By Dolf Goldsmith
In February, 1972, the well known machine gun dealer J. Curtis Earl from Phoenix, Arizona called me to ask if I could spend a few days to help him inventory a large quantity of munitions stored under U.S. Government custody at the Hamilton Air Force Base, just north of San Francisco. That sounded very interesting so I agreed to pick him up at the airport and drive him out to the base. He had the correct clearances to get in, and we arrived at the bunker where this was all stored, a domed underground structure originally built to store ammunition, etc. for the U.S. military.
I had never seen so much ammunition all in one place, and what a variety! Most memorable were the half million rounds of German WWII steel case 8mm all in the 300 round cardboard “Tragschlaufes” five of which were packed in a beautifully fitted hardwood ammunition chest (weight 115 lbs) and well over 2,000 rounds of 25mm antitank ammunition for the French Puteaux and Hotchkiss anti-tank guns. This was packed eight rounds to a tan colored sealed can and 4 cans were then packed in a wood crate. Every other imaginable caliber was also represented, even some of the German 20mm cases necked down to 8mm.
I had, until then, never heard of the “Thoresen Collection.” It seems that William Thoresen, a very wealthy but somewhat unbalanced young man had illusions about being a major arms dealer and had been going around the country, often in company with J. Curtis Earl, buying everything in sight. Whether the machine guns he encountered were registered or not apparently did not concern him. Prices were cheap then, so the quantities he could obtain were large. Almost all of this was shipped to his home at Pacific Heights in San Francisco, California, though some of it was also stored at another location in Illinois.
A considerable number of machine guns were also stored in the bunker, but these were not to be inventoried, as none of them were registered. They were to be destroyed, if no government museum or other government facility wanted them. The one that particularly caught my fancy was an M1917 Browning water cooled machine gun converted permanently to .22 caliber, this having been done during the 1930s on the “Carbine” Williams principle, who had originally received the Government contract to start that program into being. This was the first one I had ever seen, and I was hopeful that some government entity would want it and that it would survive and not be destroyed. How I wished it was registered so I would have had the chance to buy it!!
The inventory list also include a number of handguns, including Swiss Lugers, but these had been stolen somewhere along the line. I do not recall whether the collection also had rifles. I did not notice any.
To make a long story short, William Thoresen had, early in his life, gotten himself a felony conviction, apparently for stealing a poster in a railways station in Maine, and then lying about it in court. Therefore he was not allowed to own firearms, and when it was found out that he had all this material, it was confiscated by the Government.
Thoresen was also quite physically abusive towards his wife, who, finally, not being able to stand it any longer, shot and killed him. The killing was judged to be in self defense, she was acquitted, and then, as Thoresen’s widow, the collection became her property. Not surprisingly, she did not want it, and put it up for “blind auction.” All this is covered in her most interesting book entitled It Gave Everybody Something To Do and which can be obtained online and sometimes from www.longmountain.com when they find copies.
An inventory was prepared and three parties were invited to bid, namely J. Curtis Earl from Arizona, a partnership called K & R, (which was Fred Kaase and Bill Rubey from Houston, Texas), and a third party the identity of which I did not know. Fred Kaase was a machine gun dealer in Houston, Texas, and Bill Rubey was a successful wealthy real estate developer in the same town. He provided the funds.
I never thought any more about it, when, two weeks later I received a phone call from Dave Cumberland, the proprietor of the Old West Gun Room, El Cerrito, California. Dave told me he was acting as agent for K & R, and that he needed to load some 60,000 plus pounds of ammunition, etc., into an 18-wheeler, and would I help. I managed to get a few days off from work and I met with Dave, my partner in our part time Class III business Bert Jacques, Tom Phair, Doc Ross, and one other man whose name I cannot recall, to load the ammo, etc. In order to move all these heavy cases, we erected a conveyor belt of a large number of sections of “portable roller bearing frames” (for lack of a better term). These went all the way into the bunker and out to the 18 wheeler. Even so, it took all six of us about three days to load all of the material.
The 18 wheeler was then driven down to Terlingua, Texas, where Fred had hired some local Mexicans to unload it all and stored it in an abandoned silver (it may have been copper) mine, which went almost a half mile into a mountain, and had a huge chamber at the rear. This cave had once been used to film a movie, something about the Devil, and the large chamber at the rear was called, “The Devil’s Lair.”
The ammunition was placed on the side of the shaft leading to the “Devil’s Lair” and it was a sight to behold. Bert Jacques rode down there on the 18 wheeler, (and even got to drive it, a high point in his life) while the rest of us flew down and rented cars in El Paso, and drove the rest of the way. Fred Kaase and Bill Rubey flew in from Houston in Bill’s private airplane; there was a landing strip available. Other figures I recall were John Henry Kirby III from Houston, Texas, who managed to break his ankle while down there, and Larry Smith from Dry Ridge, Kentucky, and two friends of his, who were even bigger than he was. As Larry put it to us, “The Kentucky Contingent brings weight to this affair.” One of these two friends was a local TV personality, whose TV name I recall was “Captain Kingfish” but I may be wrong about that.
The mine and a large nearby motel, named the “Villa de la Mina” were owned by an affable man named Glenn Pepper, a friend of Bill Rubey’s. Apart from the motel, the area was totally desolate, there was no one living there for many miles around. The motel catered to adventurous people who liked to rock hunt, prospect for gold and carry on similar pursuits in the area. Now the area has been “discovered” and there is a large population.
In addition to the aforementioned people, Messrs Kaase and Rubey had invited other well known figures in the Class 3 world to stay at the motel for a week, and bring their guns. Unfortunately I do not recall who they were. J. Curtis Earl was not invited; in any case he probably would not have come.
There was a small hill behind the motel, and just behind that a flat piece of land about 75 x 75 yards which afforded the most remarkable view, there were targets to shoot at from 200 to 2,000 yards. A huge cliff was in place about 1,000 yards to the south, this became the primary target. We were able to shoot in a 90 degree arc, at all sorts of targets from 200 to 2,000 yards.
As it was late February or early March, (1972) the weather was superb. Bert Jacques brought down our heavy MG 08 Maxim, a BAR, and a few other pieces while others, most of whom came by car, brought their particular favorites. There were Brownings, both water-cooled and air-cooled, MG34s and 42s, Brens, ZBs, Lewis guns, a few.50 calibers, Vickers, etc. At that time there were virtually none of the later models and dealer samples such as one sees at shoots today.
We shot nonstop for about six days, and shot off almost half of the 8mm ammunition, mostly in Maxims, MG34s and MG42s; firing the MG42 s on their Lafette mounts against the cliff 1000 yards away was awesome. We probably put more rounds through those weapons than had been consumed by them in their respective war services.
As there was no one around, (Glenn Pepper had closed the motel to all but our group) so we could shoot in the aforementioned 90 degree arc. We could also shoot in the air, and several evenings were spent shooting Lewis guns and BARs at flares in the sky, we had a considerable number of these to shoot at, when we hit them, they made a big splash, and frequently went out.
As we wanted to spend our time shooting, and not loading belts, etc., we had the locals load our belts for us. They had a difficult time with Browning Belt loaders, so they eventually pushed the rounds into the pockets with their fingers. We had many Browning belts, but hardly any Maxim belts, and this is where I first found out that most Maxims will work fine with Browning belts. We erected two forked poles, and placed a 20 foot long pole over these, whenever a belt had been filled the man who had filled it just hung it over the long pole for us to use.
Except for the periods of night shooting at flares, the evenings were spent partying. We ate excellent Mexican dinners, prepared by Glenn Pepper’s cooks, and much beer and other libations were consumed. Many “war stories” and lies were told and retold, and all in all we had an absolutely marvelous time. The locals would come out and play their guitars and sing in Spanish, while we drank beer and tried to follow the songs, and tried to sing too.
The next morning at 8:00 am everyone was sober, and after breakfast the shooting started again. I recall that about 25 of us in all consumed more than 300,000 rounds during the time we were there.
The purpose of this shoot was to let the leading Class 3 types know about all the ammo that was available and it did not take long before it had all been inspected and sold. The most valuable rounds were the until then, extremely scarce, 25mm French AT rounds, and if I recall right, they went for about $8 each, a lot of money then.
As regards the cost of all this ammo, I recall that Curtis Earl bid about $22,000 for the entire lot, but K& R won the “collection” for about $ 24,000. I do not recall the other bid amount, but recall hearing it was lower than the others.
As the materials other than the 500,000 rounds 8mm were sold for a lot more than $24,000, the 500,000 rounds of pristine 8mm ammo were almost a bonus, which explains why K&R let us shoot up almost half of it, free of charge. (Bert and I had previously bought about 20,000 rounds of it which was not brought to Texas.) This deal is what put Fred Kaase in the Class 3 business as a rather important factor, and gave him the capital to do substantial business.
These goings on attracted considerable attention. Although no one was in the vicinity, everyone in the Texas Big Bend country eventually heard about it and it was assumed that some huge clandestine military training exercise had been concluded. Government investigators descended upon Terlingua in droves. By then everyone had left, all that remained was some ammo still stored in the mine, and empty cartridge cases, principally 8mm lacquered steel, lying all over the plateau. Finally it was concluded that a bunch of good old boys were having a bit of fun, and nothing more was heard of it. I have often wondered if there is still ammo that was not sold or picked up, stored in the mine.
A group of us tried to get another one of these shoots going, but Glenn Pepper and Fred Kaase had had some difference of opinion, and Glenn was not willing to put on a repeat performance. Possibly he was also told by the Government that something like this was not to be repeated. I never saw Glenn again and apparently he would not discuss the matter with others who did get to see him again. Quite a disappointment. A pity also as Glenn was a great guy, a perfect gentleman and I enjoyed his company.
Of all weapons shoots I have ever attended, and there were some good ones in the Army too, this one stands out in my memory as being one of the really “fun” events in my life, not just for the shooting but the camaraderie we all experienced.
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