn.
- Train the defensible rules of engagement: All officers should be extensively trained in the rules of engagement and the criteria for the use of all force applications, including the use of deadly force with an in-depth practical understanding of concepts like last resort, preclusion, weapon, intent and delivery system, target identification, acquisition and isolation, special circumstances, and the imminency of the threat toward self, others and/or the community.
- Maintain a proper mindset: Officers involved should be alert, vigilant, motivated and able to do the right – and sometimes difficult – things required of a modern knight sworn to protect and serve.
- Consider alternative tactics: The FBI did learn from "Little Bohemia." When the notorious Kate "Ma" Barker and her son, Fred, were trapped inside a house in Lake Weir, Florida, in 1935, the FBI locked down the inner perimeter, held their positions behind cover and established communications to attempt to negotiate a surrender. "Ma" and Fred responded by opening fire on the agents. However, because of sound tactics, "Ma" and Fred were the only casualties.
Debriefing events from past and recent law enforcement history can enhance your tactical training by discovering the lessons other officers learned the hard way. As the philosopher and poet George Santayana once said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."