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Harley-Davidson and the U.S. Military


Veterans Day takes place later this week. In honor of those who’ve served their country, we thought we’d share a little Harley-Davidson military history with you. First, we need to go back to 1916.

Back then, the United States was embroiled in a conflict with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. A series of skirmishes left U.S. Army troops, under the leadership of General “Black Jack” Pershing, chasing Villa and his men along the U.S.-Mexican border. Among their many means of transportation were Harley-Davidson motorcycles with machine guns mounted in the sidecars. The War Department soon ordered a dozen motorcycles directly from the company, starting a decades-long partnership.

harley-davidson army motorcycle inspection World War I
Harley-Davidson motorcycles set to chase down Pancho Villa (Photo Courtesy of Harley-Davidson)

Cry Havoc! And Let Slip the Hogs of War

With the strategic value of motorcycles proven to the military, the War Department relied heavily upon Harley-Davidson following the entry of the United States into World War I. In fact, the first American to enter Germany one day following the signing of the armistice was riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. By the end of World War I, about one-half of all Harley-Davidson motorcycles produced from early 1917 to the end of the war had gone to the U.S. military. Wartime production also gave rise to the birth of the Quartermasters School at Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee, a school for military motorpool mechanics, which evolved over the years into Harley-Davidson University. At war’s end, some 20,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles had been used by the military.

Why We Fight

Even more astounding numbers came in World War II, when Harley-Davidson produced more than 90,000 WLA motorcycles. H-D sold about a third of those bikes to the Russian army. The U.S. military bought almost the rest of them. The Company’s wartime production was exemplary enough to earn it the Army-Navy “E” Award for excellence in wartime production. Other motorcycles produced in much lower quantities were the WLC (Canadian military), the XA, a shaftdrive motorcycle for desert warfare, the UA model, as well as military G model Servi-Cars.

With the peace that followed World War II, the MoCo produced the rarer XLA (military Sportster) and more WLA models, and in more recent years, the MT-350 and MT-500, military motorcycles produced in tandem with the Rotax Company. During the post-World War II years, the Capitol Drive and York factories produced bomb casings and casing lugs on through the Persian Gulf war. Production of Harley-Davidson military motorcycles ended with the discontinuation of the MT motorcycles in 1998. If you have the chance, hit the company’s motorcycle museum in Milwaukee. You won’t be disappointed.

Story by Bill Jackson, Harley-Davidson Senior Archivist


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