On Jan. 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, banning the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages, became enforceable by law, launching the strange 13-year hiccup in American history known as Prohibition.
The Volstead Act, the law that operationalized Prohibition, assigned enforcement authority to the Treasury Department – specifically to its new Prohibition Bureau. Anticipating that a few smugglers would try to bring illegal alcohol into the country by sea, the new bureau established a marine division with a small fleet of intercepting boats. Given the severe penalties imposed by the law, the bureau expected few violations.
The bureau was mistaken. Smuggling alcohol immediately proved profitable, and prevalent, along American coasts, particularly off the Eastern Seaboard.A pioneer bootlegger in these early days was the yacht builder Bill McCoy, who helped establish the practice of taking cargo onto schooners at ports in either Nassau,Bahamas, or Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, the French islands off the coast of Newfoundland, and then anchoring in international waters to operate a floating liquor store that sold to smaller, faster launches known as “contact boats.” A regular line of rum ships gathered in perpetuity off the shores of metropolitan New York, known as “Rum Row,” with several other areas – including the Virginia Capes, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Houston/ Galveston – served by their own rum rows.
Customs and prohibition agents were overwhelmed by the rum fleet. In their fight against maritime smuggling, they focused on seizing contraband as it landed at wharves and, in some cases, on intercepting small craft inshore. It was a losing battle, and the Treasury Department turned to the agency responsible for protecting revenues and preventing smuggling at sea: the Coast Guard.
At the outset of Prohibition, the modern Coast Guard was just 5 years old, and had only recently been transferred back to its peacetime home in the Treasury Department by the U.S. Navy, where more than 9,000 Coast Guard personnel had served during World War I. The reconstituted service had neither the manpower, training, nor resources to carry out a vast coastal interdiction program. By 1924 it was clear to Adm. William Reynolds, Coast Guard commandant, that the service was overmatched against more than 150 rum fleet vessels and an inshore swarm of contact boats, many of them outfitted with 400-horsepower airplane engines the U.S. government sold for $100 apiece after the war.
What followed over the next few years was an unprecedented expansion of the Coast Guard: The service grew from 4,000 to 10,000 personnel, and a fleet of new cutters, specially designed to intercept and catch rumrunners, was rolled out over the next few years, to be aided in their efforts by 25 refurbished Navy destroyers that had been mothballed after the war.
Some 203 wooden-hulled 75-footers, also known as “six-bitters,” with a top speed of 15 knots and deck-mounted 1-pound cannons, entered service between 1924 and 1925. Beginning in 1927, they were joined by the first of 33 125-footers, the well-armed diesel “Buckand-a-Quarters” designed to trail mother ships along the outer line of defense.
The fastest ships in the Coast Guard fleet were now the destroyers, which had an obvious limitation: They were too big to be of much use inshore. The service’s small boat fleet underwent a rapid expansion. More than 100 36-foot picket boats were built, with a top speed of around 22 knots. A new round of 78-foot fast patrol cutters began entering service in 1931, and between 1931 and 1932, more than 500 new 38-foot picket boats, faster and capable of longer patrols than the 36-footers, were built.
By 1925, a group of forward-thinking Coast Guard officers had convinced their superiors that aerial patrols would provide much wider awareness than surface ships, and a temporary Coast Guard airfield was established in Massachusetts. The service’s first aerial interdiction was in June of that year, and Congress responded by authorizing the purchase of five amphibious planes, to be based at a small air station in Gloucester Harbor.
This overhaul of the Coast Guard created a service that looked and operated nothing like it had just a few years earlier: It was a large, well-equipped and well trained fighting force, prepared for battle in the Rum War. Its adversaries, however, had adapted as well: The plucky Bill McCoys, and the low-rent pirates who tried to rip them off, were quickly absorbed or driven out of business by sophisticated crime organizations. Eventually the entire New York liquor racket was handled by five syndicates. This was one of the great ironies of Prohibition: It created a vast criminal underworld and set off a crime wave unparalleled in U.S. history.
The strategy against these syndicates was simple: With regular cutters and destroyers, the Coast Guard would attempt to break the link between mother ships and contact boats, often circling the larger ships to make their presence known and deter transactions. A second line of defense, led by six-bitters and picket boats, was aimed inshore, at the comings and goings of contact boats.
Within this strategic sphere, tactics and countermeasures became increasingly intricate. To avoid detection, smugglers would sometimes try to bait a Coast Guard vessel into chasing a slower decoy boat while other contact boats loaded their consignments; sometimes they merely sent out a radio distress signal to lure the cutter in another direction. Submerged loads of contraband were sometimes towed behind the rumrunner, to be cut loose if capture seemed imminent. Liquor was hidden beneath false bottoms, behind false bulkheads, or under layers of legal cargo. Rather than try to offload smuggled liquor at landings, some “blacks” (the Coast Guard term for many smugglers’ vessels, which were often painted dark colors and ran without lights to avoid nighttime detection) would sink them at assigned drops, tethered to submerged buoys.
If they were detected in spite of these measures, smugglers practiced several evasive maneuvers: If caught out by a destroyer, a contact boat might ignite a trail of diesel or oil in its wake, creating a smoke screen to obscure its escape; the boat could then double back at high speed, knowing the destroyer could never turn in time to catch it. Some smugglers simply sped toward shoals where deeper-draft destroyers or cutters couldn’t follow. If pursued by speedier patrol boats, smugglers might toss cases of liquor in their wake, in the hope of damaging the pursuer’s hull. A few smugglers attempted to turn and ram their pursuers, but this was an act of desperation that had mixed results; on several occasions, rum-runners sank themselves in these collisions.
One of the factors working in smugglers’ favor – the 3-mile limit to territorial waters, an international standard established by the reach of an 18th century cannon shot – was eliminated in 1924, when the United States and Great Britain agreed on a new standard: the distance a ship could travel in an hour, which averaged 12 nautical miles. This made it more difficult for rum ships to connect with their contact boats, but the fact that the new boundary was moveable, dependent on the speed of a ship, also muddied ensuing court cases.
Rum-runner tactics demanded creativity from Coast Guard skippers. Rum War at Sea, Malcolm Willoughby’s definitive history of the Coast Guard’s Prohibition service, recounts the exploits of Cmdr. Philip H. Scott, who commanded the cutter Seminole in the Rum War’s early days. Scott liked to seize rum-running craft and turn them into patrol boats. On one occasion, dressed in civilian clothes, he cruised around in a seized tug, made conversation with rum-runners – and, when he’d determined they were smuggling, raised the Coast Guard flag and seized their vessels. Scott made many seizures in this way, and in fact the Coast Guard made liberal use of seized craft in their patrol/pursuit fleet throughout Prohibition. According to Willoughby, 649 of these vessels were transferred to the Coast Guard during the period; Dr. William H. Thiesen, the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area historian, has figured that more than 450 of these were repurposed by the service.
ENTER ELIZEBETH FRIEDMAN
The surge of new Coast Guard assets at sea and in the air, along with the service’s more varied countermeasures, temporarily knocked the rum-runners off balance, but syndicates had begun to perfect the use of radio communications. One of the first and simplest tactics was for rum ships to transmit over commercial frequencies: Encoded messages, usually groups of random-looking letters, communicating a day’s sales, requests for provisions, the vessel’s location, and other information were sent to management on land. On shore, new technologies allowed hidden pop-up stations to send encrypted locations and instructions for transactions at high frequencies that often went undetected.
Obviously, the Coast Guard needed the ability to gather signals intelligence. In 1924, the Office of Coast Guard Intelligence was established, led by then-Lt. Cmdr. Charles Root. This new office launched a two-pronged attack on rum-runners: First, it set up its own sophisticated radio communications system under the direction of Lt. Frank Meals, an accomplished telegraph operator and commander of the six-bitter CG-210. Meals trained the incoming generation of Coast Guard radio operators and ensured that the service’s communications technology – including a new generation of radio direction-finding equipment that helped cutter crews locate rum ships – remained on the cutting edge.
Second, Root understood that intercepting illegal transmissions was of little use if they were encrypted. By 1927, hundreds of messages had accumulated in the new office’s files, but thanks to the addition of an expert cryptanalyst, Elizebeth Friedman, the Coast Guard began to make headway; within two months of her hiring, the division’s new Cryptanalytic Unit, consisting of Friedman and an assistant, had cleared the backlog of messages. From 1928 to 1930, the unit decrypted about 12,000 messages for the Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies. The messages contained information about illegal activities along all the nation’s coasts, and their decryption meant, in many cases, that the codes of major syndicates had been broken, allowing the Coast Guard to intercept and decode messages in real time – and so enabling seizures or prevention operations at sea.
By the early 1930s, a bigger Cryptanalytic Unit, overseen by Friedman, was supporting a new radio intelligence service at Coast Guard Headquarters. In the New York area, Meals took command of a specialized unit: five 75-foot patrol boats, outfitted with radio direction-finding equipment, to intercept radio signals that could be decoded and disseminated for action. In the last years of Prohibition, the information gathered by this unit revealed the syndicates were smuggling more than liquor; their contraband, according to Willoughby, included “Swiss watches, French perfume, contraceptives, firearms, and ammunition for Cuban revolutionists, and aliens.”
In 1933, Friedman’s work for the Coast Guard, and her court testimony, culminated in the convictions of 35 bootleggers and ringleaders for violations of the Volstead Act. The service’s 11th National Security Cutter will be named after her.
A HOT WAR WINDS DOWN
Though it often had a cat-and-mouse feel, the Rum War was a shooting war against adversaries who wouldn’t hesitate to fire – at a cutter, or its searchlight, or at the crewmember aiming the searchlight. The method most commonly used by the Coast Guard to persuade an obstinate rum-running vessel to heave to for boarding was to fire a warning shot from a machine gun or cannon – or both – across the vessel’s bow.
People died on both sides of the Rum War at sea. Just past midnight on April 2, 1925, when the six-bitter CG-237 came across a suspected rum-runner in Block Island Sound, the other boat opened fire without warning, striking Chief Petty Officer Karl Gustafson, who was in the pilothouse, in the abdomen. Gustafson died a few hours later in a hospital.
The deadliest Prohibition encounter for the Coast Guard occurred on Aug. 7, 1927, when the six-bitter CG-249, patrolling between Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the Bahamas, interdicted a rum-running motorboat. One of the boat’s two occupants, Horace Alderman, somehow managed to bring a gun with him as he was brought aboard the cutter, and he opened fire, killing Boatswain Sidney Sanderlin, Motor Machinist’s Mate Victor Lamby, and a Secret Service agent, Robert Webster. Alderman was subdued by the rest of the crew, tried, convicted of three counts of murder and piracy on the high seas, and sentenced to death. He was hanged in a seaplane hangar at Coast Guard Base 6 at Fort Lauderdale two years later – the only person ever executed on Coast Guard property, and the only person ever executed by the federal government for a Prohibition-related crime.
At the trial, Alderman tried to argue – against the testimony of every witness, including his accomplice –that he acted in self-defense. It was an argument probably meant more for the public than the judge: Tensions were running high in South Florida, where wild shootouts had been lighting up the Miami River waterway for years, and had resulted in the deaths of several smugglers.
Many accounts of the Coast Guard’s Prohibition service, including Willoughby’s, suggest the battle for public opinion may have been irretrievably lost in 1929, when smugglers were killed in two separate Coast Guard interdictions: In March, the Halifax schooner I’m Alone was chased by the cutter Wolcott and sunk after being shelled by the cutter Dexter. I’m Alone’s French-Canadian boatswain drowned, and the incident caused an international row. In December, the rum-rummer Black Duck, a fast, low-profile motorboat that had eluded capture on several occasions, was intercepted by CG-290 in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. CG-290’s commander, Boatswain Alexander Cornell, later testified that the Black Duck had ignored the signal to heave to, and veered suddenly into CG-290’s warning shots, killing three of the men aboard and wounding a fourth.
In these and other cases, the accounts of law enforcement officers and rum-runners differed. Cornell and his crew were cleared of wrongdoing, but the Black Duck incident provoked a lingering bitterness, expressed in protests, attacks on Coast Guard facilities, demands for an impartial committee to re-open the investigation, and a very public airing of grievances, often by respected public figures. John F. Fitzgerald, former Boston mayor and U.S. congressman, pointed out that the Black Duck’s illegal cargo would have been consumed by public officials all over New England. New York Congressman and future New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia declared Prohibition unenforceable.
THE END OF PROHIBITION AND THE BIRTH OF THE MODERN COAST GUARD
On Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment and ending the nation’s ban on alcohol sales. The Coast Guard would never be the same. It had begun the 1920s, arguably, as a life-saving service with law enforcement authority that was mostly regulatory in nature, conducting inspections and ensuring compliance. After being assigned the biggest law enforcement task in its history, the Coast Guard became a paramilitary law enforcement agency with a crucial role in national security and expertise in the interdiction of law breaking vessels. It was also equipped with the resources necessary to do these things, including an aviation branch; a large fleet of cutters designed for a variety of tasks offshore, inshore, and in waterways; sophisticated intelligence and codebreaking personnel; and well-trained crews manning Navy warships. Many crewmembers who served with the Coast Guard’s Destroyer Force later became commanders or senior NCOs on cutters and Coast Guard-manned U.S. Navy ships in World War II.
Between 1923 and 1927 alone, the Coast Guard’s budget and personnel levels more than doubled, and even after the inevitable post-repeal drawdown, the service remained larger and more significant than it had been before Prohibition. It was now an internationally recognized law enforcement organization, and its intelligence service was one of the most respected in the federal government; the Coast Guard serves today as a core member of the national intelligence community. Its codebreakers were immediately useful against World War II adversaries. Coast Guard communications procedures and networks, standardized to be in line with those of the U.S. Navy, were immediately useful when the two services were once again combined to serve in World War II – and the joint integration of far more sophisticated command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) platforms and capabilities continues to this day.
The Coast Guard’s approach to Prohibition – an interagency collaborative, attacking a problem from every angle and embracing the full spectrum of the service’s capabilities – applied constant pressure on rum running syndicates. The Coast Guard clearly reduced the volume of illegal alcohol flowing into the country, and forced lawbreakers to adopt several changes in tactics. By that measure – and in the way its Prohibition service helped to cement its reputation as the protector of the nation’s maritime domain – its 13 years of Prohibition enforcement were a resounding success that fixed an indelible stamp on the modern Coast Guard.
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