Columbia at War

 War. It sadly seems to define history. Our history texts in school literally outline the past by what war was fought at the time. This fact is not lost upon those of us in the vintage and antique bicycle hobby. The terms; “pre-war” and “post war” are used to define what type of bicycle we are talking about.  This war specifically was World War II, the largest war geographically ever waged. It was also the largest in terms of both human casualties and the amount of impact to civilian populations.  I will go into this subject further later on.  Although WWII would be the last war that Columbia would be directly involved with it certainly was not the first.

  The idea of the bicycle being useful as a fighting machine was not lost on Albert Pope. As early as 1893 a patent was filed for by Pope Mfg. for a bicycle gun clip. This can be found in Google Patents at the following link.


 This clip as outlined in the patent was to hold a military rifle to be used by infantry.  The 1893 Columbia catalog showed the Columbia Light Roadster Safety Model 27 fitted with this clip and outlined its use in the United States Army for both currier and personnel use.


 Col Albert A. Pope was familiar with war because he was a participant in one of the big ones, the American Civil War. At the age of 19 he had joined the 35th Massachusetts Volunteers as a Junior Second Lieutenant.  He fought in at least eight major battles and was decorated for gallantry. He emerged from the war as a Lieutenant Colonel at the age of 22.

 WWI was known as “The Great War” when it was being waged and the “War to End All Wars” soon afterwards.  Though the war started in 1914 the US was a late entry in 1917. Col Albert Poe had died in 1909 at the age of 66 but that did not stop the company he founded from profiting from the war. Although the US military did not have a standardization of bikes like they would in WWII they still purchased as much as 67,000 bicycles from 3 major manufacturers including 36,000 Columbia Military Models by December of 1918.

  Although the US military never adopted a “Bicycle Corps” for direct fighting the bikes were used by the signal corps and for quick dispatch within platoons and companies.

  Bicycles were not the only contribution to the war effort by Westfield Mfg. The official program from the 1919 250th Anniversary of Westfield stated that “most of the famous “75” gas shells, which by many have been considered the most important factor in the winning of the war, were turned out at the Westfield plant.”


 After the war Westfield Manufacturing wasted no time in showcasing their involvement in the great conflict. The 1919 Columbia catalog cover depicts American troupes with Columbia bikes in France.


 Oddly enough a Columbia Archbar model is in the forefront though two military models are depicted in the background.  Just as odd is how happy everyone seems to be after such a horrible war. Happy it was over no doubt.  In the following two years, 1920 and 1921 the “Military Model” would be sold to the civilians back home.  After that the entire county was tired of war and the Military Models were discontinued.


The 1920 seen above was simply called the “Military Model”. The 1921 seen below was designated model “MB”.


 This brings us back to World War II.  Although the war really started with Japan invading Manchuria in September of 1931 the United States did not officially enter it until the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941. The US military took very little time in standardizing ordinance and vehicles for the war effort and by March of 1942 they had done so with bicycles choosing only Huffman Corp (Huffy) and Westfield Mfg. Co. (Columbia) as their only official suppliers.

 For more detailed information on the WWII Military issue bikes please follow this link to the LIBERATOR web site.




  One other WWII era Columbia bike is worth bringing up at this point, the COMPAX PARATROOPER. Compax was a take-apart bike that came out in 1938 and was acquired by Westfield Mfg. the next year. The first year they were sold by Westfield was 1940 as the “Compax Sports Traveler”.  According to Westfield Mfg. these were sold to the Army for Paratrooper use during the war. After the war the company advertised their use by the airborne troops. There is some speculation and even doubt by some that this ever happened but the fact is the US military did purchase many of these bikes. They may never have been used in combat drops but they were certainly used on bases. After the war these bikes were called the “Compax Paratrooper” and even had parachutes in the logo on the frame.

1938 Compax

1940 Columbia Compax Sports Traveler

1943 Restricted Paratrooper Bike
Found in the Columbia Archives

 Much of the belief that these take-apart bikes were used for actual combat resulted from this advertisement put out by Westfield Mfg in December of 1941. The Marines had tested the feasibility of using the Compax for this purpose before the war and the makers of Columbia bikes capitalized on this. There are pictures I have seen of Compax bikes being used on military bases during the war but they are always in civilian colors. Further, we know there was a Compax being made during the war with a unique frame design not seen before or after the war. Likely Columbia hoped these would be used for the purpose intended in this ad but ended up selling them in civilian colors to both the military and non-military customers.


 Below is the US Marine Photograph this advertisement was based on. Notice the bike in the picture is a pre-war civilian model Compax.


 Below is a 1945 Compax that has the "Military Style" frame. Note the extra frame braces on the rear from the seat mast to the lower rear fork. It is still unclear if these were meant to give extra strength to the frame or to be used for some other purpose. Possibly they were a place to strap the two halves of the frame together when taken apart. 
 I acquired this bike from the nephew of the original owner who was stationed at the Navel Airship base in Lakehurst NJ during WWII. His Uncle purchased this bike from the base after the war. It was originally sold to the base in Civilian wartime colors of maroon with normally chrome parts such as hubs, handle bars and crank/sprocket blacked out and rims painted ivory. 
 Most of the original paint was gone so I decided to restore it in a WWII scheme in honer of it's wartime service.
 I have seen several of these Compax bikes with this frame and all have serial numbers from 1945 and all were in civilian wartime blackout colors.
 One other part of the mystery of these bikes is a picture I was sent of what is supposed to be an un-restored original paint (O.D. Green) Military Balloon tire model. I cannot confirm its authenticity but it would be interesting to see if it is real.


  Update; I have recently re-restored this bike in honor of it's navy heritage. Here it is in it's new Navy Gray. I think it is a more fitting tribute to the service it was in.


 As an added note, the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst was an Airship (blimp) base before and during WWII. during the war their mission was to spot and destroy Germaine U-Boats to protect the Allied shipping in the Atlantic. By all my research they were very successful in this mission killing many enemy subs. Bicycles may have played a relatively small part but none the less an important one back on the base. Air bases cover large areas and getting from one place to another without using precious gasoline or more expensive motor vehicles was the primary goal for bicycles.



                                                Newly found!

 1943 sales flyer shown below featuring the COMPAX MILITARY MODELS. Lightweight Model F-92L and Balloon Tire Model F-92H.  This document clearly shows the military style grips as standard equipment along with the “special frame brace at rear, giving extra strength for hard military use” as is stated in the flyer.

 There is no doubt these were marketed directly to the military. Whether the United States ever used them in combat will always be debated but this shows they were made specifically for military use.



1947 Compax "Paratrooper" Sports Traveler

 Bicycle production by Columbia was not limited to military use. There were many civilian “Victory” models. The most common was both Men’s and Ladies lightweight models.


 These civilian bikes were stripped down lacking chrome plating and chainguards. In place of the chrome, handle bars and hubs would be painted black. Most used wood pedal blocks and even wood hand grips, all to save important steel and rubber for the war effort.  These were not the only civilian models by Columbia, there would also be some balloon tire models. These like their lightweight brothers and sisters would be “blacked out” pre-war models. There were far less of these balloon tire models made and are therefore more difficult to come by.




 This is the best example of one I have ever seen. It has more chrome than the typical wartime bike and was either made before some of the ration restrictions went into effect or used leftover pre-war parts. Sent in by a reader this bike is completely un-restored and original 1942. Notice the “V” on both the front and rear fender which stood for “Victory”.  

Readers Bikes WWII Victory Bikes

  Military and Civilian bicycle production was only a part of the Westfield Mfg. story during WWII. The company was a major supplier of many types of armaments and other parts for the war effort. The now famous Bazooka was made at the Columbia plant.  In 1946 the city of Westfield held a welcome home celebration for the returning troops. According to the official program Westfield manufacturing had supplied over one and a half million bazookas, over a million 37 Millimeter Shells, over a million two hundred thousand Incendiary Bomb Bodies, over eight million five hundred thousand complete Aircraft and Tank Bearings, nine hundred thousand Scabbards for the British Endfield Rifles, nearly eight hundred thousand Smoke and Riffle Grenades, nearly a million and a half Fuses for Army, Navy Shells and Chemical Bombs.


The contribution to the war effort was so significant that on May 24th 1944 Westfield Manufacturing was presented with the Army-Navy “E” award for product achievement.



 Below is the one of the lapel pins mentioned above.


 It was not just material, Westfield Mfg had supplied men as well to the war effort and the “E” award recognized those from the company who were serving their country.


 In 1944 Columbia bikes were featured in LIFE magazine. There was a multiple page centerfold advertisement showing the versatility of the Columbia bike in war service.







  Later in 1944 restrictions on bicycle production were lifted and a new line of bikes were offered for the 1945 Model year. This catalog for 1945 states “no rationing certificates are required for the purchase of these Columbia Built Bicycles”.


 WWII had impacts beyond the theater of the war itself. It changed the world’s economy and the very demographics of the world.  In fact, it ultimately is the reason I am involved with antique bicycles at all.

 This story begins in Pittsfield Massachusetts in 1941. My father, John (Jack) Kowal was a 15 year old living with his family when Pearl Harbor was attacked.  He had an uncle that was just 6 years older than him in the Marines who he was very close to and Uncle Bob Callahan went to war. Jack was anxious join his Uncle so 2 years later quits school and joined the Navy. During his time in the South Pacific Theater of war my father’s family moved to Westfield Massachusetts as my Grandfather had been re-located in his job. They found a small house to rent one block from the Westfield Mfg. Co. factory where Columbia bikes were made.  When Jack came home to his family two things put the entire story in motion. The first was my father needed a job and got one at the nearby Columbia plant. The second was he needed transportation and purchased a Whizzer Motor to put on his old bike.

 Riding a Whizzer to work got the attention of the engineering and test departments at Columbia. A new spring fork was being developed and would have to be tested. The company purchased a new Whizzer Motor and mounted it on a bike with the newly developed Springer.  Since Jack Kowal had plenty of experience with these machines he was given the job of riding this bike to evaluate the new fork. At 19 years old it was a dream job and Dad rode for 9 hours a day all summer with plenty of great stories to tell. All of this was part of a chain of events that lead up to my involvement in the bicycle hobby.

 We now move on to 1979. Because of the above series of events I grew up in the shadow of the Columbia Factory and after I graduated from high school went to work there. Not long after that my father went back to work there after selling his music store. It had been many years since he worked there but all of the “old timers” kept calling my father “Whizzer”.  I wanted to know what this meant as Dad had never spoken of the involvement he had with these old machines.  Now a search was on for the old Whizzer and it was found with extended family along with a slightly newer model. In the next few months and years Dad and I would restore these bikes and bring them to shows. These whizzer meets are really what spawned the Classic Balloon Tire Bicycle craze. After all, Whizzers were originally kits to motorize your balloon tire bike so to restore a Whizzer you also had to restore a bike. This lead to bicycle only classes at the vintage Whizzer and Scooter meets. The “Post-War” Balloon Tire bike craze was born.

 We now advance a couple of more years and find Columbia Bicycles starting the RX-5 project.  

RX-5 Production


 They were looking to the vintage bicycle community for 1950’s bikes to copy for this new replica. Jack Kowal was contacted along with many others.  Neither I nor my father had worked for Columbia for a couple of years. We went back there anyway with a couple of bikes for the engineers to use. This would lead to my father being asked to work on the new factory museum. He would become the companies’ unofficial historian and museum curator along with being a basic goodwill ambassador for the Columbia brand. The name, now lost as far as who first bestowed it would stick….Mr. Columbia. I have continued the MrColumbia story by creating this website based on my father’s research and my involvement with him at the factory and with the museum.

 I bring all this personal history up because it was all the result of a war and the wars impact both during and after its duration. Wars are terrible and I by no means am trying to glorify them but as I began to say, the impact cannot be ignored, both negative and positive. Many lost their lives or the lives of their loved ones. Say what you will but jobs were also created and lives transformed.  I wanted it to be known there was more to the story than just Army bicycles and Bazooka’s.

                                                                                                                                                                  By Kenneth A. Kowal

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