THE GREAT SUB FLUB
A 1940 DIY EXTORTION plot looked BRILLIANT. Its execution? NOT so much.
In 1940, Walter Minx concocted an elaborate (and bizarre) plot to extort money from a Milwaukee businessman. It involved a pipe bomb, a death threat, a chartered airplane and a hidden, homemade submarine. By Matthew J. Prigge
I“I never read books, it all comes out of my head, and from my imagination. When I was only 14, I said, ‘Give me the money and I’ll build anything from a kiddie car to an ocean liner.’”
Walter Paul Minx
was 23 years old in 1940. He was slender and fidgety, with the kind of sharp-featured handsomeness that the movies had taught people not to trust. He was a German by birth and at heart, but possessed a distinctly American set of ambitions. He admired Adolf Hitler and had once been a proud member of the Nazi Party. He also wanted to build a business, to earn himself a name and a fortune. Friends and family called him “the Macher,” a German idiom for an important man who had influence and made things happen. Its literal translation was “the doer.” It was often used ironically.
Walter Minx came to Milwaukee from Germany in 1925 with his parents, his older brother, Kurt, and a sister. Although his formal education had stopped after the seventh grade, Walter displayed an intuitive mechanical brilliance from an early age. He was an inveterate builder and tinkerer. He had once built a working motorboat, and he later had constructed a small plane that, as the family legend went, he had actually been able to fly.
As Hitler began his conquest of Europe and news of naval warfare made local headlines, Walter dreamed up a scheme in which he and Kurt could secretly salvage torpedoed military ships using a homemade submarine. He designed and began to build a 20-foot sub that would have been able to travel at 25 miles per hour. He gave up on the project before it was completed, but, as always his mind kept working. He had no doubt he could build a functional treasure-hunting sub. He just needed a target closer to home.
On April 15, 1940, an item appeared on page six of The Milwaukee Journal’s second section. It pictured Rowland H. Davie, general manager of Milwaukee’s Sears stores, surrounded by smiling employees as he passed out envelopes containing $62,000 in profit-sharing funds the company was distributing. Davie was middle-aged, bespectacled and grinning, seated behind a stately desk and beaming with the visage of an important man.
A few months earlier, Minx had installed decorative ironwork cashier’s cages in the credit department of one of Davie’s Sears stores, located on North Avenue. He had since left the firm responsible for the Sears job to start his own company. He had been getting steady work, but was having trouble with the capital funds needed to truly start seeing a profit. Seeing the photo of Davie in the newspaper, Minx thought he looked like a man with much to lose and cash to spare.
Over the next
few months, Minx formulated his plot. He would contact Davie and threaten him with death and the destruction of two of his Milwaukee stores if he did not pay $100,000 in cash. To show that this was not an idle threat, Minx would detonate a small pipe bomb at the North Avenue store the day after the letter was delivered. Davie would be ordered to charter an airplane with enough fuel to fly 75 miles from the Curtiss-Wright airfield (now Timmerman Airport) and await instructions. Minx
would have the plane fly east, over Lake Michigan, where he would be hidden beneath the water in a homemade submarine. A pair of lights would float above the sub, indicating where the cash should be dropped. After the drop, Minx would surface, collect the loot and re-submerge. As he made his way back towards the mainland, Minx would transfer the cash into a water-tight inner-tube. A few hundred feet off of Bradford Beach, he would scuttle the sub and swim back to a secluded part of shore, where his car would be waiting for him.
To aid in the plan, Minx recruited Kurt and their 28-yearold brother-in-law, Daniel Carter. As the mastermind, Walter claimed half of the $100,000, while Kurt and Carter agreed to take $25,000 each. Throughout the summer, Walter worked on the pipe bomb in the North 11th Street shop he rented for his ironwork business, building the weapon side-by-side with his regular work. It took him several weeks to perfect the device and outfit it with a “blast” suitable for sending his message.
Building the submarine went much quicker. Using sheet metal and a battery-operated automobile motor, Minx completed the craft in about a week, working on it at his parents’ Holton Street home. The design for the 7-by-3-foot boat was entirely his own. After he had completed the craft, Walter sat inside it as his brother dumped bucket after bucket of water over it, checking for leaks. As Walter expected, it was watertight.
the gang was ready to make contact. Kurt pulled to the curb on Shorewood Boulevard as his car neared the address Walter had found in the telephone directory. Walter got out and walked forward briskly while Kurt pulled away and rounded the corner. In Walter’s pocket was a two-page, punctuation-free note, written in crude, all-caps print relaying the details of the cold-blooded plot. It told Davie to run an ad in the next day’s paper reading “Joe Will Be At Home, R.H.D.” if he agreed to their terms. The note was signed “WE.”
As he approached 2612 E. Shorewood Blvd., Walter cut a quick path across the grass, tossed the envelope near the porch and
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