Wednesday, October 2, 1968, the night I arrived home

Within sixty hours after saying good-bye to my teammates and friends in Vietnam, I was discharged from the Army and back home in southwest Detroit. It was Wednesday evening, October 2, 1968. It was a drastic change, but I felt great just being able to embrace my mom and dad, brother, and two sisters again after not hearing their voices for nearly a year. At the time, it took a month for a letter to get home from Vietnam, and another month for a reply to get back. But now, suddenly, I could sit in the kitchen and eat my mother’s glorious Arabic food, hold our dog Chico and our cat Fluffy, and be part of my family again.

As I looked in amazement at how much my 10-year-old sister Ruthie had grown, my dad handed me a glass of a beer. My older sister, Leila, was apologizing for not bringing her young children, Renee and Eddie, who were asleep at home with their father, Doug. After dinner, I had a few more glasses of beer and slept in my bunk bed in the basement.

My basement gun room. Note, my two Army .45s at left

When I awoke the next morning, I ran around Patton Park, showered and put on civilian clothes, and visited for a while with the family. Then I went to my gun room in the basement to examine the packages I had sent home. Picking up one box after another, pulling out the weapons and field gear inside, I studied each item, feeling great not to be one of the 33,000 Americans who had died in Vietnam so far, or one of the 540,000 who were still there.

More basement weapons

My weapons collection had grown since I joined the Army, and I now owned over a hundred firearms, nearly all of them military. They ranged from handguns to bolt-action and semiautomatic rifles, to machine guns. I even had a British .55-caliber Boys antitank gun complete with live ammunition, and a functional German 88mm Panzerschreck bazooka. With so many weapons, my collection had spread from our old coal cellar to occupy the entire basement.

My machine guns. Note, the T-10 parachutes at right from Germany

The weapons had a certain pecking order. The machine guns I liked the most, because the mechanics incorporated the complexities of all the other weapons and because the repetitive, self-functioning nature of their mechanisms made them seem almost like living entities. Geography and history also played a major part in each weapon’s place on the pecking order. Topping the list were Nazi weapons and memorabilia, for World War II was still a recent memory and surplus weapons were pouring into the country.[1] Next in line were US, Soviet, and Japanese weapons. Whether or not you despised the Germans in World War II, their war-fighting capabilities were legendary, and their engineering feats in firearms technology were second to none. And when you’re a collector preserving history, that’s all that matters. (The increased value is a nice bonus, though.)

A few days after coming home, I went to Jerry Biefield’s Ford on Michigan Avenue with my brother and paid cash for a ’66 Mustang two-door convertible. The car was beautiful, with a dark burgundy exterior and a white top. The only problem was, I didn’t know how to drive. Hence my brother’s presence. After mistakenly blowing through a couple of red lights, I got the hang of it and decided to get my license once I knew I would pass the test. I passed, and by the end of the month I had a job at the Detroit News. My brother worked the loading docks at the News and was stunned when I got put up in dispatch, working with all the girls. After all, I was shy with women, had never gone to high school, and had only a GED, whereas my brother had a couple of years of college.

Detroit News, November 10, 1968

I couldn’t be working in a more perfect situation, and I had plenty of money from my savings in the military and from buying and selling weapons. Life was great. That is, until Sunday, November 10, when I read an article in the Detroit News, titled “Present Arms! Gangsters Told.” It said that anyone with a “bazooka, machine gun, or destructive device” had until December 1 to register the weapon or they would be in violation of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which was passed following the violent deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert Francis Kennedy. Violation of the Gun Control Act was a felony with a ten-year sentence and a ten-thousand-dollar fine.

Tuesday, August 31, 1965, my bazooka receipt

I had just turned 20 years old and didn’t know anyone in my neighborhood with a background in law. I had a job and had just learned how to drive, and now my government considered me a gangster. Even my British Boys antitank gun and German Panzerschreck bazooka were illegal under the new law, and I had bought both of them legally before I even joined the army. I was angry, thinking, Shit, this is the same government I killed people for and came close to dying for, and now they’re targeting me! But more importantly, what should I do? I knew that all captured weapons belonged to the US government and that other than bolt-action rifles, none could be brought home. I had less than three weeks to get the registration forms and make a decision. Worse, the article said that registration got you amnesty only from the federal government—it would not protect anyone from state and local authorities, nor would it stop the feds from sharing information.

With passage of the Gun Control Act, my plan to become a gunsmith faded away and I decided to become a cop. I liked the military way of life but didn’t want to leave home again. I had already applied with the Detroit Police, saying I was 21 (their minimum age), but they caught on that I was 20, so my plan was on hold till my birthday. I didn’t want to ruin my future by not registering the weapons, but I feared that if I did, my machine guns would be confiscated.

Detroit News, Sunday, November 10, 1968. Assistant Special Agent in Charge Orville J. Turner

The article showed a picture of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Detroit office’s assistant special agent in charge, Orville J. Turner, holding a confiscated German 9mm MP40 “Schmeisser” submachine gun. It was a gem for collectors, and if weapons like that were going to get torched at the Ford River Rouge foundry and turned into exhaust pipes, I knew what would happen to mine. Besides, my dad and I had spent a lot of time working on them in his garage. Two of the weapons had bullet damage—to the receiver on one and to the barrel on the other. My father was an excellent mechanic and machinist, and he seamlessly welded the hole in the receiver and then crafted a tool to precisely grind a slight bulge in the barrel. Afterward, we refinished the stocks and cold-blued the metal. I talked to him about my problem, and he said, “Sh-h-h! Don’t tell anyone!” My dad was a great provider, and he believed that no one, especially the government, needed to know our business.

I decided I would register half the weapons as deactivated since they would appear to be nonfunctional, and to say nothing about the others. After all, life was about taking chances, and that was always what made it exciting.

I sent six registration forms in, and the ATF sent them back, saying the weapons were now registered. After that, I heard nothing more, so I took the weapons out to various wooded areas to shoot with Nora. I had met her working at the Detroit News, and we got engaged seven weeks later. By September, I was 21 and in college, and in February 1970 I became a deputy with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department in Detroit. Nora and I had already broken up after we passed her Christmas deadline for getting married.

I was heartbroken and I’m sure that she was, too, but I had just sold my Mustang and bought a ’68 Corvette, a ’67 Willys Jeep, and two motorcycles and was still stocking up on weapons. The thought of having kids and buying a washer and dryer instead of guns and vehicles seemed to spoil the fun. A few months passed, and another woman came into my life, along with the thought that I had better make things right with the feds. In June, I called the Detroit ATF office and spoke with Agent Daniel M. Patterson. I explained my predicament and that I was a cop, and he said, “That’s not a big problem. Just get a letter from your department specifying each weapon and saying that you’ll have them available for their use.”

Thursday, July 9, 1970, sheriff's department letter citing weapons

I contacted Deputy Inspector Richard P. Page, in charge of the Jail Division, where I was assigned. Page was a decent guy and a marine who had served in the South Pacific in World War II. On Thursday, July 9, 1970, Page had his secretary list all my weapons and their serial numbers on a letterhead. That day, I picked it up and dropped it off with the feds. The next morning, I got a call at home from Agent Patterson.

He said, “I got your letter, Bob. But I’m sorry, all the unregistered weapons have to be seized. The other ones, you can keep if you weld them.”

“Really?” I said, feeling gut punched. “I thought I was okay.”

“I’m sorry. It went up the chain of command and didn’t fly. You gonna be home Monday?”


“Okay, have the weapons ready. I’ll be there to pick them up.”

I felt pretty low driving to the jail that hot summer day. I had risked my life to own those weapons, and now they were going to be taken away. But after months of working in that six-story stink hole with eleven hundred inmates, I knew I would rather abandon my machine guns than risk going to jail.

More basement handguns and memorabilia

That Monday, July 13, 1970, Agents Patterson and James E. Lietzow drove to my parents’ house, where I lived, and parked across the street. They came to the front door, and we walked to the basement. Patterson did all the talking as Lietzow looked over all my weapons and Nazi armbands. Patterson was apologetic and urged me to weld the weapons that I had declared deactivated, so I could keep them. That would have been simple since my dad had the needed skills, but I couldn’t. I did agree to deactivate the German bazooka by completely blocking the chamber, since ammunition would never be available for it anyway.[2]

We started picking up the weapons, and Patterson again implored me just to weld them. But I said, “Having weapons that don’t work is like having a beautiful woman you can’t touch: there’s just no point.”

Monday, July 13, 1970, weapons abandonment

He smiled, and we carried all my machine guns and my antitank gun, including its ammo, across the street and put them in the trunk of their car. Then we sat in the living room and filled out a “Notice of Abandonment” form, listing all the weapons. We shook hands, and they walked to their car. Going back inside, I noticed a black attaché case standing next to the couch, so I opened it and saw a nickel-plated revolver and a bunch of papers inside. I ran to the agents trying to start their car. It was Patterson’s case. He thanked me. Then he asked if I had any jumper cables, because their battery was dead. I swung my Corvette around and started the car. What my neighbors thought, I don’t know—maybe that it was just another day in Detroit.

I figured I had one last option. The next morning, I drove downtown to the federal building and spoke with Assistant Special Agent in Charge Orville J. Turner. He was kind enough to let me speak with him, but his only reply was, “I want all these weapons off the street!”

Wednesday, July 29, 1970, Sheriff Lucas' letter

I again contacted Inspector Page, who informed the sheriff. Sheriff William Lucas, a former New York City undercover cop, former FBI agent, and law school grad, wrote Turner, requesting that the weapons be made available to our 1,200-man department. He received a reply stating that the only disposition for seized weapons not assigned to a federal agency was destruction.[3]

August 1970, ATF reply

I was later assigned to our Metropolitan Narcotics Bureau as an undercover officer and saw Patterson from time to time while working cases. Perhaps he was just trying to make me feel better, but he kept insisting that my weapons were in such great shape, the ATF had placed them in its weapons display in Washington, DC. I hoped so because the weapons would be valuable exemplars of firearms technology and military history, and the work that my father and I had done would not be for nothing.

* * * 

Detroit Free Press, Friday, May 3, 1974, continued below

A few years later, on the overcast Friday morning of May 3, 1974, I was attending the Detroit Police Department’s Criminal Justice Institute for Advanced Police Training when I saw this Detroit Free Press headline: “2 Federal Agents, 3 Others Charged in Heroin Scheme.” Agent Daniel M. Patterson was among those arrested for trafficking large quantities of heroin from Mexico. He was also complicit in disseminating to criminals information about undercover officers and their activities.

DFP, Friday, May 3, 1974

Cops like that are two-faced traitors, more dangerous than street criminals. And yet, somehow I felt sorry for Patterson. My antitank gun and all my machine guns from Vietnam were gone, but because of certain undercover work I had done, the very people who took them—agents from the ATF—were now guiding me in how to acquire other ones legally.[4] And Sheriff William Lucas and Undersheriff Loren Pittman were helping me. Knowing the laws, I was already back at my old pastime of machine-gun collecting.



[1] See Robert Ankony, “The Financial Assessment of Military Small Arms,” Small Arms Review (Apr. 2000): 53-59. See especially item 14.

Tuesday, June 11, 1982, bazooka abandonment 

[2] On Friday, June 11, 1982, ATF Inspector Gary L. Schuster drove to my Grosse Ile home to verify that my .55-caliber antitank gun and .30-caliber M2 selective-fire carbine were no longer in my possession (surrendered to Agents Lietzow and Patterson in 1970) and that I still possessed my German 88mm bazooka. The ATF didn’t have complete records, so I showed him the papers for the surrendered weapons. I then explained that the bazooka was at the home of my 13-year-old nephew, Eddie. Eddie’s father, Douglas M. Baker, was dying of cancer. I had given Eddie my black National Guard Ranger beret and loaned him the bazooka because he treasured both. Inspector Schuster said, “Get the bazooka back.” On Tuesday, June 22, Schuster returned with Agent Timothy C. Sullivan. I showed them the bazooka, and Agent Sullivan said, “Get your records in order and get the bazooka’s muzzle welded or you won’t get a break.” My records were in order, and I didn’t need a break. It was the feds who didn’t have it right. But I was busy in grad school and tired of their ever-changing laws. Frustrated and angry, I took the bazooka outside, smashed it with a sledgehammer, and forfeited it.

Thursday, October 28, 1993, ATF apology

Eleven years later, Saturday, October 30, 1993, I got a letter from Wayne Miller, Chief, National Firearms Act Branch, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, apologizing for the incident and acknowledging that the records failure was the bureau’s and not mine. My nephew, Eddie, later got married and had a son. He took the loss of the bazooka in stride, but he never got over the loss of his dad. On a cold Monday morning, March 14, 2011, Eddie drove to a nearby Meijer shopping center and bought a fifth of Mohawk vodka. He walked back out to the parking lot but never made it to his car. Suffering from delirium tremens, he succumbed to cardiac arrest. He was 42, the age at which his father had died.

[3] In today’s value, those weapons, if properly registered, would be worth $350,000.

Wednesday, Oct. 20, 1971, Harvey Plaskov report

[4] In 1971, while working undercover, I used my motorcycle and Corvette to make handgun and long-gun purchases from Harvey Lawrence Plaskov, 24, a federally licensed firearms dealer who was selling weapons from his car to known felons in motorcycle gangs. The ATF agent in charge of the investigation was Timothy C. Sullivan, and the ATF agent who signed my letter of commendation was Chief Special Investigator Orville J. Turner (see "Running Shoes" for further details).


See In Memory of Machine Guns, Part II: Covert Acquisition

See In Memory of Machine Guns, Parts I: What a Dad!

Note, In Memory of Machine Guns, Parts IV, V, and VI are in writing.