Warship Wednesday Jan 22, 2020: Oh, Mr. Volstead, what have you done?
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Jan 22, 2020: Oh, Mr. Volstead, what have you done?
Here we see, a U.S. Coast Guard Loening OL-5L seaplane flying majestically over a pair of new-built 75-foot “six-bitter” patrol boats, likely around 1927 off Glouchester, Mass. While the Coasties only operated three OL-5s, they went much bigger on the contract for the 75-footers.
The so-called “noble experiment” that was perhaps always doomed to fail, Congressman Andrew Volstead’s championed 18th Amendment, which survived President Woodrow Wilson’s veto to bring about an official prohibition on liquor from sea to shining sea, became the law of the land on 17 January 1920– 100 years ago this month.
However, all it did was spark a new war, the so-called Rum War, which pitted federal law enforcement against often international smugglers and criminal syndicates of all sizes. Increasingly, this forerunner of the War on Drugs became an actual military campaign.
Rum Runners in Canada and in the Bahamas had the cry, “For some, there’s a fortune but others will die, come on load up the ship boys, the Yankees are dry.”
That’s where the Coast Guard came in.
Charged with policing “Rum Row,” the line of booze-laden ships parked just off the international limit with all the best Canadian whiskey, Cuban rum and bottles of European hooch rushed to the thirsty market, the USCG was rapidly expanded to sever the link between this liquor line and coastal bootleggers in fast boats, fishing luggers and skiffs. Some 10 million quarts of liquor left Nassau alone in 1922, headed to points West.
To do this, the service was loaned a whole fleet of mothballed Navy destroyers (20), subchasers (21), and Eagle boats (5) leftover from the Great War as well as being granted a sweeping raft of new construction. Between 1924 and 1926, the USCG doubled in size from 5,900 to 10,000 uniformed personnel, a manning crisis that caused the Coast Guard Academy to switch to a two-year program to speed up the pipeline for new officers.
The largest group of new vessels, at least in terms of hulls and manpower to sail them, were the 203 “cabin cruiser-style” patrol boats that are the subject of our tale.
At 75-feet overall length, these humble craft became known in service as “six-biters.”
Equipped with two 6-cylinder gasoline engines, they could make 15.7 knots with their powerplant wide open and sortie out for about a week or so until their eight-man crew ran out of groceries or the 1,000-gallon fuel tank started sounding hollow.
Initially, they were to be armed with a single 3″/23 caliber gun, considered good enough to fire a warning shot across the bow of a bootlegger. However, to save weight, these patrol craft instead were equipped with a single-shot one-pounder 37mm gun of about 1898 vintage. Nevertheless, the go-to weapons for their crews were small arms.
To speed things up, these patrol boats were mass-produced in 1924 and 1925 by nearly 20 yards, both public and private, simultaneously with hull prices running between $18,000 and $26,000 per vessel. Their construction, of white oak frames and keel with fir and yellow pine planking and bulwarks, ensured their short lifespan but quick construction.
They were built to a design finalized by noted yacht maker John Trumpy. With simply too many cutters to name, they were numbered CG-100 through CG-302 and delivered on an average of four to five cutters per week.
The boats soon swarmed the coastline from Maine to the Florida Keys, along the Gulf Coast, and from Seattle down to San Diego while others served on the Great Lakes.
The renewed offensive on booze escalated as the development forced the slower bootleggers, in other words, the part-timers using trawlers and sailboats, dropped out of the business and left the heavy lifting to professional, and increasingly armed and squirrely smugglers.
In one incident, with the Liberty-engined fast craft Black Duck and the 75-foot cutter CG-290, the bootlegger zigged when they should have zagged while blasting away from the slow patrol boat and got a blast of Lewis gun in the boathouse, killing two rumrunners and wounding another two.
Another incident, between the six-bitter CG-249 and the motorboat V-13997 while en route to Bimini, left the cutter’s skipper, BM Sidney C. Chamberlain, killed in a one-way shootout and two other Coasties wounded.
In a sign of the times, the master of V-139977 who pulled the trigger, James Horace Alderman was convicted of three counts of murder and piracy on the high seas, was captured and two years later was hung in the seaplane hangar at the Fort Lauderdale Coast Guard station. Alderman was the only man ever hung by the organization.
These cutters of course also contributed to traditional USCG missions such as search and rescue and fisheries enforcement. In fact, once Prohibition was repealed in 1933, it became their primary tasking. This led to 52 of the vessels being quickly passed to the Army, Navy, and USC&GS for use as dispatch boats for coastal defense batteries, district patrol craft (YPs), and survey ships.
Others suffered losses while in service. CG-114 was lost at sea in 1925 only weeks after she was completed. The “Great Miami” hurricane in September 1926 wrecked CG-247 and CG-248. A similar cyclone in 1928 claimed CG-188. CG-111, CG-113, CG-256, and CG-243 were lost in fires, groundings or collisions. C-245 went down in unexpected heavy seas within view of El Morro Fortress in 1935. CG-102, which at the time was serving as YP-5 with the Navy, accidentally caught a practice torpedo in 1938 and sank.
Yet others were sold off for their value as scrap.
By 1941 when the Coast Guard was chopped to the Navy’s service, Only 36 were still on the USCG’s list, although six that had previously been sold to the public were re-acquired and put back to use.
As an update with the times and to acknowledge they were intended to fight U-boats and Japanese submarines, the lingering six-bitters picked up a 20mm/80 Oerlikon AAA gun or .50 caliber machine gun forward, and two depth charge racks aft. Likewise, most received QBE sonar listening sets and BK detection radars late in the war. They were used for inshore convoy escort, coastal anti-submarine patrol, and port security duties.
During the war, CG-74327, one of the renumbered six-bitters who started life as CG-211, was sunk in a collision with the Tench-class submarine USS Thornback (SS-418) of Portsmouth in November 1944, claiming the life of BM2 Ireneus K. Augustynowicz. CG-152, as YP-1947, similarly sank in a collision while in Navy service in 1943. CG-267, stationed in Guam in 1941 as YP-16, was scuttled to prevent capture by the Japanese. Sistership CG-275, serving at Guam as YP-17, was scuttled but later salvaged and used by the Japanese.
By 1946, the smattering of six-bitters still in the Navy and USCG service was transferred to MARAD and sold off. Many of the 75-foot craft went on to endure for another couple decades as yachts, fishing vessels, houseboats, and research ships. I cannot find an example of one that was still afloat today.
Still, the legacy of the rowdy wooden six-bitters is today upheld by the Coast Guard’s 87-foot Marine Protector-class patrol boats.
Displacement: 37 tons designed, 42 tons (1945)
Length: 74.9 feet
Beam: 13.75 feet
Draft: 3.6 feet as designed, 5 feet (1945)
Machinery: Sterling 6cyl gas engines, 400 SHP, twin screws
Speed: 15.7 designed, although some made 17 when new.
Crew: 8 as designed, 13 in 1945
1 x 37mm 1-pounder as designed, small arms
1x 20mm/80cal and/or 12.7mm machine gun, 2 depth charge racks in WWII.
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