As revealed in part one of our Biker History sojourn, returning WW II servicemen had a big hand in creating what has become known as the biker lifestyle. They didn't talk much about the horrors they had witnessed in Europe because a man (and a biker) was taught to hold their mud back then. There was no sniveling allowed. Vets kept their demons to themselves, and managed to keep their anger on a sort leash most of the time.
It was easy for a Vet to feel like he didn't fit into the sanitary, Disneyesque world of post-war America. Many felt a lot more at home in the company of other like-minded brothers. For the Vets in the Boozefighters and other motorcycle clubs such as the Sharks and the Yellow Jackets (the racing arm of the Boozefighters), riding and racing motorcycles and raising a little hell was fun and fun was what they were about. When you think of the media's portrait of an outlaw biker, you might imagine a group of organized thugs in leather; sort of a chopper riding Mafia that deals in drugs, guns and prostitutes. The motorcycle clubs of the 1940’s and ’50’s were the opposite of that image. These were fun-loving guys who were out to taste a little of the freedom they had fought so hard to win during the war.
For instance, in his excellent book on the Boozefighters (The Original Wild Ones, published by Motorbooks), author and biker Bill Hayes mentions a letter dated September 18th, 1946 from Benny “Kokomo” Mitchell, the president of the San Francisco chapter of the Boozefighters, to the Los Angeles chapter. The letter was a request for four club sweaters for new members that had successfully passed the seven “tests” required of a prospect (a prospective member on probation) who wished to become a righteous full-fledged member of the club. These seven tests were as follows:
Get drunk at a race meet or cycle dance.
Throw a lemon pie in each other’s faces.
Bring out a douche bag where it will embarrass all the women (then drink wine out of it).
Get down and lay on the dance floor.
Wash your socks in a coffee urn.
Eat live goldfish.
Then, when blind drunk, trust me (Kokomo) to shoot beer bottles off of your heads with my .22.
Obviously, these were guys with a great sense of humor and more than their fair share of mischief, but criminals out to rape your daughters and take over small towns for a weekend of violent debauchery? No. The original Wild Ones were wild at heart but not out to become the next incarnation of the Vikings of old. As stated, many had served their country proudly in the war. Wino Willie Forkner had been a gunner on a B-52. Dink Burns lost both his legs as his ship went down. Jim Hunter shot down a German dive bomber. Jim Cameron spent his Army time in the Pacific Theater. Johnny Davis received a battlefield promotion to 2nd Lieutenant for heroic action under fire. Red Dog survived Midway. On and on the list goes, but honored veterans or not, the world was about to case a wary eye on these Boozefighters and any other club that attended the birth of the outlaw biker legend known as “The Hollister Riot.”
What happened in Hollister lives in the annals of motorcycling history, like some festering sore. An incident occurred which single-handedly created an unwholesome image for both Harley-Davidson and motorcyclists in general. There's no doubt that the image of the leather-clad hellion blasting down the road on a loud Harley, out to rape America's daughters was invented due to some mildly anti-social activities which took place at an AMA Gypsy Tour on July 4th, 1947, in Hollister, California. Much has been written about this “occurrence” though little that the media of the day reported on regarding the Hollister Riot was actually true.
The city fathers in Hollister had put on motorcycle races long before the alleged riot and never had any problems with rowdy riders. As the short version of the story goes, WW II servicemen and flyers returned from the war changed men. They were ready to raise a little hell and some of them had a passion for the white knuckle thrills that could be found by riding big chopped Harley-Davidsons (known then and now as Hogs).
These guys would strip everything they could off of Harley dressers to make the bikes lighter. Off went the windshields, saddlebags and front fenders. They would cut off, or “bob” the back fender and these custom “bobbers” became the forerunners to the “choppers” of the ’60’s and ’70’s. These AMA-dubbed “outlaws” were guys from clubs like the Boozefighters, Galloping Gooses, Jackrabbits and the 13 Rebels. Out of the nearly 3,000 riders that came to watch the races and be part of the rally, the outlaw riders only amounted to a handful.
More to come in Biker History: Part 3.