On October 4, 1942, almost three years into what had by now become known as World War II, the top secret British MI6 branch at Bletchley Park decrypted a German Enigma radio transmission that referenced an attack on the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, USA. The transmission indicated the assault would take place the following year during dedication ceremonies for the new MacArthur Lock. The attack was scheduled to wreak maximum damage on both property and the lives of the thousands of people who were expected to be present during the ceremony.
Ninety percent of the iron ore that supplied the Allied war effort passed through these locks by lake freighter, and destroying them would shut down every airplane, tank, ship and munitions plant in the United States.
The message was taken very seriously.
Detroit, MichiganWednesday, June 16, 1943
25 days before the dedication of the MacArthur Lock
The night sky had cleared over the tree-lined neighborhood of modest, two story homes on Detroit’s east side. The clouds responsible for the puddles on the street and the damp mist sparkling in the grass had drifted eastward and now hung somewhere over southern Ontario, Canada.
Windows were open to this warm humid evening and strains of Kay Kyser’s There’ll Be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Doverplayed somewhere in the distance.
Hundreds of onlookers were gathered behind rope barriers that kept them fifty feet from either side of a small white house in the middle of the block. Their attention was focused on the front door of the home where a gunman had appeared an hour before demanding a ransom for the woman he held captive. Police had erected the barriers to keep the crowd a safe distance from violence that was expected to break out at any moment.
Inside the ropes, uniformed police and officials in street clothes milled about, some stopping to talk in small groups. Four squad cars, fastback 1942 Chevrolets, were parked side by side at the curb, noses facing the home. They looked like huge black cats resting on their haunches, their yellow eyes casting beams of light against the front of the house, turning its white exterior into lemon icing. The fact that the lights violated the Office of Civil Defense-ordered blackout didn’t matter. Tonight was different.
A woman’s life was at stake.
The eleven o’clock deadline set by the gunman inside was nearing and in minutes he would reappear in that doorway holding his hostage in front of him. He would repeat his demand for a thousand dollars cash and a car in which to make his getaway. The police had a strict policy against negotiations of this sort and would try to stall the man, who had been identified as a mob thug named Frank Valvano by the first officers on the scene. It wouldn’t take long for Valvano to realize he was being conned and all hell would very likely break loose.
Valvano was well known by the Detroit police force as a psychopathic killer who was tolerated by his mob bosses only because of his skill with both gun and knife and his willingness to follow orders without question. Since the events of this evening had blown up in his face, Valvano seemed to have guessed that his stock with his bosses had run out. His demands for money and transportation were a reflection of his desire to escape both authorities and the Detroit mob.
Inside the house with the gunman was a woman named Kate Brennan. A reporter for the Detroit Times, she had been writing a series of front page articles exposing that mob as the perpetrators behind a rash of counterfeit gasoline ration stamps. Because most Americans were limited to five gallons a week for pleasure driving, the bogus stamps proved widely popular. And since they netted eleven million dollars a year, the mob was understandably upset by the articles. They had sent Valvano to threaten the woman at the very least, and to kill her if she insisted on continuing the crusade.
Arriving home shortly after nine o’clock, Brennan found Valvano in her living room. She had successfully avoided his grasp and run into her bedroom, where she locked the door. She was on the bedroom telephone with the police when Valvano broke down the door and smashed the phone against the wall.
But it was too late; the police were on the way.
A lone police rifleman stood on the lawn across the street from the house, his M1C sniper rifle resting against the damp trunk of a twenty-foot elm. Oblivious to both the people and the occasional drop of moisture from the leaves above him, his attention was riveted on the front door of the house. The rifleman’s name was Ben Hatfield and this sort of operation was not new to him. He had been a sniper in WW1, serving in the Fourth U.S. Marine Brigade under Colonel James Harbord. He took part in the famous 1918 Battle of Belleau Wood where he killed a number of the enemy, some as far away as half a mile. Now in his late fifties, Hatfield, who rode a desk and shuffled papers downtown, had to be content with sporadic assignments such as tonight’s. He kept his eye sharp at the range, never firing fewer than two hundred rounds a week. Because the war had made bullets scarce, he had to pack his own.
He had been told the woman stood five feet six inches, Valvano five feet nine. The gunman would be crouched behind his hostage, of course, and there would be precious little room for error. The kill shot would take every ounce of skill Hatfield owned. But the brass downtown was confident enough in his skill to give him the green light to shoot if he saw an opening.
Hatfield had just glanced down at his watch when the corner of his eye caught sight of movement in the doorway. His attention quickly shifted back to the M84 scope on his rifle.
The gunman was coming out.