Tag Archive | Bootleggers

Warship Wednesday, May 24, 2017: The leopard of rum row turned magic-eyed U-boat buster

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 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, May 24, 2017: The leopard of rum row turned magic-eyed U-boat buster

Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1972. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. NH 76377

Here we see the Clemson-class “four-piper” flush-decker destroyer USS Hunt (DD-194) at anchor in New York Harbor when new, circa 1920. One of a tremendous class of vessels some 156-strong, she had a long and varied career.

An expansion of the Wickes-class destroyers with a third more fuel capacity to enable them to escort a convoy across the Atlantic without refueling, the Clemsons were needed to combat the pressing German submarine threat of the Great War. At 1,200-tons and with a top speed of 35 knots, they were brisk. Another thing they were was built too late for the war.

The hero of our story, USS Hunt, was laid down at Newport News 10 weeks before Armistice Day, named in honor of William Henry Hunt, Secretary of the Navy under President Garfield. Peace delayed her completion until 30 September 1920 when the above image was taken.

After shakedown, Hunt participated in training and readiness exercises with the Atlantic Fleet and conducted torpedo trials on the range out of Newport, R.I. before moving to Charleston.

With the looming idea of naval limitations treaties, the USN rapidly scrapped 40 of their new Clemsons (those built with British style Yarrow boilers) and put whole squadrons of these low mileage vessels in ordinary. One, USS Moody (DD-277) was even sold to MGM for making the film “Hell Below” where she was used as German destroyer and blown up during filming!

Our Hunt decommissioned at Philadelphia Navy Yard 11 August 1922, with only 23 months of gentle Naval service under her belt.

While the Hunt was sitting in Philly, a funny thing happened. The country got sober. Well, kind of.

As deftly retold in a paper by the USCG Historians Office, the service, then part of the Treasury Department, was hard-pressed to chase down fast bootlegging boats shagging out to “Rum Row” where British and Canadian merchants rested in safe water on the 3-mile limit loaded with cases of good whiskey and rum for sale.

This led the agency to borrow 31 relatively new destroyers from the Navy, an act that would have been akin to the USN transferring most of the FFG7 frigates to the Coast Guard during the “cocaine cowboy” days of the 1980s.

USCGD Ammen (CG-8) in pursuit of a rumrunner

US Coast Guard Paulding-class destroyer McCall (CG-14/DD-28) arriving at Charlestown Navy Yard Boston Public Library Leslie Jones Jan. 15, 1928. Commissoned 23 January 1911, she served as a convoy escort in WWI and was transferred to the United States Coast Guard on 7 June 1924, then returned in 1930 and scrapped to comply with the Washington Naval Treaty

U.S. Coast Guard destroyers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1926, note the “CG” hull numbers

From the USCG Historian:

In the end, the rehabilitation of the vessels became a saga in itself because of the exceedingly poor condition of many of these war-weary ships. In many instances, it took nearly a year to bring the vessels up to seaworthiness. Additionally, these were by far the largest and most sophisticated vessels ever operated by the service and trained personnel were nearly nonexistent. As a result, Congress authorized hundreds of new enlistees. It was these inexperienced men that made up the destroyer crews and contributed to the service’s greatest growth prior to World War II.

A total of 31 destroyers served with the Coast Guard’s Destroyer Force. These included three different classes, the 742-ton “flivver-class,” “1,000-ton class”, and the 1,190-ton “Clemson-class” flush-deckers. Capable of over 25 knots, the destroyers had an advantage in chasing large rumrunners. They were, however, easily outmaneuvered by smaller vessels. The destroyers’ mission, therefore, was to picket the larger supply ships (“mother ships”) and prevent them from off-loading their cargo onto smaller, speedier contact boats that ran the liquor into shore.

Hunt was one of the last tin cans loaned to the service.

She only served three years with the Coasties, transferring 5 Feb 1931 and placed in commission at Philadelphia Navy Yard, then deploying to Stapleton, NY where she became the flag for the Special Patrol Force there.

Coast Guard Historian’s office

While chasing down rum boats along the New York coastline, she apparently had a very serious mascot:

On 6 Jan 1933, she was transferred to Division II, Coast Guard Destroyer Force, and, along with other Treasury Department-loaned tin cans, supported the Navy on the Cuban Expedition based out of Key West for several months as the country watched how the troubles down there were going on.

Hunt arrived back at Stapleton 9 November 1933 and, with the Volstead Act repealed, was decommissioned from USCG service 28 May 1934 and returned to the Navy, who promptly sent her back to red lead row.

There she sat once more until the country needed her.

On 26 January 1940, she once again was taken out of mothballs and brought to life by a fresh crew as the Navy needed ships for the new neutrality patrol in the initial stages of WWII. Shipping for the Caribbean, she escorted the USS Searaven (SS-196), a Sargo-class submarine, from the Canal Zone to Florida then performed training tasks in the Chesapeake.

Once again, her service with the Navy was brief.

Hunt got underway from Newport 3 October 1940, and reached Halifax, Nova Scotia two days later, where she took on 103 British sailors and, three days after that, she decommissioned from the U.S. Navy, was struck from the Naval List, and taken up by the Royal Navy as the Town-class destroyer HMS Broadway (H80) as part of the infamous “Destroyers for Bases Agreement” between the two countries.

(For the six-page original 1940 press release, see this page at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum Collections)

As noted by Lt Cdr Geoffrey B Mason’s service histories, “Broadway” had not previously been used for any RN ship but did represent both a city in the UK and one in the U.S.

Changes to her by the Brits included removal of mainmast and shortening of the foremast, trimming the after funnels and replacing the 3in and 4in guns mounted aft with a 12pdr British HA gun in X position. The aft torpedo tubes were also jettisoned and the U.S style depth charges were replaced with British ones.

THE BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC 1939-1945 (A 8291) British Forces: HMS BROADWAY, a destroyer built in 1918. BROADWAY was one of the fifty American destroyers loaned to Britain in September 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205125169

She also picked up an “Evil Eye” or “Magic Eye” on her bow, painted by her crew to ward off bad spirits.

The huge ‘Magic Eye’ on the bows of the BROADWAY as she leaves on another trip. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205152830

Joining 11th Escort Group, she had an eventful career in the Atlantic, joining in no less than 29 convoys between and 10 December 1940 and 21 June 1943– a span of just 18 months!

During this time, she directly helped shorten the war on 9 May 1941 when assisting the destroyer HMS Bulldog and corvette HMS Aubretia, she captured German submarine U-110 between Iceland and Greenland. The Type IXB U-boat provided several secret cipher documents to the British as part of Operation Primrose and was one of the biggest intel coups of the war, helping to break the German Enigma codes.

She also helped chalk up a second German torpedo slinger when on 12 May 1943 she joined frigate HMS Lagan and aircraft from escort carrier HMS Biter in destroying U-89 off the Azores.


Hunt/Broadway, showing her age, was relegated to training duties by 1944 in Scotland, where she was a target ship for non-destructive bombing and practice strafing runs by new pilots. For this much of her armament to include her radar, anti-submarine mortar, torpedo tubes, and HF D/F outfit was removed.

The destroyer HMS Broadway off the East coast of Scotland April 1944 after becoming an Air Target Ship (Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205120270

She did get one last hurrah in at the end of the war, sailing for Norwegian waters where she performed occupation duties that included taking charge of several surrendered German U-boats in Narvik and Tromso as part of Operation Deadlight.

Hunt/Broadway, who served more in the Royal Navy than she ever did in the naval service of her homeland, was paid off 9 August 1945 and placed in an unmaintained reserve status. She was eventually sold to BISCO on 18th February 1947 for demolition by Metal Industries and towed to the breaker’s yard in Charlestown near Rosyth in 1948.

As for her sisters, seven Clemson‘s were lost at the disaster at Honda Point in 1923, 18 (including six used by the British) were lost in WWII including one, USS Stewart (DD-224), which was famously raised by the Japanese and used in their Navy.

From what I can tell the last one in U.S. Navy service was USS Semmes (DD-189/AG-24), like Hunt a former Coast Guard destroyer, stricken in November 1946 after spending the war testing experimental equipment at the Sonar School in New London.

The last of the 156 Clemsons still afloat, USS Welborn C. Wood (DD-195), also a former Coast Guard destroyer, became HMS Chesterfield on 9 September 1940. She was allocated for scrapping on 3 December 1948. None of the class were retained and few relics of them exist today.

However, the codebooks and Enigma machine that Hunt/Broadway helped capture from U-110 are on display at Bletchley Park.

And the event is recorded in maritime art.

The Capture of U-110 by the Royal Navy, 9 May 1941 (2002) by K W Radcliffe via the Merseyside Maritime Museum


1,215 tons (normal)
1,308 tons (full load)
Length:     314 ft. 4.5 in
Beam:     30 ft. 11.5 in
Draft:     9 ft. 4 in
4 × boilers, 300 psi (2,100 kPa) saturated steam
2 geared steam turbines
27,600 hp (20,600 kW)
2 shafts
Speed:     35.5 knots (65.7 km/h)
Range:  4,900 nmi (9,100 km) @ 15 kn (28 km/h)
Crew: (USN as commissioned)
8 officers
8 chief petty officers
106 enlisted
5-4″/50 guns
12 × 21 inch torpedo tubes (4 × 3) (533 mm)

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Rum subs of the bootlegger era

Today we have narco subs (self-propelled semi-submersibles, or  SPSSs) to deal with but they are an idea that is almost a century old.

The Volstead Act in 1919 came at a time of technological innovation and, with a lot of Great War era soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines out of work, some quickly fell into the quick and easy field of bootlegging. While there were plenty of overland smugglers, rum row operations where speedboats (often powered by surplus Liberty aircraft engines) zipped up and down the coast, and some aerial smuggling, there also seems to be at least some evidence of submarine ops.

Some were apparently large scale as related in Smugglers, Bootleggers and Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City by Ellen NicKenzie Lawson, which contains a 1924 aerial photo, purporting to show rum-smuggling submarines in the Hudson River near Croton Point.


The photo appears in the chapter “Rum Row”—the name of the smuggling area of the Atlantic coast from Nantucket to New York City and New Jersey. Lawson writes:

“News of a submarine being used on Rum Row appears to have some substance to it. One smuggler testified in court that he saw a submarine emerge on the Row with a German captain and a French crew. Newspapers in 1924 reported that submarines were smuggling liquor to New Jersey and Cape Cod. An aerial photo, taken by a commercial Manhattan map-making firm that same year, suggested submarines were thirty miles up the Hudson River near Croton Point. (German submarines were kept out of the river during World War I by a steel net strung low across the bottom of the Narrows.) The photo purported to document two submarines below the surface of the Hudson River, each 250 feet long [as big as a German Type U-93 class boat or a UE-II minelaying sub] and 600 feet apart. The aerial firm sent the photograph to the U.S. Navy, which had no submarines in the area, and the startling image was given to Coast Guard Intelligence and filed away.”

A firearms blog also contends that, “During prohibition a syndicate of bootleggers operating out of Puget Sound somehow managed to acquire a World War I German U-Boat.  They used the submarine to smuggle booze from Canada to Seattle.”

This is backed up by newspaper reports of the time (see The Evening Independent – Feb 16, 1922)


As Roy Olmstead, the “King of the Puget Sound Bootleggers,” was very well connected and financed, it may have been theoretically possible.

So there is that.

The only thing is that at this time the U.S. Navy (as well as those of France, Britain and Italy) were really stingy with selling surplus subs to the public with the exception of established ship breakers and other subs that may seem like there were floating around on the open market just weren’t.

Former Warship Wednesday alumni, the obsolete Lake-built submarine USS USS O-12 (SS-73) was stricken after being laid up during Prohibition and was soon leased for $1 per year (with a maximum of five years in options) to Lake’s company for use as a private research submarine– as far as I can tell the first time this occurred. But, as part of the lease agreement, she was disarmed and had to be either returned to the Navy or scuttled in at least 1,200 feet of water at the conclusion of her scientific use.

Further, in 1919 the Allied powers agreed that Germany’s immense U-boat fleet should be surrendered without the possibility of return and, while some boats were kept for research, the majority were dismantled and recycled or gesunken in deep water in the 20s. Of course, there is always the possibility that a scrapper may have resold a scratch and dent U-boat for the right price, but good luck keeping that quiet as subs of the era had to spend most of their time on the surface and most certainly would have been noticed by some busy body.

Then there is the crew, and a former bluejacket or unterseeboot driver who worked on such a project–providing he didn’t wind up in Davy Jones locker with said rum sub– would be sure to pass on the wild tale to their family post-Prohibition leading to the inevitable “my great uncle told me about his whisky U-boat” anecdotal recollection on a Ken Burns’ documentary.

Build your own

A 1926 newspaper article tells a similar tale of a towed submersible caught coming across the U.S./Canadian border via Lake Champlain.

“[S]ubmarine without motors, has been seized at Lake Champlain with 4800 bottles of ale. The seizure was made by the Royal Canadian Boundary Waters and Customs officials. It is pointed out that bootleggers have been using every known method of conveyance to run contraband liquor from Canada to the United States, including automobiles, motorboats, aeroplanes, and submarines. The latter have been known an mystery boats, having a length of 28ft., with a device for submerging and rising to the surface, but without any propelling mechanism, they being towed by the hawser 175ft. long. Air and vision are obtained by periscopes. The authorities say these vessels are extremely expensive, but they have successfully conveyed so much liquor that they have quickly paid for themselves.”

A history of the anti-smuggling patrol from U.S. Customs on the Lake, collected by the Vermont Historical Society, relates a similar tale, with a better take on a smaller unmanned semi-submersible:

While in the main channel of the lake a bit west of the Rutland Railroad fill, we saw an object which, from a  distance, looked like a  floating log. Whenever we found logs or other floating hazards to navigation, we dragged them ashore. As we approached the presumed log, to our surprise we saw instead a sort of barge anchored in such a way that the top of it lay awash. About 10 feet long, 6 feet wide and 4 feet deep, it had a hatch on the top which, when removed, disclosed a cargo of sacks of beer which weighted the barge sufficiently to keep it awash. Presumably towed by a small boat in stages over several nights,  we assumed that the smugglers would tow it as far as they dared during the night hours and would then anchor it in the hope that no one would discover it during the day. We towed the barge with its contents back to St. Albans Bay and again destroyed the alcoholic contents. The 1932 clippings from the St. Albans Messenger refer to a “submarine” bought at auction. Jack Kendrick later told me that this was the same barge which we had found floating in 1926.

Another Lake Champlain tale:

To disguise themselves on the water, some bootleggers tied a long rope to one end of the bags of alcohol and towed it behind them in a hollow log under water like a submarine. The disadvantage here, however, was that the log would immediately float to the surface and become visible if the boat were to be stopped by an officer. The method that worked best was to tie the bags of alcohol to one end of a rope and tie a box of rock salt to the other: if chased, the bootleggers could push the setup overboard, the bags and box would sink to the bottom, and later, as the rock salt dissolved, the box would float to the surface and act as a buoy-like marker for bootleggers to recover their lost cargo.

A look at an alleged effort on the Detroit River complete with oil drum diving helmets

Then, there is the small scale home-built river running submersible on public display at the Grand Gulf Military Park near Port Gibson, Mississippi.


Apparently the one-man submarine was powered by a Model T Ford Engine and used during the early Prohibition period to bootleg whiskey and rum from Davis Island to Vicksburg.

A turn of phrase

Another popular action of the period (and even today), moon-shining, saw the advent of “submarine stills” large black pot stills with a capacity of  up to 800-gallons of mash.

Submarine stills...like Japanese midget subs waiting for the 7th Fleet

Submarine stills…like Japanese midget subs waiting for the 7th Fleet

This led to the inevitable possibility of bootleggers passing off bottles of hootch that, when asked where they came from, would be told “From a submarine”….which may have made the legend of surplus U-boats full of whisky more popular than the reality.

Either way, it is a great story.


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