On 16 January 1919, the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquor, was ratified. The Volstead Act (aka Prohibition Act) became law, over the President Wilson’s veto, on 28 October and went into effect on 16 January 1920. Responsibility for enforcing the law was placed with the Treasury Department. Though Secretary David Houston had not wanted the duty, he created a unit to carry it out.
In 1922, Commandant William Reynolds (1919-1923) notified Secretary Andrew Mellon that the Coast Guard did not have the ships or crews to adequately patrol the entire coastline. In 1924, Congress signed a bill that transferred 20 destroyers and two minesweepers to the Coast Guard and added billets to man them. Congress also authorized the construction of 100 smaller boats. In 1923, Secretary Mellon appointed Frederick Billard to succeed the retiring Reynolds. Billard would oversee the expected rapid expansion of the Service.
The small boats were the 75’ “six bitters”. Ultimately, 203 of them were built. The destroyers were 750-ton “flivvers” and 1,000-tonners. With these assets, the Coast Guard began to fight the Rum War as the RCS had fought smuggling. The DDs were stationed offshore to spot mother ships and to track delivery boats and turn them over to the 75s. There were some successes. But the 75s did not sea keep well and the DDs spent more time tending them than looking for mother ships. In 1926, five destroyers of the Clemson-class flush-deckers joined the fleet.
Billard advised Mellon the Service needed ships designed specifically for its missions. Congress authorized the construction of offshore patrol boats larger than the six-bitters. Ultimately, under Billard’s urging and Mellon’s politicking, several new cutters joined the fleet.
• In 1925, one of the most widely used boat in Coast Guard history, the 125’ “buck-and-a-quarters” joined the Fleet
• In 1926, the ten cutters of the 250’ Lake-class were authorized and commissioned between 1927 and 1931
• Northland was commissioned in 1927 as a replacement for the venerable Bear
• In 1932, the six cutters of the 165’ Escanaba-class (165A-class) entered service. Like the 240s, the 165As had reinforced bows to work in the ice.
• In 1933 the 165’ Thetis-class (165B-class) joined the Fleet.
• The replacement for the six-bitters was scheduled to be the 78’ patrol boat. The 78s were fast, but drank gasoline way too quickly. Only six were built and the six-bitters soldiered on.
Mercifully, on 5 December 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment. Prohibition ended. The Coast Guard continued to operate 15 DDs until 1934 when the Destroyer Decade ended.
For a complete list of cutters that enforced prohibition go to this Link