The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


CG - Coast Guard Destroyers

Much of the 'fuel' that made the roar in the "Roaring 20s" was alcohol--beer, wine, bathtub gin, "hooch", "fresh off the boat" and all of it manufactured, imported, transported, sold, and consumed illegally. Prohibition, called the "noble experiment" by President Herbert Hoover became the law of the land on January 16, 1920, one year after the 36th state ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Enforcement of the law fell to the Department of the Treasury and the Coast Guard was charged with interdicting the flow of "Demon Rum" before it reached American shores.

Probably the most visible symptom of the early Prohibition era was Rum Row. These lines of smugglers and liquor-mongers appeared off major and minor markets in 1921, and became magnets for literally hundreds of "contact boats" which swarmed out carrying ravenous purchasers. Unlike land-locked bootleggers who needed nothing more than an automobile trunk, the seafaring counterpart had a substantial logistics problem: his sources and his thirsty consumers, a great number of whom inhabited the teeming port cities, were separated by blue water. Solving this dilemma is credited to one Captain William S. McCoy. This gentleman, though supposedly a non-drinker, was intelligent enough to avoid the high visibility inherent in actually docking his ship and happy cargo. He hove to immediately outside of the magic 3-mile limit, immune from any U.S. authorities, and waited for the well-informed to come to him. Such "Rum Rows" were a fact, and an embarrassing one for the "drys" until international law dispersed the supply "mother" ships beyond the newly proclaimed 12-mile mark in the mid-1920s.

The history of the Coast Guard's efforts to enforce Prohibition can be roughly divided in two, with the year 1925 as the chronological divider. Before this date, the service remained at nearly the same force level as 1920, despite the patently obvious deluge of illicit alcohol coming ashore. After 1925, the majority of a quantum leap in equipment, ships, and men became operational, resulting in significantly more aggressive tactics in the rum war.

The enlargement of the Coast Guard was the next logical step in dealing with the seagoing bootleggers. As early as October 1923, Commandant William E. Reynolds was directed to submit a plan for the enlargement of the service to contend with the enforcement situation. He called for twenty additional cruising cutters, 203 cabin cruiser-type motorboats, and 91 "small motor-boats'; about 3,500 additional personnel were necessary, and an immediate appropriation of over $19 million.

By early 1924 a significant change occurred. Emphasis was placed on obtaining the vessels and personnel at all possible speed to meet the problem head-on. Therefore, the cruising cutters recommended by Commandant Reynolds were to be replaced by a similar number of laid-up Navy destroyers, which could be converted in a short time. Reynolds had earlier received a report from the service's chief engineer describing Navy destroyers as "unsuitable" for Coast Guard work and excessively expensive. In any case, twenty destroyers were agreed upon, along with 203 cabin cruiser type and 100 smaller boats. With appropriate personnel, the cost was approximately $14 million. This was the largest single increase in the history of the Coast Guard.

The "new" destroyers were 750- and 1,000-tonners, built from 1910 to 1916. Several of the famous flush-deck four stackers were also obtained, all were capable of over 30 knots. Considerable renovation was required as at least one was described as an "appalling mass of junk" by her commanding officer. The first, Henley, went to sea in late summer, 1924. The majority of her enlisted men were new recruits, men who may well have been selling shoes one day and swabbing decks the next. The Coast Guard did not establish recruit training centers until the early 1940s. Destroyers that joined the force later had larger percentages of experienced manpower.

Prior to 1941, the Coast Guard and its predecessors never assigned hull numbers to its larger cutters or tenders, it simply referred to them only by their names. Some were assigned builders' numbers prior to their construction but that number was never used to designate a cutter that was in commission. The number was dropped after the cutter entered service. Their was an exception to this practice, however. During the 1920's, patrol boats and the destroyers loaned to the Coast Guard by the Navy did receive hull numbers. Those hull numbers were preceded by the letters "CG." The destroyers kept their names as well and so were the first and only Coast Guard named-vessels, up to that time, that also had hull numbers. Contray to US Navy practice, the half dozen Clemson-class destroyers placed into Coast Guard service in 1931-32, replacing a half dozen Paulson-class destroyers placed into service in 1924-26, assumed the hull numbers [CG-15 through CG-20] of the destroyers they replaced.

The two other categories of new vessels were the famous six-bitters, 75-foot patrol boats, and the 38-foot picket boats. The smaller boats were designed for fast inshore work, and were of the Seabright dory type, with Spartan interiors and robust construction. Thirty were without cabins and "stripped" for speed - a designed 24 statute miles per hour. The remaining seventy vessels were given basic cabins and a galley for overnight duties and were somewhat slower in speed. Between 1924 and 1926, Coast Guard personnel levels jumped from 5,982 to 10,009.

In the next few years, until the end of Prohibition, there were other increases in the service inventory. There were 100-footers such as Petrel, the 125-foot "buck-and-a-quarters" of the Tiger-class, and 165-foot cutters. The 78-foot patrol boats, a speedier variety of the six-bitter were also new additions to the fleet. These "400" series boats were designed for 24 statute miles per hour.

The Coast Guard's increase in numbers were accompanied in 1924 by international agreements with maritime nations whereby those nations would recognize seizures made as far out as one hour steaming distance under certain circumstances. Enforcing the new "twelve mile limit" was not as simple as it sounded. Technically, it was an "hour's steaming distance", thus a foreign mother ship was liable to seizure if she was in contact with any American boat within an hour's steaming distance from shore. If the contact boat could run at 20 miles per hour, her mother ship could be seized as far as 20 miles out.

The 30 to 34-knot destroyers were a problem that required special tactics by the rumrunners. The favorite move used in a high-speed chase where the big vessel had the advantage was liberal use of a smoke screen and a sudden reversal in direction. By the time the trick was known and the big four-stacker came round with her helm hard over, the runner may have made good her escape. If shoal water was available the lighter draft had yet another advantage over larger cutters. There was a distinction in the Coast Guard vessels and their methods of operation. The larger cutters and destroyers were used for offshore work. Individual mother ships would be picketed continually, usually with the cutter maintaining a 10-knot circle around her, preventing contact with boats from shore.

The history of the Coast Guard role in Prohibition saw no outstanding developments in the last years of the law's sway It remained a constant, sometimes niggling, battle of minor skirmishes. The numerical strength of the service continued to grow, though of course, not in leaps comparable to 1924 and 1925. By 1932, it was becoming obvious that repeal of the 18th amendment was coming, and some of the steam began to run out of enforcement efforts. On December 5, 1933 the 21st amendment became the law of the land and Prohibition was dead.

Join the mailing list

Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:38:53 ZULU