On October 1919, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, overriding a veto by President Woodrow Wilson. And so began the so-called noble experiment of Prohibition.
Better known as the Volstead Act, the National Prohibition Act enforced the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which went into effect a century ago, in January 1920. Named for Representative Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, the act stated that “no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor.” As an arm of the Treasury Department, the Coast Guard would enforce this law in U.S. territorial waters—including its lakes and inland waterways. Doing so would become the largest law enforcement mission in the long and storied history of the service.
In 1920, maritime liquor smugglers, also known as “rumrunners,” began developing a system to bring illegal alcohol into the United States. At the time, the major sources of liquor were Canada and Mexico on the West Coast; Canada on the Great Lakes; and Canada, Cuba, and French and British territories located off the East Coast and Florida. Mother ships took on booze at foreign ports with falsified papers showing destinations where liquor was legal. These ships took up stations at rendezvous points beyond U.S. waters, set at three nautical miles. Later, the Coast Guard enforced laws at 12 nautical miles or an hour’s sail from the coast. High-speed contact boats met the mother ships and ferried the liquor ashore, typically at night.
Considered one of the first successful rumrunners, Bill McCoy began smuggling in early 1921 and earned a reputation for selling quality product, nicknamed “the Real McCoy.” For a number of years, he stationed mother ships outside the three-mile limit. He finally was arrested and jailed and, when released in 1925, found large smuggling syndicates dominating the business, so he got out of the trade.
By 1922, the Federal Prohibition Commission counted hundreds of mother ships hovering off U.S. shores in “rum rows,” with up to 60 off the New Jersey coast alone. Mother ships also were stationed off Boston, New York, the Chesapeake Bay, New Orleans, and West Coast ports. Florida’s smugglers came directly from Cuba and the Bahamas, eliminating the need for a rum row there. By 1923, Coast Guard Commandant Rear Admiral William Reynolds admitted his cutters could prevent “only a small part” of the illegal onrush of booze, which was “entirely unprecedented in the history of the country.”
Money and Strategy
At that time, Congress had not appropriated extra funds to allow the Coast Guard to stem the flow of smugglers and their watercraft. However, expansion of the service was the logical step. By October 1923, Commandant Reynolds had submitted a plan to Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, in which he called for 20 new high-seas cutters, 200 coastal patrol cutters, and 90 fast picket boats. He asked for $20 million in supplemental funding for new construction and 3,500 additional personnel to man the fleet—an incredible request for funds at that time.
Based on Reynolds’ figures, Secretary Mellon recommended enlarging the Coast Guard at a cost of $28.5 million, more than three times the service’s annual budget for 1923. Congress agreed to Mellon’s proposal but appropriated only half the amount, about $13 million—still, at the time, the largest increase in Coast Guard history. Most of the funds went to fleet expansion and increased manpower.
In January 1924, Rear Admiral Frederick C. Billard succeeded Reynolds as Coast Guard Commandant. He would carry out the service’s rapid expansion and law enforcement policies for the rest of Prohibition—about eight more years. Billard’s strategy for fighting the rumrunners was laid down in a confidential instruction to officers. Mother ships would be picketed night and day to prevent them from supplying liquor to contact boats, while inshore picket boats would monitor traffic between the shore and mother ships. Meanwhile, Coast Guard bases and stations would monitor the coast. Billard concluded the 16-page “Doctrine for Prevention of Smuggling” by stating:
It is expected that the commanding officer of each unit shall throw himself, heart and soul, into the successful and quick accomplishment of the main mission; that he shall display energy, initiative, and resourcefulness; that he shall not be afraid of responsibility; and that he shall thoroughly indoctrinate the men under his command.
The Fleet Expands
By 1924, funds to build boats and cutters began to flow. However, the high-seas cutters requested by Reynolds were shelved for 20 mothballed U.S. Navy destroyers that could be refurbished faster than new cutters could be constructed. Personnel increases, new boats, and refurbished destroyers quickly used up the $13 million in supplemental funding.
The destroyers transferred to the Coast Guard were 750- and 1,000-tonners built between 1910 and 1916. Later, some of the Navy’s famed four-stackers also were transferred. Lots of repair work was required, with one destroyer described by her commanding officer as an “appalling mass of junk.” The first refurbished “tin can,” the Henley (CG-12/ex-DD-39), went to sea in the summer of 1924. The majority of her Coast Guard crew were raw recruits. Destroyers that joined the force later were crewed by more experienced men. These vessels were the first Navy warships manned entirely by Coast Guard crews, but not the last.
Beginning in 1924, the service’s small boat fleet mushroomed. The Coast Guard began repurposing seized rumrunners for pursuit and apprehension. During Prohibition, more than 450 seized vessels were repurposed. In addition, a fleet of 103 36-foot picket boats was built for fast inshore work. Thirty of these were stripped for a top speed of 22 knots while the rest had double cabins for overnight patrols—but were two knots slower. Between 1931 and 1932, nearly 550 38-foot picket boats were built to replace the 36-footers. At 24 knots, they were faster than their predecessors, with more enclosed space for longer patrols. To help support this massive fleet, the Coast Guard acquired six tenders, placing them in strategic locations along the East Coast.
During Prohibition, the service experienced a huge increase in its cutter inventory. With more than 200 cutters, the wooden 75-foot “six-bitter” class was the largest in Coast Guard history. With a speed of 15 knots, they were tasked with offshore picket duty. Most six-bitters were operational by 1925, accounting for half of the manpower increases at that time. The service built 13 100-footers out of steel, rather than wood. The larger size provided greater crew comfort and added endurance, but they lacked the speed of the six-bitters. Known as “buck-and-a-quarters,” 33 125-footers were built in the late 1920s. Their diesel engines ensured reliability and endurance, but a top speed of only 10 knots.
Commissioned in the late 1920s, the ten 250-foot Lake-class cutters were high-endurance ships that could serve long periods at sea. Designed to track mother ships, the successful 165-foot “B” class cutters maximized speed, seaworthiness, accommodations, and range. Eighteen were completed by the early 1930s. The service also built six 78-foot patrol boats, a faster version of the six-bitter that could speed at 22 knots. With 320 cutters and destroyers and hundreds of smaller boats, the Coast Guard’s budget mushroomed from $9.3 million in 1923 to more than $24 million in 1927, and its personnel levels more than doubled, from 4,000 men to 10,000.
Despite the nascent state of flying during this wood, wire, and propeller age, the potential of aviation to interdict smugglers was not lost on Coast Guard officers. In 1920, the service tried to establish a Coast Guard air arm with loaned Navy aircraft and a Navy airfield in North Carolina. A year later, lack of funds killed this program. However, within a few years, Coast Guard aviators rekindled the push for an aviation branch.
By 1925, Coast Guard officers convinced service leaders that aerial patrols could observe far more of the water’s surface than cutters. In May, temporary Coast Guard operations were set up at Squantum Naval Air Station in Quincy, Massachusetts. The service’s first aerial law enforcement assist took place on 20 June, and its first aviation interdiction was on the 24th. A year later, in recognition of aviation’s importance, Congress funded the purchase of five aircraft, marking the permanent establishment of Coast Guard aviation. These new custom-built Loening OL-5 amphibians had a top speed of 150 miles per hour and a range of 450 miles. The Coast Guard provided each one with a radio and aft-mounted machine gun to increase effectiveness. The first OL-5s were based at a small air station on Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor, Massachusetts.
Radios: Coordination and Code-breaking
In the early 20th century, development of the radio brought new ways to communicate and locate radio transmissions both at sea and on shore. As early as 1919, the radio direction finder (RDF) had come into use in a primitive form on the USCGC Androscoggin (CG-14). Two years later, a Navy version was installed in the cutter Tampa, and others soon followed. During Prohibition, these devices helped detect lines of bearing on transmissions from rumrunners and their clandestine shore stations. Two cutters working together could establish fixes on these illegal transmitters. On the other hand, smugglers also became more sophisticated and used RDF to locate Coast Guard units.
The use of radio brought not only RDF, but also codes and cryptanalysis. With smugglers often using radios to coordinate operations, they also began to use codes. Elizebeth Friedman—wife of one of the day’s foremost code-breakers, William Friedman—was a prominent code-breaker in her own right. Hired in 1924, she assisted various agencies within the Treasury Department with code-breaking. Eventually, Friedman was detailed to the Coast Guard and is credited with breaking the codes of more than 12,000 individual radio messages. She also served as a government witness at a number of important smuggler trials. Considered a pioneer in U.S. cryptology, Friedman later headed a Coast Guard cryptanalysis unit in World War II, which included a dozen female Coast Guard reservists who decoded thousands of enemy messages and saved countless lives.
Intelligence gathering became part of Coast Guard operations during Prohibition, and signals intelligence became an important weapon in the “Rum War.” With prior experience in civilian radio communications, Lieutenant Frank Meals pioneered the use of radio for Coast Guard communications and intelligence. Under Meals, the service began formal training for radio operators and established ten Coast Guard shore stations.
Intelligence gathering was so important that the service established the Office of Coast Guard Intelligence in 1924. Its first head was Lieutenant Commander Charles Root, a Gold Lifesaving Medal hero of the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and a distinguished engineering officer during World War I. His office broke up rumrunning activities through new radio-listening technology, radio direction finding, and superior code-breakers such as Elizebeth Friedman. Under Root’s leadership, this unit became one of the most respected intelligence offices in the U.S. government.
A Dangerous Business
During the Rum War, Coast Guard casualties were not uncommon. A dozen service members died during law enforcement missions during Prohibition. For example, in August 1927, off Bimini, rumrunner James Alderman killed two Coast Guardsmen and a Secret Service officer on board the six-bitter CG-249. Captured by the surviving cutter crew members, Alderman was found guilty of murder and hanged two years later at Coast Guard Base Six near Fort Lauderdale. It was the first and only time a hanging took place at a Coast Guard base.
Sometimes the rumrunners lost their lives. In 1929, after a 200-mile chase, the rumrunner I’m Alone of Halifax was sunk by the cutter Dexter, with the loss of one man. Canada, Britain, and France protested, and diplomatic talks ensued for six years before the United States paid compensation to the crew.
In other cases, cuttermen rose to the challenge. In July 1927, Ensign Charles Duke boarded a darkened 800-ton freighter steaming into New York Harbor under cover of night. With only a sidearm, Duke held the vessel and her 22 hostile crew members until help arrived in the morning. On board the ship were 1,400 50-gallon drums of liquor worth $500,000—more than $7 million in 2019 dollars.
Prohibition Loses Popularity
By the early 1930s, Prohibition had become unpopular with the U.S. public. After his 1932 election, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed to repeal it. In 1933, with ratification of the 21st Amendment, Prohibition ended and with it the profitability of liquor smuggling. The Coast Guard shifted its operational orientation from liquor interdiction back to its traditional missions. The service also began implementing cost-saving measures, such as decommissioning vessels, closing stations, and reducing manpower. In total, the Coast Guard cut costs by 25 percent.
During Prohibition, in its largest law enforcement mission ever, the Coast Guard made thousands of apprehensions. It also experienced its largest fleet expansion outside the world wars. And the service saw many firsts, including the first time Coast Guard crews manned Navy warships, and the permanent establishment of an aviation branch. It also saw extensive use of the radio and RDF and the founding of the Coast Guard Intelligence Office, one of the day’s leading federal intelligence branches. All these factors shaped the service into a force better prepared for its next great challenge—World War II.
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