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Lessons at Little Bohemia

Seventy-five years ago, a shootout with John Dillinger and "Baby Face" Nelson in the woods of Wisconsin went horribly wrong.


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Dr. John Fox, FBI Historian:

Through a series of spectacular bank robberies and jailbreaks, John Dillinger had become a nationally known criminal. Law enforcement across the country were looking for him. We had been tracking him for a while. Had a couple of near misses where we had almost had him but he got out just in time.

Our Chicago office received a call about 10 o’clock on the Sunday morning of April 22nd that John Dillinger and several of his confederates were hiding out at a small vacation lodge in Northern Wisconsin, a place called Little Bohemia in a town near Manitowish.

We immediately began to rally our forces. Special Agent in Charge Purvis called Washington and Headquarters agreed that the lead sounded legitimate. By 6 o’clock that night our agents had arrived from St. Paul and Chicago in a couple of planes. They talked to Henry Voss, who was the man who had called them earlier that morning and told them that Dillinger was in Northern Wisconsin. Voss gave them a short map of the Little Bohemia Lodge and its layout.

Little Bohemia was a vacation lodge. Basically it was a two-story building, had several out-cabins and a large garage. Behind it there was a fair-sized lake and people could canoe or boat on it. The sign outside the front, on Highway 51 there at the entrance to the lodge, said that it had fine dining and dancing and basically a good time to be had.

Special Agent Purvis began to contact local car dealers to see if he could borrow a couple of cars to get his men and Hugh Clegg’s men up to the lodge. As they looked down the road they could just barely see the lights from the lodge and they would have been approaching in pine trees. Melvin Purvis described the atmosphere as “chilly.” It was very cold, of course, at the time, being night and the end of winter.

And so they began heading down the road, lights off, very quietly, very softly, agents hanging on the outside of the car because they couldn’t fit everybody in. And as they approached the lodge dogs began to bark.

Immediately, the agents got out of the cars and began to reconnoiter around the parking lot to try and make sure they hadn’t been discovered yet when several men came out of the lodge. Three of them got into a car and turned on the radio and began to drive off. Agents yelled “Stop! Federal Agents! Police! Stop!” But the men had been inside drinking, having a good time. They didn’t hear the agents. And because they seemed to be coming at them in a threatening manner, our agents opened up fire on the car. The driver was killed. It turned out he was a civilian Conservation Corps worker.

Dillinger and his confederates were upstairs in the lodge on the second floor began firing out one of those windows there. While our agents ducked for cover—and to try and get and better place to defend themselves and fire back—Dillinger and his men got out the back of the lodge.

They were able to do down towards the back of the lodge to the Southdown a little hill towards the lake, and using the escarpment of the hill were able to get out of the area very quietly.

The evening had even more tragedy. As we were trying to figure out who was still in the lodge, whether or not any of the gangsters were still around, and of course trying to track those who already fled. Baby Face Nelson arrived and stole a car and ended up confronting our agents, killing one of them, injuring the other and seriously wounding the local police officer who was with them.

In the aftermath of the failed raid on Little Bohemia we received a lot of criticism from press and the politicians and even other law enforcement who thought they should have been better included.

But for the Bureau it really was a learning lesson. We learned that we had to have better training and better preparation for raids, and they became integral parts of the training of new agents and the continuing training of agents. We learned that we needed to develop plans ahead of time for getting information out, for contacting. In order for a raid to be successful you have to have that planning. So it became an integral part of how we dealt with these kinds of dangerous situations. So for the FBI it really became part and parcel of more advanced training, more advanced tactics, that we developed over the years.