Sure shot Walter R. Walsh was an FBI legend in an age of gangsters
Walter R. Walsh, a world-class marksman who shot clothespins off laundry lines as a boy and went on to become an FBI legend in shootouts with gangsters in the 1930s, an Olympic competitor and a trainer of generations of Marine Corps sharpshooters, died April 29 at his home in Arlington, Va., five days before his 107th birthday.
His son Walter confirmed the death.
Mr. Walsh was still winning handgun awards and coaching Olympic marksmen at 90, and aside from some hearing and memory loss, he was fit and continued to live alone at home. At the centennial of the FBI in 2008, he was recognized not only as the oldest living former agent, but also as older than the organization itself by more than a year.
He joined the FBI in 1934, a short, feisty James Cagney-like tough guy fresh out of Rutgers Law School. A natural left-hander, he was already a dead shot who could cut the centre of a bull’s-eye at 75 metres with a rifle and blaze away at moving targets with a pistol in each hand – an enormous advantage in a bureau that was just breaking in its first class of agents authorized to carry guns.
“I thought to myself, ‘this might be a good outfit to tie up with,’” Mr. Walsh recalled in an NPR interview in 2008. “I am not trying to pin medals on myself, but the people in the FBI knew that I was very handy with firearms.”
It was the age of gangsters in Depression America, of John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Ma Barker and the Brady Gang. There were rub-outs on the streets of Chicago, holdups in countless banks and running-board gun battles. Post offices were plastered with public enemy posters, and newsreels featured the scowling FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover.
Mr. Walsh quickly rose to prominence. In his first year, he discovered the body of Baby Face Nelson, who had killed two agents in a shootout in Barrington, Ill. and, although mortally wounded, got away. The FBI mounted a multistate manhunt, and Mr. Walsh found him in a ditch in Skokie.
Two months later, on Jan. 8, 1935, he captured Arthur (Doc) Barker, Ma’s son, who was wanted for bank robberies, three murders, two kidnappings and a jailbreak. Mr. Walsh picked up his trail in Chicago and confronted him near his hideout. There was a chase, but Mr. Barker slipped on an icy sidewalk and fell. Mr. Walsh ran up and stuck his .45 behind Mr. Barker’s ear.
“Don’t move, Doc, or I’ll kill you,” Mr. Walsh later recalled saying.
“I asked him, ‘Where’s your heater, Doc?’” Mr. Walsh said. “He said, ‘It’s up in the apartment,’ and, ‘Ain’t that a hell of a place for it?’ I said: ‘No. You’re lucky, Doc.’”
Sent to Alcatraz, Doc Barker was shot dead by guards when he tried to escape in 1939.
Mr. Walsh’s most famous case ended the Brady Gang’s cross-country crime spree two years later. While the FBI refused to discuss what happened, wire service reporters as well as the local police provided eyewitness accounts of the final shootout. On Oct. 12, 1937, Mr. Walsh was in the sporting goods store Dakin’s in Bangor, Me., posing as a sales clerk and waiting for Public Enemy No. 1, Alfred Brady, and two gunmen, James Dalhover and Clarence Lee Shaffer.
Wanted for four murders, 200 robberies and a prison breakout, they had been in the store days earlier and were returning for Thompson submachine guns. But a large force of federal agents and state and local police officers was waiting in ambush. hidden in cars, storefronts and offices across the street.
The gang’s car drew up at 8:30 a.m. Mr. Dalhover got out and entered the store. Mr. Walsh immediately seized and disarmed him. Mr. Shaffer and Mr. Brady, sensing something was wrong, emerged with guns drawn.
Mr. Walsh, meanwhile, approached the store’s front with a .45 in his right hand and a .357 Magnum in his left. But as he reached the door he realized he was looking through the plate glass at Mr. Shaffer. The glass exploded as both men fired simultaneously.
Mr. Shaffer fell, mortally wounded, to the sidewalk. Mr. Walsh, although hit, in the chest, shoulder and right hand, stepped outside firing his Magnum at Mr. Brady, who was cut down in a thundering fusillade from all sides as he shot back wildly. Witnesses said he was still moving as Mr. Walsh put another bullet in him.
Mr. Walsh, who killed at least 11 gangsters in his FBI days, competed regularly in national shooting tournaments and broke the world record for centre-fire pistol shooting in 1939 at Camp Ritchie, Md., scoring 198 out of a possible 200. He also won the Eastern regional pistol championships in 1939 and 1940.
In 1942, after America’s entry into the Second World War, Mr. Walsh joined the Marines and began training snipers in New River, N.C. He requested combat duty in 1944, was sent to the Pacific and joined the invasion of Okinawa in 1945. At one point, with his unit pinned down, he killed an enemy sniper at 80 metres with one pistol shot.
After the war, he briefly returned to the FBI but concluded that his days as an agent were over and turned increasingly to competitive shooting. On the U.S. Olympic shooting team at the 1948 Summer Games in London, he placed 12th in the world in the men’s 50-metre free pistol competition.
In 1952, he won gold and silver medals with the U.S. team at the International Shooting Sport Federation championships. He won many FBI and Marine Corps competitions and trained Marine marksmen until his retirement as a colonel in 1970. He was the captain of the U.S. team at the world muzzle loading championships in Switzerland in 1994.
He still did not need glasses.
Walter Rudolph Walsh was born in West Hoboken, N.J., on May 4, 1907, to Walter Brooks Walsh and the former Bolinda Invernizzi. When he was 12, his father gave him his first rifle, a .22-calibre Mossberg. He shot rats in the New Jersey Meadowlands and honed his skills on an aunt’s laundry clothespins.
At 16 he lied about his age, joined the Civilian Military Training Corps and received his first formal training with a 1903 Springfield rifle. He joined the New Jersey National Guard in 1928, won a spot on its rifle team and did his first competitive shooting at national matches at Camp Perry, Ohio.
His wife, Kathleen (née Barber), died in 1980. In addition to his son Walter, he is survived by another son, three daughters Gerald; three daughters, Kathleen Reams, Rosemary Haas and Linda Walsh; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In 1997, he won the Outstanding American Handgunner of the Year award.
On his 100th birthday, in 2007, his family served three cakes. One bore the FBI seal, another the five rings of the Olympic Games, and the third the seal of the U.S. Marine Corps. He was also the guest of honour at a re-enactment of the Brady Gang shootout in Bangor and was given the key to the city.
Three weeks after Mr. Walsh’s 100th birthday, a grandson, Sgt. Nicholas R. Walsh, a reconnaissance team leader with Charlie Company, 1st Platoon of the 1st Marine Division, was killed by sniper fire in Fallujah, Iraq.