Torpedo Story - The time the Department of Defense came after Archie McPhee

March 01 2017

Stacey with Torpedo

In 1999, we were offered some old dummy torpedoes for a very good price. It seemed like a great idea to resell them as decorative sculptures - until the department of defense came knocking.

The original description

M5609 Torpedo $89.50

Fire one! Fire Two!  Fire as many as you want!
This ROTC surplus dummy torpedo never held any actual explosives, but is looks like it did.  With its sturdy metal and plastic construction and its length of just over 51" in length, this torpedo will give you years of paramilitary enjoyment. It makes a great car accessory, knick-knack, conversation piece or just helps someone relive their heroic ROTC days.  The propeller on the rear was originally driven by a small electric motor that no longer works, but a handy person might be able to fix it, or you could just buy the book "Dummy Missiles for Dummies" and fake your way through.

In our book, we told the story of selling the torpedoes like this:

When we purchased a pallet of dummy torpedoes from the University of Washington Physics Department auction all we could think about was how cool they would look mounted on top of a car or hanging over a pool table. They never had actual explosives inside them and there was no danger of them being used for any military purpose because the insides had all rusted and rotted away into an orange dust. They sold well enough that we were looking around for more when we got a visit from a representative of the Department of Defense Intelligence Unit. He showed up in a smart business suit that subtly revealed a firearm hanging from a shoulder holster and informed us that the torpedoes contained a guidance system that was still classified as Top Secret. It turned out, that despite being over 20 years old, they were still more advanced than what some enemies of the U.S. were using. He politely insisted that we retrieve them from our customers — immediately.
We contacted all the customers and had them ship the torpedoes back to us (with a full refund of course). Most people responded immediately, but there was one exception. One customer refused to answer our calls and letters. Soon we were visited by another DOD representative, this time decked out in a black suit and sunglasses. He asked that we provide him with all the contact information we had for the customer. We complied.

Now, since the publication of the books, we have heard from that customer, Felix, and he sent us his side of the story. Excerpts of that story are below.

Several months later I got a call from XXX of the DoD Criminal Investigation Service. Real laid back easy going character, said he had been in the Navy and used the things as dummy targets, cheaper than anything else, and they were loaded up with noise makers to simulate real targets. He said there were classified circuit cards inside that the Navy wanted, and the torpedoes should never have been sold. They had been loaned to the U of Wash, who had sold them as surplus when they were done, instead of returning them to the government. The whole screwup had come to light when some idiot had asked Canadian customs if he could take it across the border. I told him he could have the contents, but it wasn't much, certainly no circuit cards, and I really wanted just the shell. He said he would look into the matter, since that seemed like a very reasonable things to him. He seemed a bit alarmed that I had opened it up.

Near the beginning of April 2000, he and another agent showed up at the office (where the torpedo had been delivered). I saw these two guys, they were in suits of course, looked like any ordinary couple of businessmen come to visit for some reason. The older one asked me if I was Felix, I said yes, and the younger one immediately whipped out this huge wallet (I swear the size of a sheet of letter paper) to show me his credentials. I laughed and said I don't need that, you must be here about the torpedo. In fact, I would have left about a minute later; I was just finishing up status email to my boss. They wanted the torpedo back, of course. I said it's not here, it's at home, 3 miles away, let's go! Not so fast, says Mr XXX (the older one), I have a letter for you. I took it and threw it on the desk, but he said I should read it. It was from two US Attorneys, with an all caps warning "HAND DELIVER", and warned that it had come to their attention that I was in unlawful possession of a torpedo, and that if I did not hand it over immediately, I would be under threat of criminal prosecution!

Anyways, they followed me home, I gave them the torpedo, and told them that my one regret was that they hadn't simply called up (like they had the first time) and said they wanted it back, because it would have been fun to walk into the Federal Building with a torpedo on my shoulder, and see the guards have a conniption fit. "Hi, I'm here to see XXX" probably wouldn't have been the magic phrase :-)

I figure I ought to ask for a copy of my record under the Freedom Of Information Act, just out of curiosity. I wonder how many thousands of dollars they wasted investigating Dutch Flat, sending two agents around, involving two US attorneys, and the immense bureaucracies it must have taken to drag the whole thing out over 6-9 months.



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