How WWII Veterans Helped Establish America’s Motorcycle Gangs


For American GIs, returning home after WWII and reintegrating into society has not always been easy. In an era when veterans were expected to quickly forget about the war and the world they saw and settle into stable homes, families and jobs, motorcycles offered a sense of freedom. personal and broader horizons. Biker clubs provided the camaraderie and adrenaline rush that young men were used to on the war front.

The first groups of motorcycles

Such clubs were not born in the middle of the century. In the early 1900s, “motorcyclists” banded together into riding clubs for fun and support, traveling astride vehicles that resembled today’s beach cruising bikes, but with a small noisy engine between the wheels.

Before traffic lights began to be widely used in the 1930s, these loud and fast new vehicles added to the chaos of the American street scene. Some cities have therefore decided to restrict their use. In response, worshipers began to organize – to fight the restrictions, but also to expand membership and driving events, self-regulate road races, and encourage street repairs.

In 1903, just under 100 enthusiasts gathered in Brooklyn to form the Federation of American Motorcyclists. Two decades later, in 1924, the American Motorcycle Association emerged. That summer, the group held a 1,400-mile endurance test that started and ended in Cleveland, demonstrating the vehicles’ long-range capability. Eager to gain wide acceptance, WADA was careful to promote a positive image of motorcycling, an image that portrayed bikers as safe, responsible and caring citizens who “present a good appearance to the public”.

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War effort advances two-wheeled engineering

The Harley-Davidson Motor Co. built over 90,000 motorcycles during World War II for the United States military. Above, a row of mounted soldiers from the armored division of the army.

World War II gave the motorcycle industry a big boost when the US military called in manufacturers Harley-Davidson and Indian to produce more than 100,000 motorcycles for the war effort. Engineering advanced rapidly as motorcycles were inflated for use on the battlefield. “Like tanks, airplanes and automobiles, motorcycles have undergone a number of improvements,” Rachel Kline wrote on the Vintage Veteran website.

In 1936, Harley-Davidson produced the “knucklehead” engine, bringing much more power and reliability. Harley’s WLA model, complete with leather saddlebags and a rifle scabbard, proved essential to America’s mechanized ordeal and became known as the “Liberator.” In a few years, returning leather-jacketed veterans would be scolding America on machines that many had built during the war.

READ MORE: 9 People You May Not Know Were WWII Veterans

Turning around the home front

The largely toned-down community of mainstream motorcycle enthusiasts were in shock when returning veterans took their surplus Army Harleys to the streets of postwar America. The average age of veterans returning from World War II was 27. The war had aged them, but most were still young enough to challenge social norms. Many returning veterans have reported feelings of turmoil and general unease, ”Richard Kolb wrote in Veterans of foreign wars Magazine.

Much cheaper than cars, motorcycles offered veterans a freewheeling mode of group transportation at a time when reintegration into society posed certain challenges.

“It seems logical that the horrors of war and the hell of combat melted the pre-war personalities of these men, only to remake them forever in a new form,” wrote researcher William Dulaney in a study. titled “Over the Edge and Into the Abyss: Communicating Organizational Identity in an Outlaw Motorcycle Club.”

“The veterans,” Dulaney wrote, “in search of relief from the residual effects of their war experiences, began to seek each other out just to be around their soul mates and perhaps relive some. some of the best and wildest social aspects of their wartime time.

The fashion style of choice for these bikers, and for future generations, has its origins in the flight jackets of returning aviators from WWII. Wind and rain resistant leather, which could keep a rider warm and dry in extreme weather conditions, became a natural choice for many motorcyclists.

READ MORE: How GI Bill’s Promise Was Denied to One Million Black WWII Veterans

Biker outlaw image emerges

July 7, 1947: Eddie Davenport of Tulare, Calif., On a motorcycle after the Hollister Barney Peterson motorcycle riot / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

July 7, 1947: Eddie Davenport of Tulare, California on a motorcycle after the Hollister Motorcycle riot

The image of dangerous motorcycle gangs on blazing big motorcycles entered the popular imagination following a “riot” on the weekend of July 4, 1947 in Hollister, California. At that time, veterans riding clubs like the Boozefighters were on the scene, blatantly ignoring the healthy image championed by WADA, which had organized a race for its members through Hollister that day- the. The city of 5,000 was overwhelmed by 4,000 horsemen, some of whom fell into drunken brawls. Street racing and fighting led to around 50 arrests. The “outlaw” biker clubs in attendance (i.e. those not sanctioned by WADA) included the 13 Rebels, the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington, the Market Street Commandos, the Top Hatters Motorcycle Club and the infamous future Boozefighters.

Cover in the Chronicle of San Francisco represented “pandemonium”. A photo of Boozefighter Eddie Davenport, sitting on a Harley surrounded by empty beer bottles, became emblematic of what one witness called “just a mess.”

Public outrage turned into fascination. In 1953, actor Marlon Brando starred in the anti-social behavior of bikers in the Hollywood film. The wild, portraying gang leader Johnny Strabler. When a young woman asks, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Strabler replies,” What’s the matter? “. The scenario of The wild has its origins in Hollister: the filmmakers based it on a 1951 Harper’s Magazine Frank Rooney’s short story “The Cyclists’ Raid”, a fictional account of the infamous July 4th brawl in Hollister.

Since then, numerous “outlaw motorcycle gangs” have sprung up across America, including the notorious Hells Angels, founded in 1948 and now considered a crime syndicate by the Department of Justice. The DOJ estimates that more than 300 outlaw motorcycle gangs, including the Bandidos, Mongols and Sons of Silence, are active in the United States, saying many are involved in drug and arms trafficking.

Yet even though the outlaw image persists, many veteran motorcycle clubs today are structured as nonprofits dedicated to helping society with fundraising for good causes. . But the roar of their exhaust pipes as they pass through town has become an enduring part of American culture, one that may never completely depart from its reputation as an outsider.


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