Charles Duke, USCG

Prohibition Hero


                                         Photo of Ensign Charles L. Duke
                                                   

Ensign Charles L. Duke undertook one of the greatest feats in the history of Coast Guard law enforcement. On the night of 3 July 1927, he and two men were patrolling New York Harbor on board the 36-foot picket boat, CG-2327. Duke noticed a small, dimly lit steamer moving through the harbor under the cover of darkness. She had the name Economy painted on her stern, but she was really the rumrunner, Greypoint. Duke maneuvered CG-2327 alongside the ship and ordered her to stop. The master refused. Duke then fired two warning shots from his revolver, yet the freighter pressed on. As CG-2327 drew close to the ship, Duke grabbed the freighter’s rail and swung onto the ship.

  Painting of Duke boarding the Greypoint

Having told the men on CG-2327, "If I’m not out of that pilot house in two minutes you turn the machine gun on them," Duke moved to the deckhouse armed with a flashlight and a revolver with only three rounds. Stopped by a seaman, Duke pushed him aside and moved on to the pilot house. Storming in, he ordered the captain to reverse the engines. When the captain refused, Duke took the wheel and grounded the ship on Robbins Reef.

Of course, the Ensign was still on board an alien vessel with an unknown number of presumably hostile miscreants. Duke quickly hailed his two crewmen on CG-2327 and sent them to Bedloe’s Island for assistance. By the time help was sent, it was after 12:30 AM. The boarding had taken place somewhat after 9:00 PM and Duke was still alone on Economy. In fact it was 2 AM when the cutter Calumet approached. She could not close because of the shallow water. CG-122 then grounded in the mud and CG-143 nearly met the same fate. It was 6 AM when friendly faces relieved Ensign Duke on board the seized vessel.

Ensign Duke’s hunch had paid off. Investigation revealed 3,000 drums of alcohol, each with fifty gallons, valued "on the street" at $50,000. The vessel, in actuality, was the 793-ton Greypoint from Antwerp and Halifax. Her name had been changed en route.

In all Duke had captured 22 men and led "perhaps the most heroic" exploit in the rum war. Ensign Duke explained with these words, "I had a hunch that the rumrunner might try to slip by over the holiday weekend. This steamer had the rumrunner look. You’d think they would be wise and paint their boats, but they pick out the worst old tubs for their rum ships. I can tell one almost every time."

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Last Modified 1/26/2012