It was one hundred years ago this week that a reluctant United States finally resolved to enter into the horrifying bog of World War I, the gruesome mechanical death machine. On April 2nd, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed congress citing that America was “but one of the champions of the rights of mankind,” and that “The world must be made safe for democracy.” On April 6th, Congress declared war against Germany and America thrust itself forward into “the war to end all wars,” a terrible new pitch of blood letting across Europe that would tear from humanity nearly 40 million casualties. The frivolity of sport and recreation in the face of such an appalling affair resulted in a nationwide effort to refocus production and allegiance to God and country. In the culture of motorcycling, professional racing was suspended, manufacturing tooled up for large-scale production of war machines, and the men who had become America’s racing icons hung up their factory jersey’s and threw on their Doughboy drab.
Such staggering casualty numbers had not been seen before in war, and though there were a number of reasons for such record deaths and injuries, the maiming of a generation was due in large part to the proliferation of technology let loose on the battlefield. The motorcycle, the tank, the submarine, and the airplane were machines still in their adolescence by the time the war broke out in 1914, their applications a constant source of experiment and rapid engineering advancement. The motorcycle’s role had been of keen interest to both military tacticians as well as the enthusiast population at large in the years leading up to the war, and by the time the United States began mustering troops in 1917 the motorcycle had proven its value in allied mobile machine gunner units and rugged dispatch divisions.
Immediately trade magazines began running national pledge drives, including forms for enthusiasts around the country to sign and return declaring their loyalty to the US Government, as well as pledging their willingness and the readiness of their machines should they be called upon for service. Local and regional clubs began forming motorcycle units, performing drills, and preparing rapid assembly plans. Prominent figures, like New York racing pioneer A.G. Chapple promoted enlistment and spearheaded active service in Motorcycle Minute Men divisions. Many of America’s racing stars signed up for duty as mechanics, dispatch riders, mounted soldiers, and aviators in the highly risky and experimental new field of military aviation. Some aided in the engineering departments of military factories like Maldwyn Jones and Eddie Brink, while others like Morty Graves and Fred Ludlow deployed as soldiers in the US Army Signal Corps. Harley-Davidson’s Wrecking Crew legend Otto Walker served on the front line as an aeronautic electrician and mechanic, returning to the racing game in 1919 with a German pilot’s helmet. Flying Merkel’s Cleo Pineau was one of the few American’s to see active aerial combat during the war and became one of the elite 120 American’s to qualify as an Ace fighter pilot. Another Wrecking Crew legend, Walker’s teammate Ralph Hepburn was finishing up his pilots training when the Armistice Treaty was signed on November 11th, 1918, joining his friends back at the track soon after. Despite the massive loss of life during the war, more of America’s professional motorcycle racers would meet their end on the track back home than on the battlefield abroad.
America’s motorcycling culture responded in full to the call of war in April 1917, but like the rest of the world, the culture would be dramatically altered as a result. In just four years the motorcycle, as well as the other new machines of war would help rip a hole so deep in mankind that the world as it was changed forever. Empires were abolished, ideologies new and old took hold, world economies shifted, boundaries redefined, industry boomed, technology rapidly advanced, and modern society began to take shape. Just as affected, the culture of American motorcycling too was dramatically altered, the war having closed the doors on its first great era, the Golden Age, and ushered the industry into a new mature state, one which would define modern American motorcycle culture as we know it today.
… To Be Continued