How Prohibition Built the Modern Coast Guard

Boston Coast Guard Patrol Fleet (USCG)

Posted on November 21, 2021 at 3:50 p.m. by

Guillaume Thiesen

[Prohibition] was a harsh and relentless war with few rewards normally accompanying the accomplishment of such a duty. Yet under the law, the Coast Guard had no choice but to conduct it with zeal and dedication, using all the resources at its disposal. The story of the “noble experience” is largely a story of the Coast Guard. – Commander Edwin J. Roland, United States Coast Guard

In October 1919, over 100 years ago, Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and, in 1920, the Volstead Act, which imposed the 18th Amendment. And so began the so-called “noble experiment” of prohibition. In U.S. territorial waters, including its lakes, inland waterways, and thousands of miles of coastline, the U.S. Coast Guard was the only one to enforce this unpopular law.

Enforcement under the ban would become the largest law enforcement mission in the Coast Guard’s long and rich history. In 1922, the Federal Prohibition Commission had hundreds of motherships hovering off the coast of the United States in “Rum Row” with as many as 60 off the coast of Jersey alone. These mother ships were also stationed off Boston, New York, Chesapeake Bay, New Orleans, and West Coast ports. In 1923, Coast Guard Commander William Reynolds admitted that his cutters could prevent “only a small part” of the influx of illegal alcohol, which was “quite unprecedented in the history of the country.”

At that time, Congress had not earmarked any funds for the Coast Guard to stem the tide of these running rum smugglers. However, the expansion of the service happened quickly. In October 1923, Reynolds submitted a plan to Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon to deal with the situation. Reynolds requested 20 new deep sea cutters, 200 coastal patrol cutters and 90 fast picket boats. He asked for $ 20 million in additional funding for this vast fleet and 3,500 more people to equip it – at the time, that was an incredible request for funds.

Based on Reynolds’ figures, Secretary Mellon recommended expanding the Coast Guard at a cost of $ 28.5 million, more than three times the service’s annual budget in 1923. Congress accepted the proposal. de Mellon, but appropriated only half of the amount, or about $ 13 million, with most of the funds going for fleet expansion and workforce growth. Until then, this was the largest funding increase in Coast Guard history.

The Coast Guard’s new funding focused on rapid expansion, and in 1924 the funds began to flow. The new ocean-going cutters requested by Reynolds have been scrapped in favor of 20 shelved US Navy destroyers that could be refurbished faster than new build. Staff increases, new boats and refurbished destroyers quickly depleted the additional $ 13 million in funding.

700 destroyers of 50 tons and 1000 built between 1910 and 1916 were transferred to the Coast Guard. Later, some of the Navy’s famous “Four-Stacker” destroyers were also transferred. Much repair work was required with a destroyer described by its Coast Guard captain as a “appalling mass of garbage”. The first refurbished destroyer, Henley, set sail in the summer of 1924. The majority of her Coast Guard crew were raw recruits. These destroyers were the first Navy warships fully equipped by Coast Guard crews.

The Henley Four-Stacker Destroyer in Coast Guard Service (USCG)

By 1924, the Coast Guard’s fleet of small boats also multiplied. The service reassigned more than 450 rum ships seized for pursuit and apprehension. In addition, a fleet of 103 36-foot wooden stakes was built for rapid coastal work. Thirty of them were dismantled for a top speed of 22 knots while the rest had double cabins for night patrols and were two knots slower. Later, between 1931 and 1932, another 550 38-foot picket boats were built to replace the 36-foot ones. At 24 knots, they were faster than their predecessors with more confined space for longer patrols. To help support this massive fleet of small boats, the Coast Guard has acquired six floating bases placing them at strategic locations along the east coast.

During Prohibition, the service also saw a dramatic increase in its inventory of new knives. With over 200 cutters, the 75-foot wooden Six Bitter class was the largest cutter class in Coast Guard history. With a speed of 15 knots, its mission was an offshore picket service. Most of the Six-Bitters were operational by 1925, which was half of the staff increases at that time. The department built 13,100 feet of steel rather than wood. The larger size provided greater crew comfort and increased stamina, but they lacked the speed of the Six-Bitters. The service also built six 78-foot patrol boats, a faster version of the Six-Bitter that can reach 22 knots. Known as the “Buck-and-a-Quarters,” 33 125-foot cutters were built in the late 1920s. Their diesel engines provided reliability and endurance, but a top speed of only ten knots. Designed to keep up with mother ships, the successful 165-foot Class “B” cutters maximized speed, seaworthiness, accommodation and range. Eighteen Class “B” cutters were completed before prohibition ended. Commissioned in the late 1920s, the 10 250-foot “Lake” class cutters were high endurance vessels that could serve long periods at sea.

Despite the state of flight during this era of wood, wire and propellers, the potential of aviation to ban smugglers has not been lost on Coast Guard officers. In 1920, the service attempted to establish a Coast Guard aerial weapon with loaned Navy planes and a former Navy airfield in Morehead City, North Carolina. A year later, the lack of funds killed the program. However, a year later, Coast Guard officers convinced service leaders that aerial patrols could observe the water surface much more than cutters. And so began the permanent establishment of Coast Guard aviation.

In May 1925, temporary Coast Guard operations were set up at Naval Air Station Squantum in Massachusetts. The law enforcement service’s first air assistance took place on June 20, and the Coast Guard’s first aviation ban occurred four days later, on the 24th. A year later, in recognition of The importance of aviation, Congress funded the purchase of five new Coast Guard aircraft, the first of thousands of air service assets. These 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 with a radio and a rear-mounted machine gun to increase their effectiveness. The first amphibious OL-5s were based at a small air station on Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor, Massachusetts.

Loening OL-5 prime crew (courtesy USCG)

At the start of the 20th century, the development of radio brought new ways of communicating and new ways of locating radio transmissions both at sea and on land. As early as 1919, the direction finder (RDF) was used in a primitive form on the Androscoggin cutter. Two years later, a Navy version was installed on the Tampa cutter and more quickly followed. During Prohibition, these devices helped detect bearing lines on transmissions from motherships, motorboats, and their clandestine transmission stations ashore. Two cutters working together could fix illegal transmitters. On the other hand, smugglers have also become more sophisticated and have also used RDF to locate Coast Guard units. It was a huge game of cat and mouse off the American coast, and on American lakes and inland waterways.

During Prohibition, the Coast Guard’s largest law enforcement mission, the service experienced the largest peacetime fleet expansion in its history. With 320 cutters and destroyers, and hundreds of small boats, the service’s budget exploded from $ 9.3 million in 1923 to over $ 24 million in 1927 with manpower more than doubling from 4,000 10,000 men. And, the service has seen many firsts, including the first time that Coast Guard crews have occupied Navy warships and the permanent establishment of an aviation branch of the Coast Guard. He also saw heavy use of radio and RDF. All of these factors shaped the service into a force better prepared for its next great challenge: World War II.

William H. Thiesen is the Coast Guard Atlantic Zone Historian.

This item is courtesy of The Long Blue Line, and it can be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.

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