Prohibition was a shooting war for the Coast Guard
Editor's note: This story is drawn from "The Black Ships" by Everett S. Allen, "Rum War at Sea" by Malcolm F. Willoughby, "Smugglers of Spirits" by Harold Waters, and the archives of The Day.
CG-290, a Coast Guard patrol boat with a crew of eight, rocked silently in the darkness of Narragansett Bay, moored to a bell buoy as it awaited its prey. Somewhere out in the fog was a rumrunner.
Standing in the pilothouse, Boatswain Alexander Cornell, skipper of the New London-based craft, heard the sound of powerful motors coming from the ocean. He said to one of his crew, "Here she comes."
The imminent encounter between the two boats had the makings of a routine seizure of alcohol, the kind the Coast Guard made regularly in the days of Prohibition.
In this summer of celebrating Coast Guard anniversaries, one that deserves remembering evokes this strange chapter in American history.
It was 90 years ago that the small service, until then largely focused on life-saving, grew dramatically to counter the massive smuggling of alcohol into the country from the ocean.
Rumrunners had organized a system in which supply ships sat just outside the 3-mile limit of U.S. territorial waters. Buyers headed out in speedboats, made their purchases on "Rum Row" and returned in the dark.
The network was so vast and the demand so great that the tiny Coast Guard could do little to stop the influx. So in 1924 Congress authorized an expansion, and thousands of new officers and men were hastily trained.
The Coast Guard took over 20 Navy destroyers in mothballs since World War I. With Rum Row's busiest areas off Boston and New York, the Destroyer Force was headquartered between them, at State Pier in New London.
By the following year, the Coast Guard was ready to face the rumrunners on equal terms.
"One balmy spring day of 1925 saw our Dry Armada take to the seas in full force for the first time," wrote Harold Waters, assigned to one of the destroyers. "In the van, slipping down the Thames, were our two New London-based destroyer divisions. They were trailed by squadrons of 125- and 100-footers. ...
"It was the largest Coast Guard force mobilized up to that time. Looking astern, I could not help feeling proud to be a very small part of that great concourse of ships moving seawards."
Four and a half years later, in the early morning gloom of Dec. 29, 1929, Boatswain Cornell listened to the approaching rumrunner. When it came into view, he recognized it as the Black Duck, which he had been chasing for a year. He signaled it to heave to, but the boat revved its engines and sped off.
Cornell addressed a crewman manning a machine gun: "Let them have it."
* * *
The Coast Guard routinely fired on the much faster rumrunners to enforce compliance. A shot across the bow often produced the desired result, but in some cases armor deflected bullets, and in others, sheer speed was enough to escape.
A boat called the Gander was fired on by a Coast Guard boat trying to disable its steering gear. But by zigzagging, it avoided a direct hit and survived a 20-minute chase until it disappeared. People in Waterford heard the shots and watched the muzzle flashes from ashore.
When the patrol boat CG-187 came across the Marge off Block Island, it gave chase but was hopelessly outdistanced. Before falling out of range, it fired so many shots it ran out of ammunition.
The crew of the Happy Parrot led a firing Coast Guard boat on an eight-mile chase near Cerberus Shoal, stopping only after a shell crashed into its deckhouse.
The engineer of the Scipio ignored Coast Guard fire off Fishers Island but made the mistake of peering out of the engine room hatchway. A bullet fractured his skull, and he had to be rushed to New London for surgery.
Occasionally the Coast Guard went from hunter to hunted. Chief Boatswain's Mate Karl Gustafson was at the helm of CG-237 south of Race Rock when he spotted a possible rumrunner ahead. Just as he gave chase, his boat was raked with fire from the port side in an apparent ambush.
A bullet entered Gustafson's hip, passed through his body and smashed a window. A second bullet hit another man who was asleep, grazing his abdomen. The boat raced back to New London, but hours later, Gustafson died in his hospital bed.
The shooting "has an underlying meaning the Coast Guardsmen are reluctant to contemplate," The Day said. "The attack on the CG-237 is taken to indicate that it is not beneath the rum runner to kill, apparently, to satisfy the grudge he fosters against the service."
* * *
The machine-gunner on CG-290 trained his sights on the stern of the Black Duck, aiming for a spot that would not endanger the crew. But as he opened fire, the boat swerved sharply, and bullets swept its full length.
Three men in the pilothouse fell dead without making a sound. A fourth was struck in the hand. When he heard Cornell shouting to come alongside, he obeyed.
Although the Black Duck had long been on the Coast Guard's radar, this was not how its capture had been envisioned.
"We are very sorry that this happened," Cornell said the next day. "We'd have given anything not to have had these deaths occur."
Cornell had left the peacetime Navy in search of action. Well-regarded and aggressive, he had angered superiors six months earlier when a bullet meant for a rumrunner entered a home on the shore.
The Black Duck's survivor, Charles Travers, said the Coast Guard had given no warning and just "blazed away."
"Them three fellows were damn fine boys," he said. "I'm just sorry for them, that's all. They didn't give us a chance, not a chance, and they were right on us."
When news of the shootings got out, a national furor erupted.
* * *
The Coast Guard was no stranger to controversy during Prohibition. As enforcers of a widely flouted law, they were tested, and sometimes temptation was too much. There were regular court-martials of Coast Guard sailors accused of pilfering seized liquor.
"Big Bill" Dwyer, king of the Manhattan bootleggers, made bribing Coast Guardsmen part of his business plan, and several from New London were on his payroll. But he made the mistake of trying to enlist the incorruptible Boatswain Samuel Briggs, stationed at State Pier.
Briggs took a $100 payoff from Dwyer's bagman, then turned it over to his commander along with information he had received. The result was 61 indictments, from Briggs' fellow Coast Guardsmen all the way up to Dwyer himself. Later accounts indicate Dwyer was the target of a government sting.
The futility of the Coast Guard's mission was often apparent. Local units captured the rumrunner Pueblos twice in two weeks. The tugboat Underwriter was seized four times in four months. After paying a fine, their operators were back in business.
In addition to bullets, New London-based Coast Guardsmen braved danger from a shipboard fire that injured three; a blaze at State Pier that left one dead; storms and blizzards; collisions with rumrunners; and patrol boats with motors that tended to explode.
One young seaman had been in the service just three days when he fell into the water while boarding a suspected rumrunner. He never resurfaced.
To these assorted perils, another was added after the Black Duck shootings: an enraged public.
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Coxswain George Cadorret was cutting through the Central Vermont freight yard on his way to State Pier when a group of men stepped from behind a railroad car. They asked if he belonged to the boat that had fired on the Black Duck. Cadorret said no but confirmed he was a Coast Guardsman.
"Well, that's good enough for us," one of them said, and they beat him savagely. A second Coast Guardsman was attacked shortly afterward.
The shootings had hit a nerve with a nation growing weary of Prohibition. In Boston, a crowd at Faneuil Hall decried what they saw as cold-blooded killings and called for an investigation. In Washington, Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia of New York called the case "another paragraph in the shameless annals of Prohibition."
Making matters worse was that another rumrunner had just been towed into New London, and 15 Coast Guardsmen were soon court-martialed for stealing its cargo. Twenty-four others faced charges of intoxication.
The anger climaxed when a mob stoned a houseboat in Shaw's Cove believed to belong to Cornell. It was small comfort that they had attacked another boat by mistake.
CG-290's crew was cleared of wrongdoing, and the Coast Guard continued its thankless task until Prohibition ended in 1933.
But those who thirsted for revenge may have taken grim satisfaction when, more than two years after attacking the Black Duck, CG-290 blew up and sank while taking on gas near Fort Trumbull. The blast shattered nearby windows.
Among the seven injured was the man who had given the order to shoot: Boatswain Alexander Cornell.