Bootleggers Beware ... Coast Guard Interdiction
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehman
On June 21, 2019, the Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border
Protection unveiled a remarkable feat – the interdiction of more
than 16 tons of cocaine, worth approximately $1 billion. The haul
was described as “one of the largest drug seizures in United States
history” by U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain. Less than 100 miles
away and more than 100 years ago, a similarly historic interdiction
had taken place.
William “Bill” McCoy infamous smuggler of
alcohol during Prohibition had been caught and arrested by the crew
of Coast Guard Cutter Seneca six miles off the coast of Seabright,
New Jersey in 1923. The interdiction occurred after a long, tense
standoff, which ended when a round from the Seneca’s deck gun landed
mere feet from the fleeing ship. The arrest essentially ended
McCoy’s storied career as a bootlegger, and foreshadowed the Coast
Guard’s present-day maritime law enforcement mission.
The Revenue Cutter SENECA on patrol during its 28 yeard
service that began in 1908 that included interdicting
illegal smugglers during the Prohibition in the 1920's.
(Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historians
Prohibition began on January 21, 1920 under President Herbert
Hoover’s administration. To enforce the new laws, a Prohibition
Bureau was established and was almost immediately overwhelmed.
Despite having a marine division, alcohol smuggling was too
lucrative, and therefore too prevalent. The Coast Guard became the
go-to resource for enforcement, but there were issues with this
“The major issue for the Coast Guard at the time
was insufficient funds and resources,” said retired Coast Guard
Capt. Daniel Laliberte, former Intelligence Chief for the Fifth
Coast Guard District. “The Coast Guard was fully funded for the
missions it had at the time, but the major issue was that it wasn’t
funded to run an entire coastal interdiction program.”
Laliberte has studied the Coast Guard’s role during Prohibition and
is currently writing a book on the subject.
were limits on its enforcement authority. At the time, they only
enforced U.S. law out to three nautical miles. Another big issue was
the need for training and experience. The Coast Guard had no
training, tactics and procedures for criminal law enforcement,” said
“We didn’t have a law enforcement manual until the
Seeing the demands being placed upon his service and
measuring current capabilities, Coast Guard Commandant William
Reynolds worked with U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon on a
Congressional proposal for additional funds in 1921. The result
ballooned the service’s ranks from 4,000 to 10,000 and a fleet of
vessels capable of carrying out the new law enforcement expectations
to include 20 refurbished Navy destroyers.
“It was a
tremendous expansion and increase in capability,” said Laliberte.
“They basically had to continue all the missions they were funded
for and needed a new funding string for Prohibition. It was a huge
amount of money, but it really allowed them to build a defense in
In addition to the increased presence on the water,
the Coast Guard also applied some of these new funds to provide a
presence in the sky.
“Aviation was another interesting
thing,” said Laliberte. “It initially started off small, but it
ended up with five planes and they were mostly used as recon to go
out and find where the ships were on Rum Row, monitor them and
report back. Much as they do today in drug interdiction. There were
even cases where from the air, the aircraft shot up cases of alcohol
that had been jettisoned.”
A Coast Guard aircraft and crew standby, ready to spot smugglers during Prohibition
in the 1920's. (Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historians Office)
Rum Row was a term used to indicate where “mother ships” would
position themselves awaiting offload of contraband. Initially, these
larger ships would anchor three miles offshore, where it was
believed that no law enforcement agency had jurisdiction. However,
with new and more lenient legal interpretations of the Coast Guard’s
authority and a new fleet of cutters and boats on the water,
smugglers learned quickly the extent of the service’s commitment.
“In two years, they’d basically dispersed Rum Row,” said
Laliberte, “but the smugglers responded by moving Rum Row further
and further offshore.”
As the Coast Guard escalated their
response, the smugglers began to take a more strategic approach.
More boats and crews weren’t enough. The service needed
“The Coast Guard had no formal intelligence
apparatus, but it started one at headquarters,” said Laliberte.
“They worked hand in hand with the Prohibition Bureau and the State
Department. The intel program put out lookout lists, they worked off
of tips from the public and passed information to the stations and
cutters. It was kind of an integrated thing, on a shoestring.”
That shoestring paid for the Coast Guard’s first codebreakers
and an international connection of informants working out of Cuba,
the Bahamas and other neighboring countries, helping the Coast Guard
stay one step ahead of their quarry.
On December 5, 1933,
Prohibition was repealed, bringing an end to more than a decade of
intensive law enforcement action, which saw Coast Guard members
shedding blood and even losing their lives in the line of duty.
Without a constant threat to address with their fleet and increased
numbers, the service saw the pendulum begin to swing the other way.
“Within a year after Prohibition ended, the budget was cut by 25%
and drew down,” said Laliberte. “And then you had World War II a few
years later and the Coast Guard was very active during that.”
During the 13 years that Prohibition was in effect, the Coast
Guard underwent a transformation in capability, in mission and
culture. Similarly, today’s Coast Guard is vastly different than it
was 100 years ago. The modern iteration of the service includes many
more elements of law enforcement and defense readiness, and provides
its members with the training and procedures necessary to facilitate
The Coast Guard of 2020 averages 1,221 pounds of cocaine
interdicted, 48 waterborne patrols, 12 security boardings and
screens 329 merchant vessels daily. Aviation is as much a familiar
aspect of the Coast Guard’s identity as any cutter or small boat and
the ranks of our service have swelled to more than 38,000 active
Despite the many innovations and transitions, the one clear
holdover from 100 years ago is a commitment to service and a
dedication to duty.
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