Atalanta of Greek mythology was a swift-footed huntress who, unwilling to be tethered down by marriage, only agreed to marry he who could outrun her in a footrace—but those whom she overtook in the race, she killed. But Melanion, who was "so peerless in love of toil," knew he could not beat her by speed alone, and he finally bested her by using her own temptation against her. Three golden apples were her undoing, and she was left with no choice but to admit defeat and marry the cunning prince.
The Atalanta of the Prohibition era was just as fast as—if indeed not faster—than the huntress of myth. She was a notorious, armored rumrunner, and her encounters with the Coast Guard during the "Rum War at Sea" are a curious event of the time which that service came of age.
With the passage of the Volstead Act on 16 January 1920, the United States officially became a dry nation, but the demand for alcohol only increased. Foreign distilleries were more than happy to fill that need, and soon a flotilla of private vessels began surreptitiously smuggling in alcohol from Canada, Great Britain, and points beyond.
Charged with interdicting the illegal flow of liquor along America's shores was the U.S. Coast Guard. Armed with a formidable intelligence apparatus and a fleet of former Navy destroyers, the Rum Patrol locked into a battle of wits—and sometimes deadly weapons—with the smugglers.
On the evening of 11 April 1926, CG-113, one of the hundreds of "Six-Bitter" patrol craft (so named because they were 75 feet long, hence, six bits) built specifically for Prohibition duties, was picketing the schooner Clemencia about 90 miles off the coast of Barnegat City (now Barnegat Light), New Jersey. Armed with an identification sheet from the U. S. Coast Guard Intelligence Office, she knew the wooden, two-masted schooner was out of St. Johns, Newfoundland, and probably carrying an illegal cargo of Canadian liquor.
Shortly after midnight of 12 April, a ship approached from the north, running without a mast light and one light aft, but no running lights. Boatswain C. C. Cole of CG-113 hailed the mystery craft and ordered her to come alongside. One of the darkened ship's crew shouted, "What boat is this?" to which Cole answered, "This is a U. S. Coast Guard boat." The other vessel, it was learned, was the Atalanta.
Cole grasped her life rail to hold the Atalanta off while a fender was placed between the two vessels. As he did so, he ordered a seaman to put a line on her. The seaman stepped back to comply, and as he did so, the Atalanta's master dealt Cole a violent, stinging blow to the face. He was knocked back, and the Atalanta's three high-speed motors roared to life and she was off at full-speed. CG-113 immediately set off in pursuit, and as she cleared the Clemencia's bow, a recovered Cole opened fire on the fleeing boat with CG-113's Hotchkiss 1-pounder machine gun, and other seaman opened up with small-arms fire with the Atalanta returning wild shots of her own. Muzzle flashes lit up the night sky as the battle continued for the next hour and a half. In the chaos, the Clemencia doused her lights, weighted anchor, and disappeared into the night.
CG-113 could make about 15 knots, but the Atalanta was far faster, and by the time the chase was abandoned she was nearly a mile off. A general broadcast was made the next day to seize the Atalanta, and she was located in Atlantic Highlands, where the Coast Guard seized and examined her. She was found to be 71 feet long, heavily armored (coming in at nearly 39 gross tons) and "capable of making speed in excess of any legitimate requirements." The Atalanta was impounded, but later released to her owner on payment of a $530 fine for customs violations.
Several months later, on the evening of 8 October 1926 Lieutenant Commander Lloyd T. Chalker, in command of the destroyer USCGC Ericsson (CG-5)—a "flush-decker" acquired from the navy in 1924 for Prohibition duties—was cruising about 100 miles off the New Jersey coast. The schooner Julito was sighted together with a small boat alongside. As the Ericsson headed for them, the small boat sped off at a terrific speed. The swiftly fleeing boat was fast, but not fast enough to outrun a destroyer at full steam; she was overtaken and examined by the Ericsson after a considerable chase.
The boat was found to be the formidable Atalanta, back again at her illicit trade.
Though no liquor was found on board, Chalker ordered the Atalanta's crew taken prisoner. The Ericsson towed her prize to the Coast Guard Station in New London, Connecticut. There, the commander of the Destroyer Task Force, Commander Wilcox, telephoned Commander Charles S. Root, founder and head of the Intelligence Office, of his intentions for the Atalanta.
Root was well-aware of the fast vessel's notorious career. He knew that the owner was a man from Highlands, New Jersey, who was probably also the Julito's owner. He was also aware that the Department of Commerce had refused to grant any customs paperwork to her owner as the vessel was fairly obviously built only for illegal trade.
But Root also knew also that a particular Federal judge whose district included New York and Connecticut was known to be so biased against Prohibition that regardless of the nature and completeness of the evidence presented, obtaining a conviction in his court was almost impossible. He had been burned too many times before and was not going to allow that to happen in this case.
Root therefore issued instructions to Wilcox: Hold the vessel and her crew incommunicado until he could confer with the Department of Justice as to the best course of action, as it might be necessary to prosecute them in another district other than New York or Connecticut and beginning any legal proceedings would defeat their purpose.
In the meantime, Wilcox was to have the Atalanta photographed (those photographs can be seen here) and detailed drawings made of the armor plate for the evidence for the court.
In the end, the Atalanta was seized and forfeited on the grounds of violating sections 4336 and 4337 of the U. S. Revised Statutes by being seen leaving a foreign liquor-laden vessel and because she had fled from customs officials. Coast Guard Intelligence and the allure of the liquor trade had proved too much for her, and her days smuggling rum were over.