Motorcycle Beach Patrols of WWI

When the US entered WWI on April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson moved the command of the Coast Guard under the Department of the Navy.  This allowed the Navy access to the Coast Guard's fleet of cutters, which the Navy used to bolster its own fleet.   The absence of cutters along the US coast meant that the job of coastline defense fell on the Life Saving Service (LSS).  Unfortunately, the LSS still performed beach patrols exclusively on foot and had no means of communication with the stations except for using signal flares.

Previously that year, reports of "strange doings and night various points on the east coast [of Florida]" were received, but the Coast Guard had been unable to investigate them due to the time required to reach the locations by foot.  This prompted Coast Guard officials in Florida to send a request to their main headquarters in Washington DC requesting motorcycles for each station on Florida's east coast and the Texas coast.  The Coast Guard Captain-Commandant agreed and filed a request with the Navy Department for 13 "type N.E. Indian motor cycle, 1917, Powerplus Twin Cylinder, cradle spring frame, three speed type with complete electrical equipment, including ammeter". He also requested "all machines to be finished in olive drab color".  Three months later on September 26, 1917, the first motorcycle was delivered to the Jupiter Inlet Light House in Florida.

1917 Indian Powerplus

 The motorcycle arrived disassembled and upon assembly, Surfman Edward Forbes found the motorcycle to be missing minor parts and to have a leaky gas tank.  He still was able to ride it 40 miles to West Palm Beach to pick up the missing parts and to have the additional repairs completed.  Forbes then took the motorcycle on a 200 mile ride, noting in his journal that it functioned to his "satisfaction". With a successful test ride under his belt, Forbes headed out for his patrol route on the beach. He soon discovered that a rock ledge about 2 miles north of his station and another one to the south, kept him from being able to complete his patrol route. It seems odd that this would come as any surprise if he had previously been walking the same route...

On October 2, Forbes attempted a second patrol, but this time he got caught by high tide and was forced to leave his motorcycle stranded on the beach.  He was able to retrieve it the next day at low tide, but then had to spend several more days getting it back into running condition.  More problems arose throughout the month, ranging from a dead battery to running out of oil.  By the end of October, the motorcycle had been out of service for 17 days.  

Similar events occurred at the other stations as well.  Fort Lauderdale reported that within four days of starting their patrols, their motorcycle overheated causing enough damage that the engine had to be overhauled.  A week later, the same motorcycle had to be left on the beach, causing the electrical system to short-circuit.  The number and severity of the mechanical issues have led some to speculate that they Navy had not provided the Coast Guard with new motorcycles, but had instead shipped them used motorcycles which Marine Corps units had previously used in Haiti.

Bicycle shop in Fort Lauderdale where repairs were made to Coast Guard motorcycles

Throughout 1918, the motorcycles continued to be problematic. This was compounded by the fact that repair parts were not available locally and needed to be ordered directly from the manufacturer. Parts orders could take anywhere from four to twelve weeks to arrive, leaving an estimated 75 percent of the motorcycle fleet out of commission at any one time. There were also a couple of accidents, one of which was potentially fatal. Again it was Forbes who reported that his floorboard had folded up, blocking his brake pedal, causing him to lose control and run into a bridge railing.

The end of World War I on November 11, 1918 put a stop to the Navy's funding and hastened the end of the patrols. By February 1919, the majority of the remaining motorcycles and spare parts had been sent to the Navy base at Key West. A couple stations did opt to retain their motorcycles, but these had been used on road patrols and had not been subjected to beach use. With the loss of the motorcycles, the Life Saving Service went back to patrolling the beach on foot.

Source Information for this article came from "Patrolling the Coastline on Wheels" by William R Wells II, originally published in Prologue Magzaine/Fall 2009.


Bill Wells said...

Who is the author and where was this article published?