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This month in history: World War II fosters modern motorcycle clubs

ELLSWORTH AFB, S.D. -- America's history with motorcycles begins in the early 1900's when a motorcycle was essentially a bicycle fitted with a small motor. 

This mode of transportation, according to William Dulaney of the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies in his 2005 research article, was a "relatively affordable vehicle for most Americans, especially when compared with the astronomical costs of pre-Ford automobiles." 

Motorcycles were gaining popularity until the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression all but halted the production of these vehicles, sending most motorcycle manufacturers out of business, Mr. Dulaney said. 

However, after America entered World War II in 1941, the re-emergence of motorcycles on America's roads did not occur again until the war's end in 1945. 

Motorcycle clubs soon followed but the romantic mind's-eye imagery of leather clad bikers rumbling along astride steel horses actually has its roots in the war. 

These clubs were born in the hostile skies and battlefields of World War II. 

Author Richard Kolb, in an article written for the Veteran's of Foreign Wars magazine, stated it's important to realize the average returning age of an American from combat in World War II was 26 and their wartime experiences shaped the formation of motorcycle clubs. 

"Many returning combat vets reported feelings of restlessness and a general malaise," he wrote in the article. "Their pre-war personalities had been forever changed." 

When these servicemembers returned home from overseas, a large majority found the mundane existence of daily life was not offering them the excitement they found they craved. 

"Veterans," wrote Mr. Dulaney, "searching for relief from the residual effects of their wartime experiences, started seeking out one another just to be around kindred spirits and perhaps relive some of the better, wilder social aspects of their times during the war. Soon enough American motorcycles became part of the equation, largely due to the high level of performance and excitement the cycles offered a rider, as well as for the relatively antisocial characteristic of loud exhaust pipes and the large, imposing size of the bikes." 

The American motorcycle club had arrived to stay. 

A unique part of Airmen heritage is present in this facet of motorcycle history. Many riders from this time period were aircrews from World War II. They knew leather was a resilient material able to keep one dry and warm even in extreme weather conditions. 

This made leather riding gear a natural choice for many motorcyclists and is a safety factor still in use. 

Senior Master Sgt. James Russell, 28th Bomb Wing staff superintendent and president of the Ellsworth Dakota Thunder Motorcycle Club, said many of the factors associated with the birth of motorcycle clubs are present today. 

"Dakota Thunder is, of course, about a sense of camaraderie and a shared passion for riding," Sergeant Russell said. "But, our chief focus has and continues to be safety. 

"I'm proud of my heritage as an Airman and a veteran when it comes to motorcycle riding. Leather gear, goggles, helmets are all tangible parts of that early Airman history and it's no accident our returning veterans in the 1940s used some of the same gear while riding as they had used in combat. 

"It's a very good reason why we still use these same types of, but modernized, equipment," said Sergeant Russell. 

Further information about the military heritage of motorcycle clubs can be found at the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies Web site at http://ijms.nova.edu/. 

For more information about the Dakota Thunder Motorcycle Club, contact a member in your unit or Senior Master Sgt. Russell at (605) 385-4415.