A very special Thompson M1921A Capt. Will Fritz's Dallas Pd No. 13.
DPD No. 13 (an equipment inventory marking stamped into the left rear grip) is currently stored in a slide-out drawer inside a huge vault at Dallas Police Headquarters. Following the 1970 retirement of the gun's assignee, Captain J.W. "Will" Fritz, the Thompson bounced around from one temporary storage location to another, some of which were less than secure. Apparently no one quite knew what to do with the seemingly obsolete firearm. The gun was "saved" at least twice. In the early 1970's it was rescued from a scheduled destruction. More recently, a procedure that would render the Thompson permanently inoperative was diverted, thereby preserving its authenticity for museum display.
According to recognized Thompson authority Tracie L. Hill, author of Thompson: the American Legend, the gun (serial number 4936) was manufactured by Colt between September 19-30, 1921. Research indicates the DPD purchased the Thompson in 1927, though detailed records are no longer available. During this period, law enforcement agencies across the country were buying the relatively expensive state-of-the-art Thompson, though seldom in large numbers per agency. While not exactly plentiful today, original Thompson submachine guns in various models remain available, though prices are out of reach for most enthusiasts.
The M1921A Thompson is chambered for the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) round. It is capable of semi-automatic fire and automatic fire of approximately 800 rounds per minute. The DPD Thompson was built before the availability of the optional Cutts compensator, a cylindrical top-vented device affixed to the muzzle for more controllable automatic fire. Instead the Dallas gun's finned barrel has a simple blade front sight only.
The rear sight is the elaborate (and somewhat odd for an SMG) Lyman, fully-adjustable for wind-age and long-range elevation. The M1921A handles drum or stick magazines interchangeably. Complete with one Type L 50-round drum and three 20-round sticks, everything fits neatly in a police-style case of the period.
Law enforcement firearms are subject to rough handling and unavoidable abusive treatment. DPD No. 13 suffered no such fate. It was obviously kept clean and fired very little. Overall condition is remarkably fine for a firearm more than 90 years old.
Contrary to dubious undocumented tales, few law enforcement Thompsons had anything more than routine histories. With regard to the Dallas Thompson, however, the notoriety of its keeper well overshadows the gun.
On November 22, 1963, shortly after the Kennedy Assassination, Captain Will Fritz and his homicide detectives responded to the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository in downtown Dallas. Of course, this was the scene of Lee Harvey Oswald's improvised sniper hide overlooking Elm St., Dealey Plaza, the Triple Underpass, and the infamous "Grassy Knoll." Captain Fritz, a seasoned interrogator, was the first to question the suspect who was subsequently charged with the murders of President Kennedy and Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit.
Will Fritz, a Dublin, Texas, native was in his mid-20's when he went to work as a patrolman for the Dallas Police Department in 1921. His badge number was 9. As a matter of reference, present-day DPD badge numbers surpassed the 10,000 mark several years ago. (I went to work for DPD in 1970. While I have never seen a single-digit badge number, I can recall a couple of old-timers with 2-digit badges who were hired in the mia-1930's.)
Promoted through the ranks, Fritz organized the Homicide and Robbery Bureau in the early '30's. Over many years he had various temporary titles, but "Captain Fritz" is the one that endured! Fritz had a uniquely personal retrospective on law enforcement. Still on the job in early 1970, the Captain had already achieved veteran status at the onset of the Depression gangster era.
Before the days of formal criminal justice programs and regular in-service training, detectives received basic guidance from experienced personnel. Beyond what was often very elementary instruction, the best were largely self-educated as to the fine points of criminal investigation. So it was with Will Fritz.
Since little is known about his life outside the DPD, some might assume it was rather unremarkable. However, the most plausible explanation is the department was his life for a half-century (and probably had significant influence on his retirement years, since he lived across the street from headquarters).
The Thompson SMG was likely acquired by Fritz after his promotions, either to the rank of lieutenant or captain. He kept the gun, magazines, ammunition and fitted case in his office closet. Only one documented instance of the Thompson being fired in an official capacity is available. While there may have been other such incidents, they are likely lost to history.
James R. Leavelle, DPD badge No. 736, is a retired homicide and robbery detective who worked under Captain Fritz for years. While doing research for a book (not connected with this article), retired DPD Captain E.
R. Walt interviewed Jim Leavelle. When Walt asked if he knew anything about the Thompson, Leavelle replied, "Hell! I saw it in action once!"
On May 25, 1959, a deranged gunman barricaded himself and several hostages in a frame house located in a residential area 10 miles southwest of downtown Dallas after previously killing one person. Jim Leavelle recalled detectives at the scene armed with Remington Model 81 semi-automatic rifles, their suit coat pockets bulging with ammunition. Captain Fritz showed up carrying his Thompson, complete with the drum magazine. The crazed suspect fired a high-powered rifle as officers attempted to gain control of the situation. While Leavelle kicked a hole in a door, Fritz opened up with the Thompson, lacing a neat row of bullet holes waist-high in the wooden structure.
Although the autopsy showed the deceased was struck by bullets from various police firearms (possibly including the Thompson), the report revealed the cause of death to be from a self-inflicted .38 caliber gunshot wound to the heart. No hostage was injured.
Today, retired Detective Leavelle and his wife reside in a suburb near Dallas. He enjoys good health and his mind remains sharp, remembering minute details of numerous incidents that occurred decades ago. Jim's seen more than a few Sundays pass in his 94 years, but two such days stand out among the rest. The first was December 7, 1941. As a young sailor stationed at Pearl Harbor, he witnessed the devastating Japanese attack.
The other significant Sunday was more than 20 years later, November 24, 1963. Leavelle was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald as officers prepared to transport Oswald from the Dallas City Jail to the Dallas County Jail when Jack Ruby shot Oswald in the basement of DPD headquarters. Captain Fritz, overseeing the prisoner transfer, was only a few steps away. Those who have studied the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath are familiar with Detective Leavelle and his role in the investigation. The distinctive light-colored hat and matching suit he wore that day, along with his handcuffs, are on display in the Sixth Floor Museum. As a matter of record, Jim Leavelle stands by the facts of the entire investigation, subscribing to none of the conspiracy/crackpot theories for which there has never been evidence.
For a time after his retirement, Will Fritz lived in the old White Plaza Hotel in downtown Dallas. This was just across the street from 106 South Harwood St., Dallas Police Headquarters from the early 1900's until a new facility was completed several years ago. Fritz was a regular patron of the street-level restaurant in the hotel. Since many of his former co-workers and subordinates also frequented the eatery, the old lawman probably felt comfortable there. Fritz died in 1984 at age 89 A request to photograph the Thompson during a live-firing event at the DPD Firearms Training Center was denied. The "Fritz gun," as I've come to refer to DPD No. 13, will never be fired again. However, its showcasing in the museum will be an appropriate tribute to the memory of Captain Will Fritz and a legendary era in law enforcement.
For their contributions in the preparation of this article, I'd like to thank Trade Hill, Thompson submachine gun expert and author; retired DPD Detective J. R. Leavelle, DPD Senior Corporal Rick Janich, Curator, Dallas Police Museum; Jess Lucio, retired DPD and former Dallas Police Museum Curator; E. R. Walt, retired DPD and author o/The Hall Street Shoot-Out, and Jody Thomas, retired DPD and primo editor.