The Motorcycle And Its Use By The US Army – World War II

The Second World War that was fought on a global scale between the Allies and the Axis powers lasted six full years. The United States entered the war in 1941 after the surprise attack of the Japanese fleet on Pearl Harbor. During the war years, the American Armed forces made extensive use of the Motorcycle for a variety of duties that included patrolling, communications, dispatch rider duties, and reconnaissance duties. The mainstay of the US Army motorcycles was the Harley Davidson.

The Harley Davidson made its appearance nearly one hundred years back. A wooden shack at Milwaukee, Wis was its place of birth. When the bike rolled out little did the men who were present, expect this bike to be the cornerstone of the American Military in the years to come. But, that’s exactly what happened. But of course there were other machines like the Indian who also played a part in the enduring role of military transportation. The Harley scored because of its excellent timing and start up capability, as well its ruggedness.

In fact seeing the versatility of the machine the Army had started using motorcycles from 1913 itself. The famous pursuit of Poncho Villa in 1916 by General John Pershing was on motorcycles with Harley Davidson getting pride of place. At the start of hostilities during world war II Harley Davidson was already catering to the needs of the Army with a military- capable motorcycle called the WLA which was derived from its model 45″ WL Line.

America’s entry into the Second World War and the need to combat General Rommel in the deserts of North Africa necessitated the need for a machine which could negotiate the dunes and sandy tracts. Harley Davidson answered the call of the American Army and went about manufacturing a motorcycle that could operate in the African deserts. In addition other companies also complied with this request and Indian built the 841. Indian produced nearly 1,000 models of 841 motorcycles for the United States Army. The German motorcycle BMW R 71 was the inspiration behind the 841. Harley Davidson also copied the German design for their motorcycle XA. Harley Davidson XA was 100% copy of the German BMW R 71 with a few minor changes. But the Indian was not a copy of the German BMW. It had some significant differences in design. Indians 841 tubular frame, plunger rear suspension, and shaft drive were identical to that of the BMW. However the similarity ended there and the 841 with a 90-degree longitudinal-crankshaft V-twin engine and girder fork gave it a different look.

However the trials and tests took time and in the meantime Rommel had been decisively defeated in North Africa. At this time, the motorcycle was slowly replaced by the Jeep.

The United States Army however did not use the motorcycle for a specific military role. This was done by the German Army with telling effect. The German Army also adapted the motorcycle with a side car and mounted a machine gun on it. They used these machines for tactical assault. Though the US Army did not use the motorcycle for this role the other roles of the motorcycle made the machine indispensable for the Army.

A significant use of the motorcycle during the war was by the military police. Patrolling and policing was an important duty. The Harley Davidson was the mainstay of the mobile force of the US Army. Nearly 90,000 military motorcycles were built by Harley Davidson during the War. In addition 30000 bikes were sent to Russia under lend lease during World War II. These figures show the resilience of the motorbike and its extensive use by the army. Harley Davidson had an average price of $ 380 at that time. The motorcycle had a top speed of 65 MPH and weighed 540 lbs. Harley-Davidson received two Army-Navy awards for excellence in production, in 1943 and again 1945.

In addition during the war The Army used the motorcycles for secret missions of reconnaissance and carrying dispatches to the front lines. The Army also has used motorcycles to move small amounts of medical supplies to the front lines to the soldiers fighting in Europe, when heavier vehicles were not available to do the job. A major role during the war was with the United States Military Police. The use of the motorcycle was much greater by the US Army in the western theater of the war ,while its use against the Japanese in the eastern theatre was limited.This was because the operations were on islands and vast ocean tracts. Thus the war brought out the versatility of the motorcycle and its extensive use by the US Army