From Dishonorable Discharge to Public Enemy Number One

by Kelly Duffy, NMAS Deputy Director

Many know John Dillinger as Public Enemy Number One due to his notorious life of crime. During his heyday, which spanned across the Midwest from September 1933 until July 1934, Dillinger and his gang were responsible for robbing banks and police arsenals, the murder of ten men, wounding an additional seven, and the orchestration of three separate jailbreaks. One of these jailbreaks resulted in two wounded guards and the death of the sheriff. Members of his gang were also notorious gangsters in their own right and included Lester Gilllis (also known as Baby Face Nelson), John “Red” Hamilton, Harry “Pete” Pierpont, John Paul Chase, and Homer Van Meter.

The Dillinger mythos had a resurgence after the 2009 movie Public Enemies that starred Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. The movie, while not a huge success by Hollywood standards, earned only $214.1 million worldwide, and brought the gangster back to the American public’s attention. The film focused on Dillinger during the last few years of his life, skipping over his early years. While cinema and the public remembers his crime spree and ill doings, few people know that John Dillinger was, while perhaps not for very long nor with any sense of integrity, a Machinist in the U.S. Navy. 

John Herbert Dillinger was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on June 22, 1903. Described as a troublemaker who was often causing problems, Dillinger’s father moved the family to a farm near Mooresville, Indiana in hopes that the change of location and distance from the temptations of city life might be good for John. Not one for the simple living, John did no better in the country atmosphere than he had in the city. After being caught for auto theft, Dillinger joined the Navy instead of facing his charges. Dillinger joined the Navy on July 23, 1923 and was sent to Great Lakes, Illinois for bootcamp.

Dillinger’s time in the Navy, unsurprisingly, was brief, lasting less than a year and was filled with disobediences including going AWOL more than once.  The last and final straw was in December of 1923 when his ship the USS Utah (BB-31) docked in Boston and Dillinger left the ship and failed to return. Eventually the Navy listed him as a deserter and dishonorably discharged Dillinger in early 1924. After his brief stint in the Navy, Dillinger returned to Indiana, married Beryl Hovius, and attempted to settle down away from a life of crime. Unable to hold a steady job, Dillinger returned to criminal activity and eventually became the formidable gangster history remembers. 

JD in suit

One of Dillinger’s many mug shots, ca 1930s.

The FBI tracked Dillinger throughout the 1930s making him Public Enemy Number One. In July of 1934 they were tipped off about Dillinger’s location in Chicago where they shot and killed him outside the Biograph Theater. The FBI report described the scene:

“Ana Sage-a friend of Dillinger’s girlfriend, Polly Hamilton-told us that Dillinger planned to take her and Hamilton to see a movie. We joined law enforcement in staking out the area around the theater. When Dillinger emerged from the show, we followed him down the street. Dillinger reached for his pistol, but agents fired and killed him.”

JD Wanted Poster

Wanted poster for John Dillinger, June, 1934

Dillinger was 31 at the time of his death.

John Dillinger will remain a notable figure in American history for his gangster ways and crimes. While Hollywood and history might tend to romanticize the gangster style, turning criminals into Robin Hood-esque heroes, Dillinger was no hero. He did not uphold the Navy values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment that so many sailors defended and continue to fight for today.



  1. “John Dillinger.” FBI. FBI, May 18, 2016.
  2.  “Public Enemies.” IMDb., July 1, 2009.
  3. Military Records- National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed December 23, 2019.
  4. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “John Dillinger.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, inc., December 12, 2019.
  5. “Dillinger Joins the Navy in an Attempt to Avoid Prosecution.” A&E Television Networks, November 13, 2009.

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