3/13/1934 - Still fresh from his "impossible" escape out of the jail in Crown Point, Indiana, on a cold Tuesday afternoon in which snow flurries dance about in the air, John Dillinger and his bank robbing associates hit the First National Bank of Mason City, Iowa.
Plans made to maximize the take and ensure the safety of the gang, days before the stick-up, Eddie Green and Homer Van Meter, while staying at the local YMCA, have checked the fortitude of the massive seven-story building the bank is located in, walked Mason City's downtown square, noted business foot traffic and the police presence in the area, and studied the features of the First National's principle employees. Green even goes up to the door of the home of fifty-nine-year-old Assistant Cashier Harold C. Fisher and pretends to be a lost salesman so he can memorize the details of the man's face ... a bank worker known to have been entrusted with the combination to the establishment's vault. Casing of the small town of twenty-five-thousand complete, everything looking sweet, boldness personified, the jug men discount any potential danger that may come from the armored guard cage inside the First National and Van Meter makes a long distance call to St. Paul from the Mulcahy Prescription Store, a business across the street from the bank, telling the gang the heist is on. Ripe for the picking, the gang expects to have a payday in excess of $250,000!
In a deserted quarry near the community of Hanford, Van Meter and Green meet up with their confederates from Minnesota ... John Dillinger, John Hamilton, Tommy Carroll, John Paul Chase, and Baby Face Nelson. Reunited, the men pile into a large, dark blue stolen Buick with its back window knocked out for easier machine gunning, a vehicle stocked with weapons and sacks of roofing nails, and make the short drive four miles north into Mason City. It is 2:30 in the afternoon when the car double parks behind the bank. Each man with an assignment as always, Chase, armed with an automatic rifle, stays with car, Carroll and Nelson, carrying machine guns, take up positions outside the building, Dillinger, holding a Thompson and dressed dapper for the event in a gray suit, gray Fedora, gray overcoat and striped silk muffler, stations himself at the entrance to the bank, and Green, Van Meter, and Hamilton enter the First National to plunder its assets.
Setting up to shoot newsreel footage of the bank, local cameraman H. C. Kunkleman is told by Carroll, "Hey you! If there's any shooting to be done, we'll do it. Get that damned thing out of here!" Kunkleman complies with the order and quickly packs up his equipment, but Carroll is only partly correct as to the shooting ... citizens and police officers will soon be participating in the activity too.
The first rounds fired, in what will be a Wild West style afternoon for Mason City, come from the outlaws. Attention required of the over forty patrons and employees within the First National, attention is immediately gained when Green discharges his machine gun into the ceiling. "Hands up! Hands up! Everybody on the floor!" Unwilling to be taken hostage, instead of following orders, bank president Willis Bagley bolts into the nearest office and locks himself in, actions that cause an extremely upset Van Meter to fire his Colt .45 automatic through the room's wooden door. Fortunately for Bagley though, the rounds only crease the banker's sleeve and vest and he will be left alone for the rest of the robbery.
In his armored cage on the second level of the bank, thirty-three-year-old guard Tom Walters responds to the shooting in the lobby below with firing of his own. Taking aim, following robbery protocol, Walters fires as an eight-inch tear-gas canister directly into Green's back ... an act that causes the bandit to hit the floor, jump up, grab bank executive R. L. Stephensen as a shield, and angrily begin spraying the cage with .45 slugs from his machine gun, rounds that crack and splinter the bulletproof glass Walters is positioned behind, with one bullet ricocheting through the gun slit and furrowing the guard's chin and right ear. Injured and fearing he will hit an innocent as visibility decreases below him because of the spreading gas, the guard is out of the battle.
Meanwhile, the fume spewing gas canister seemingly becomes a prop in a Marx Brothers movie as it rolls about the floor and a group of hostages take turns kicking it away from where they are laying. And adding to the mounting chaos in the lobby, from the second level of the bank, auditor Tom Barclay grabs a tear-gas candle, lights the device, and throws it down among the robbers and hostages. Trying to summon help, on the second floor switchboard operator Margaret Johnson, crawls into a storage area, opens a window and calls down to the first person she sees, a short man in tan overcoat standing at the mouth of the alley next to the bank, "Hey you! Don't you know the bank is being robbed? Get some help!" Looking up, Baby Face Nelson responds with a grin and a presentation of his machine gun, "Lady, are you telling me?"
Coughing and wiping tears from his eyes, as Green and Van Meter prowl about watching the hostages, Hamilton grabs Fischer and sets about raiding the vault. Fischer however prevents the robbery from being the huge payday the gang is expecting. Opening the barred door to the area holding over $200,000, the cashier uses a bag of pennies as a doorstop hoping for exactly what happens ... greedy for loot, Hamilton picks up the bag and the door swings closed, and the outlaw, not knowing he can walk right in, has Fischer transfer bags of money out through the bars separating the two men, a process which the cashier does as slowly as he can, and in which he selects money bags containing one-dollar bills. Despite repeated pleas to his partners that they stay "just another minute," eventually Hamilton will be forced to flee with only $52,000.
Outside, as more and more people are drawn to the downtown area as word spreads that the bank is being robbed, mayhem stalks the streets in the form of a maniacal Baby Face Nelson. Laughing and talking to himself, Nelson fires on a reporter from the Mason City Globe Gazette, shoots up a large Hudson sedan that makes the mistake of driving by, blasts a row of parked cars, sends a volley of bullets into the second story of a hardware store, and then guns down Raymond L. James, the Mason City school board secretary, when the man doesn't obey his order to "STOP" quickly enough as he strolls down the sidewalk near the bank (the hard of hearing James will be rushed to a nearby hospital after the robbery and recover from the two wounds he takes to his legs). And adding insult to injury, he also fires on Tom James, when the younger man rushes to his father's aid (the son is luckily missed).
Feeling a little feisty and frosty himself as he gathers hostages off the street, Dillinger gets in the action by plugging the radiator of a motorist who tries to pass the line of cars the outlaws have stopped on Federal street, and keeps Patrolman James Buchanan, carrying a shotgun and revolver, pinned down behind a Civil War Veterans boulder monument in the park across the street from the bank. "Come out from behind there and fight like a man!" the bandit shouts, but Buchanan is having none of it. "Get away from that crowd and I will!" the officer retorts.
Fifteen minutes at the bank and all hell is breaking loose in Mason City ... it is time to go.
TO BE CONTINUED ...