When the Wagner Charter Company of Chicago announced plans to scuttle the motor vessel Buccaneer in Lake Michigan in 2008, few outside of the local marina community took notice. There was certainly not the furor she once kindled. The 100-foot Buccaneer had begun life in 1925 as the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dexter, one of 13 high-endurance patrol boats constructed by Defoe Boat and Motor Works of Bay City, Michigan. As part of a major congressional funding increase, the craft joined other classes of patrol boats that the press termed “the Dry Navy.”
These small cutters, each with a crew of 15, armed with a single deck gun and assorted small arms, joined the maritime war against the “blacks” or “rumrunners.” In 1927, to aid in liquor interdiction along the Gulf Coast, the Dexter and five others of her class transferred from Boston to Pascagoula, Mississippi.1 Two years later the Dexter would sink the British-flagged Canadian rum schooner I’m Alone 200 miles south of Louisiana and ignite a tinderbox of headlines and accusations, bringing into question the manner in which the 18th Amendment—Prohibition—was being enforced at sea.
Wet Cargoes and Torn Dollars
The Volstead Act became the enforcement mechanism of the 18th Amendment in January 1920. The new law, banning the sale, manufacture, and importation of alcoholic beverages in the United States, presented great challenges to authorities tasked with enforcing it. It thus had a significant impact on the U.S. Coast Guard; directives of 1923 authorized the Guard’s use of “all necessary force” to enforce laws at sea including liquor interdiction. In an attempt to circumvent enforcement efforts, criminal syndicates registered the majority of smuggling craft in Canadian or British ports.2
The I’m Alone was built in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, in 1923 to engage in the rum trade and became well known in New England waters.3 The 205-ton schooner carried only jib, jumbo, foresail, and storm trysail. But she was also powered by two 100-horsepower Fairbanks-Morse diesel engines. According to her captain, Jack Randell, her top speed was nine knots under sail and diesel power. The I’m Alone departed New England waters in November 1928, and when Captain Randell opened his sealed syndicate orders off Cuba, he learned he would be making runs from Belize to coastal Louisiana, navigating his mother ship outside of U.S. territorial waters and providing cases of preordered liquor to the mosquito boats running out from the bayous of south Louisiana. A torn dollar bill served as both recognition code and receipt for the liquor: Randell would match his half with the customer’s, indicating the load had been paid for.
In late November 1928, the I’m Alone sailed in the vicinity of the Trinity Shoals Light buoy, south of Marsh Island, Louisiana, with a full cargo. The Coast Guard patrol boat Wolcott, commanded by Warrant Officer Frank Paul, sighted and trailed the schooner to the southeast. The cutter stayed close astern until the moon went down. In the dark of a now moonless sky, Randell outmaneuvered the Wolcott with a zigzag pattern and resumed trolling in his original position. After two days a boat came alongside. Her skipper and the rumrunner matched their dollar halves, the liquor was transferred, and Randell proceeded back to Belize for another load of illicit cargo.4
At the time of that first brush with the Wolcott, Randell suspected a fishing boat on Trinity Shoals that never seemed to actually fish was, in fact, a lookout. The rum captain believed the boat was telegraphing potential targets to the Coast Guard, which would then dispatch or divert a cutter. Although Randell’s suspicion was not confirmed, the newly formed Coast Guard intelligence office had been targeting I’m Alone radio traffic since 1925.5
Once resupplied in Belize, Randell took the I’m Alone back to his station near Trinity Shoals Light. This time, before any liquor could be offloaded, the Coast Guard cutter Dexter, commanded by Warrant Officer Alfred W. Powell, was sighted closing fast. The Dexter stayed closer to the schooner than the Wolcott had done, at some points closing to within a few hundred yards. Darkness, however, enabled the seasoned rumrunner to outmaneuver and lose the Dexter as he had the Wolcott. Randell kept his rendezvous and proceeded back to Belize for another load.
‘I’ll Make You a Bet . . . I’ll Get Him!’
The I’m Alone had become the Moby Dick to the Captain Ahabs of the Coast Guard’s Offshore Patrol Squadron. Randell learned through the rumrunner grapevine in Belize that the captain of the Dexter had made him a special target. Powell, a seasoned World War I veteran of subchasers, seethed, so the story went, because the schooner had slipped away. The Coast Guard skipper, known by the rumrunners as hardboiled, faced the ridicule of a gathering of smugglers. One man told Randell that he had said to Captain Powell that “smart as you are, the I’m Alone will outwit you every time.” Powell had replied, “I’ll make you a bet . . . that the next time I meet up with that old [S.O.B.], I’ll get him!”6
On 20 March 1929, the I’m Alone arrived five miles west of Trinity Shoals Light with more than 3,000 cases of liquor on board—a $62,000 cargo. At 0600 the Wolcott’s now-Captain Frank Paul sighted the schooner (checking his position as 10.8 miles from shore), which tried to escape with all sails deployed. Once again the rumrunner found the Wolcott steaming toward her. Captain Paul hailed Randell via megaphone that he wanted to come aboard and talk to him. Randell replied, “You can shoot and sink me, but be damned if you will board me.” The Wolcott then hoisted flags on the signal halyard, ordering the I’m Alone to heave-to. Randell signaled back “no” and shouted that he would shoot any Coast Guardsman who tried to board his ship. Paul ordered small arms (including a Thompson submachine gun) issued to his crew, while sailors manned the cutter’s 3-inch deck gun.7
Realizing that the schooner intended to proceed beyond the 12-mile limit, the Wolcott signaled a passing steamer, the Hadnot, to log the position of the I’m Alone. Two more hours passed before Randell finally slowed and allowed Paul to board him as long as the Coast Guard skipper came alone and unarmed. Another crewman rowed Paul to the schooner in a dinghy. As they approached, the Wolcott’s crew readied the deck gun. In accordance with a request from Randell, Paul ordered his gun crew to stand away from their post. Less than two hours later, having discussed what constituted treaty limitations and law-enforcement jurisdictions on the high seas, Paul and the other sailor returned to the Wolcott having gained a sense of the kind of adversary they confronted. According to his memoir, Randell also offered Paul a drink, which the officer turned down before departing the schooner.8
On board the Wolcott, Paul ordered the crew to make preparations to seize the I’m Alone. The two vessels had parted but remained in sight of each other when the Wolcott began to speed up and again hoisted the heave-to signal. The cutter had received a radio order from the Treasury Department regarding the I’m Alone, to “use all force to seize her.” Captain Paul ordered the rumrunner to stop and be taken or the cutter would open fire. Randell ignored the order, and the Wolcott fired two blank saluting rounds. Live rounds followed, fired high over the schooner to convince Randell to stop. Getting close enough to the I’m Alone, a Wolcott crewman opened fire with a Thompson submachine gun loaded with “wax bullets” similar to riot-control rounds. A bullet struck Randell in the leg. After 25 minutes of continuous fire, the Wolcott’s deck gun misfired, lodging a projectile in the barrel. The ejected shell injured one of the crew. The Wolcott radioed Coast Guard Gulf Division headquarters in Mobile, Alabama, for assistance.9
‘Heave To or Be Fired On!’
Upon receiving the report from the Wolcott that she had engaged the rumrunner, the division headquarters ordered the cutters Dallas, Forward, and Dexter to join the chase. Paul sent the Wolcott’s situation report: “Have shot through sails, also British flag . . . Master appears desperate. Have not enough men to board her. Will take long chance if other boats do not arrive tomorrow.” The Wolcott dropped back but remained in pursuit, while Randell, using semaphore, signaled that Wolcott had “mutilated my flag.”10
Already on patrol in the Gulf, the Dallas diverted on the evening of 20 March, changing course for the Wolcott’s position at 1615 hours. She proceeded in the direction of the continuing pursuit, but problems with one of her engines caused her to move at a slower than normal speed. The Dexter was in port at Pascagoula when Warrant Officer Powell got her under way, minus two crewmen, at 1730. Two days later, the Dexter began to close on the rumrunner in choppy seas. Powell remained angry that the I’m Alone had eluded him in the past.11 The Wolcott reportedly radioed the Dexter not to open fire due to the choppy seas, but Powell ignored this warning.
The Dexter came upon the I’m Alone, approaching out of the southwest, just after 0800 on 22 March. Powell hailed the schooner with the now-familiar megaphone order: “Heave to or be fired on!”12
The Dexter shot off two saluting rounds before she commenced throwing live ammunition at the schooner at 0815. According to Randell, “explosive shells, machine gun, and rifle bullets” pelted the I’m Alone. The Dexter’s log states that she fired shots at the schooner’s sails first before bringing guns to bear on the hull. Powell thought he saw Randell brandishing a pistol on deck.13 Recalling his adversary’s ability to escape in the past, Powell ordered his crew to open fire with their service rifles. Pieces of the rum boat flew in every direction, but she remained under way until Powell had his gun crew take aim at the waterline. Thus did the deck gun finish off the schooner, blowing a large hole below the waterline under the forward mast. The I’m Alone went down by the bow with her cargo at 0903 in an area designated the Sigsbee Deep on nautical charts. The Dexter and Wolcott began recovering crew members immediately.
Randell had ordered his crew into the water, where they could cling to pieces of the schooner until the cutters could pick them up. Two hundred and twenty miles south of Louisiana, bobbing in the choppy seas, they saw the remains of the I’m Alone sink in 2,000 fathoms with the remnants of her Union Jack still flying. Powell believed he had carried out his mission using the “necessary force” prescribed by the Duties of Boarding Officers and his radio orders. To sink the I’m Alone, the Dexter had expended 2 saluting rounds, 38 3-inch/23-caliber shells, and 400 rounds of small-arms ammunition, which shredded the wooden deckhouse and bulkheads.14
Dexter Seaman First Class Charles Raeburn jumped into the water to rescue a man floating face down in the choppy sea. Raeburn grabbed him and hoisted him on to a piece of debris. Once picked up by the Wolcott, Raeburn was joined by two shipmates off the Dexter, who climbed aboard to assist him in trying to revive the man—Randell’s bosun, Leon Mainguy, a French citizen. He died from drowning in spite of the gallant effort to save him. But the Dexter did succeed in picking up five survivors, including Randell, and the Wolcott rescued three.15
The two cutters steamed slowly toward New Orleans in a heavy fog with their prisoners in irons. They arrived at the South Pass of the Mississippi on 23 March and proceeded upriver with the Wolcott leading. Once disembarked in New Orleans, the prisoners were arraigned in the U.S. Customs House on federal smuggling charges. Those levied against Randell were “conspiracy to violate the Volstead Act” and “interfering with a customs officer in the performance of his duties.” The smugglers were confined in Orleans Parish Prison. On 30 March the British Consul posted a $500 bond and secured Randell’s release, while the crew was released without bail on their recognizance.16
The U.S. Attorney of the Federal Court of the Eastern District of Louisiana dismissed the charges against Randell and his crew on 10 April.17 The federal government did not want Randell as much as it wanted the people he worked for. Once they could be traced and identified, the government pursued charges against the owners of the I’m Alone. It was revealed later that the owners were American and part of a major syndicate. The eventual federal trial of these racketeers would showcase the work of the new Coast Guard Intelligence Office, using Elizebeth Friedman’s decrypted radio intercepts. Friedman was the wife of Army Signal Corps cryptologist Major William Friedman. Her codebreaking skills revealed the American owner of the I’m Alone to be Dan Hogan of New York, and this influenced the outcome of the international litigation.
Newspapers described the I’m Alone case as a potential international-law violation by the United States. Captain A. L. Gamble of the Coast Guard Gulf Division stated that the schooner was first spotted within the 12-mile limit and pursued by the Wolcott in accordance with the Tariff Act of 1922.18 The I’m Alone became the first foreign-flagged rumrunner sunk by the Coast Guard on the high seas resulting in the death of a foreign national.
As the public began to tire of the bloodshed over liquor, both on land and at sea, the commandant of the Coast Guard was faced with political issues. Politicians told Rear Admiral Frederick C. Billard to “enforce the smuggling laws . . . but don’t shoot unless shot at.”19 A New York World editorial declared that in any case the sinking was not justified. The Newark News wrote that the “questions were . . . important” and that the case “offered an opportunity to clarify maritime law.”20 In New Orleans, often called the “wettest city in America,” The Times-Picayune referred to Randell as a “captive” and “hero.”
Lieutenant Commander Bixby of Offshore Patrol Squadron Eight told the Pascagoula press that the Coast Guard “was both a military and police arm” of the government and that the crews acted properly in the discharging of their duty in regards to the I’m Alone. From the outset, both the Treasury Department and the commandant approved of the Coast Guard action.
‘Hot Pursuit’ = Unlawful Act?
The I’m Alone case developed quickly into an international incident. A New York Daily News wire photo published in England showed Randell and his crew in their cell at Orleans Parish Prison. British press headlines declared “British Seamen in Manacles” and “British Flag Fired Upon by American Coast Guard.”21 Some politicians in Britain and Canada stated that if the sinking had been ordered by the U.S. government, it was an overt act of war. Others claimed that if the action had been at the discretion of the Coast Guard officer in charge, it was an act of “piracy.” The issue of excessive force was debated along with the right to sink a private vessel on the high seas beyond national jurisdiction. Also debated was whether the “hot pursuit” begun by the Wolcott could be legally concluded by the Dexter. The doctrines, laws, and treaties all specified that hot pursuit must be continuous and could not be broken off and resumed, but said nothing about it being handed off while in progress.22
Arbitration between the United States and Canada lasted well beyond the repeal of the Volstead Act. Canada originally asked for more than $350,000 in damages. After it was uncovered through analysis of crypto intercepts and shoreside liquor raids that the I’m Alone was American-owned, and not Canadian, the award was significantly reduced. The final report never determined the legitimacy of the hot pursuit, but declared unequivocally that both the Canadian-American Liquor Treaty of 1924 and international law did not justify the sinking. It was simply “an unlawful act.”
Because of this finding, the commission agreed on a sum to compensate those directly affected by the incident. The United States would “apologize to his Majesty’s Canadian Government” and pay out a $25,000 settlement to Canada for the insult and property loss. In addition, the arbitration commission awarded $25,000 to Jack Randell and his crew. Randell received $7,900, while Bosun Mainguy’s widow received $10,000. The balance was divided among the surviving crew of the sunken schooner.23
Randell returned to Newfoundland and, after brief service in World War II, retired and passed away in 1944. Alfred Powell remained in the Coast Guard, attaining the rank of lieutenant. During World War II, he was severely burned in a fire on board the supply transport USS Wakefield (AP-21) and retired in 1944. He died in 1980.24
As late as 1931, bottles allegedly from the sunken I’m Alone were reported washing ashore along the southwestern Louisiana coast, cementing the incident in local folklore.25 The Dexter was eventually transferred to the Navy, then sent to Buffalo, New York, in 1935 and decommissioned in 1936.26 She remained on the Great Lakes under many owners. As the motor vessel Buccaneer, she finally was scuttled in Lake Michigan in the summer of 2010. Her demise resurrected the I’m Alone story in Canadian newspapers and on news websites. Ironically, the patrol boat that caused an international incident by sinking a liquor smuggler finished her life as a dinner cruiser complete with wet bar and signage that beckoned “1-800- PARTY BOAT.”27
The U.S.-Canadian angst over the I’m Alone incident remains below the surface (no pun intended). Folk songs sung north of the border retell the tale of the “good Samaritan to thirsty Americans . . . that . . . went down under the fire of a Yankee cutter. . . .”28
2. U.S. Department of the Treasury, Instructions, Customs, Navigation and Motor Boat Laws and Duties of Boarding Officers (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1923), 1. Malcolm Willoughby, Rum War at Sea (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1964), 17.
3. Jack Randell, I’m Alone (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1930), 265. David P. Mowry, Listening to the Rum Runners (Fort Meade, MD: National Security Agency, 1996), 22. Everett S. Allen, The Black Ships: Rumrunners of Prohibition (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1965), 77.
4. Randell, I’m Alone, 264–66.
5. Ibid., 272.
6. Randell, I’m Alone, 280–81.
7. Ibid., 281–83. “Log of the Coast Guard Patrol Boat Wolcott,” 20 March 1929 entry; Washington, DC: National Archives, Record Group 26.
8. Randell, I’m Alone, 290–93.
9. “Log of the Coast Guard Patrol Boat Wolcott,” 20 March 1929 entry.
10. “Probe Launched in Sinking of British Ship,” The Times-Picayune, 24 March 1929. Nancy Galey Skoglund, “The I’m Alone Case: A Tale from the Days of Prohibition,” University of Rochester Library Bulletin, vol. 23, no. 3 (1968), 3, www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=1004. Randell, I’m Alone, 296.
11. Randell, I’m Alone, 282.
12. Ibid., 298.
13. “Log the U.S. Coast Guard Patrol Boat Dexter,” 22 March 1929 entry; National Archives, RG 26. Harvey L. Miller, “The I’m Alone,” Coast Guard Magazine, vol. 2., no.7., 46.
14. “Log of the U.S. Coast Guard Patrol Boat Dexter.” 22 March 1929 entry.
15. Ibid. “Guardsman Gives I’m Alone Story,” Pascagoula Chronicle-Star, 19 April 1929.
16. Randell, I’m Alone, 310–13. “Charges Not To Be Dismissed,” Biloxi Daily Herald, 30 March 1929.
17. “U.S. Dismisses I’m Alone Crew Liquor Charges,” The Times-Picayune, 10 April 1929.
18. Miller, “The I’m Alone,” 46.
19. Harold Waters, Smugglers of Spirits (New York: Hastings House, 1971), 199.
20. Miller, “The I’m Alone, 46.
21. Randell, I’m Alone, 315. Skoglund, “The I’m Alone Case,” 8.
22. Malcolm Willoughby, Rum War at Sea (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1964), 129. U.S. Department of the Treasury, Law Enforcement at Sea Relative to Smuggling (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1929), 4.
23. Charles Cheney Hyde, “The Adjustment of the I’m Alone Case,” The American Journal of International Law, vol. 29, no. 2 (1935), 297–99, www.jstor.org/stable/2190495. David P. Mowry, Listening to the Rum Runners (Washington, DC: National Security Agency, 1996), 22. Janice Patton, The Sinking of the I’m Alone (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973), 30.
24. “I’m Alone Case Recalled Here: Skipper of Schooner Sunk By Coast Guard Passes,” The Times-Picayune, 22 February 1944. Service Record of Alfred W. Powell; LOCATION: Military Personnel Records Center.
25. “Bonded Liquors Washed Ashore,” The Times-Picayune, 12 April 1931.
26. U.S. Coast Guard Historian, www.uscg.mil/history/webcutters/Dexter1925.asp.
27. Boswell, “Scuttling Dexter.”
28. Wade Hemsworth, “The I’m Alone,” The Songs Of Wade Hemsworth, Blackfly Music, 1995.