With the suspension of professional racing in the months leading up to the United States involvement in WWI, many of America’s most notable motorcycle racers put away their goggles and jerseys in order to suit up in the olive drab wool and canvas uniform of the US Army. Dispatch and Signal Corp were some of the more common assignments for America’s motorcycling heroes, but a handful, no doubt with a hankering for the more exhilarating roles in the war enlisted for service in the aviation sector. 

Most notably Cleo Pineau, one of the darlings of the Flying Merkel squad became a pilot, earning the distinction of “Ace,” and even survived being shot down and becoming a P.O.W. under the command of Kaiser Wilhelm’s son the Crown Prince. One of the brightest stars and fastest racers just before the war, Harley-Davidson’s pride, Otto Walker signed up for duty in the US Army’s aviation section. After missing the majority of the 1916 season due to a leg injury, Otto had moved from California and was living in Manhattan, working as the foreman of the Harley-Davidson Sales Co. at 226 W. 108th St. On July 20th of 1917 Otto entered his last event before service and set a new 24 hr record at the Sheepshead Bay Speedway in an HD sidecar setup, covering a distance of 1,159.75 miles.

After enlisting, Otto was trained as an electrical engineer in the US Army’s aviation division, and by May of 1918 he had arrived in France. Little information is available regarding the specific of Walker’s tour of duty, though the United States role in air combat during WWI was limited and quite outmatched until late 1918. By all accounts the former Harley-Davidson superstar was deployed in Europe for the next year, returning in the summer of 1919, but the story left untold is that Walker’s wartime souvenir, a cork and leather German pilot’s crash helmet that he acquired during his service and proudly began wearing upon his return to America.

Walker was quickly welcomed back by Bill Ottaway with a spot on Harley-Davidson's star-studded new team, the legendary lineup soon be known as the “Wrecking Crew.” In the August 28th issue of Motorcycle Illustrated America welcomed back one of its most beloved racers from the war to end all wars; “Take your hats and chuck them in the air. Here comes Otto Walker back from Over There.” Walker debuted his new war trophy helmet on September 1st at at the International Championship Road Race in Marion, Indiana, and again a few days later at the new Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta. In this photograph, Walker poses in his new signature helmet and full Harley-Davidson regalia during the week long national races at Ascot Park in January, 1920. Though at the time some would refer to it as bad luck to wear a German’s helmet after the war, its distinct, padded-leather crest separated Walker from the pack and became somewhat of a trademark, the calling card of an American icon.

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