Harley-Davidson and an American Hero
As motorcyclists, we’re drawn to the freedom two wheels represent; just man, machine and the open road. The feeling rings true today as it did 72 years ago, when Wallace Van Sandt, of Birmingham, Alabama, took delivery of his 1941 Harley-Davidson WLD Special Sport Solo, purchased new in 1940 for $365 (roughly $5800 in today’s money) by his father as a high school graduation gift.
The WLD Special Sport Solo was a ringer in its day. It featured the high compression version of the “W” series 45 c.i. flathead engine which, coincidentally, was The Motor Company’s longest-running engine line (1930 – 1973). This particular engine, with its deep cooling fins, large intake manifold and aluminum heads, was similar to the race engines used at Daytona during the time.
Back then, what’s now referred to as trim packages were called equipment groups, and Wallace’s bike was upgraded to the Deluxe Solo group. This included lots of chrome, trip odometer and DeLuxe saddlebags, among a host of other options. At the time, the Deluxe Solo group was a $60.00 package. That’s nearly $1000 when adjusted for inflation.
If you were to ask Wallace, it was worth every penny. His Harley, in its Flight Red paint, was his prized possession. He rode his WLD for an entire year, logging more than 19,000 miles, before joining the Army Air Corps in 1942 to defend his country against Adolf Hitler.
In a sad turn of fate, in April, 1944, the B-17 High Pointer was returning from a mission when it was shot down over Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, killing Wallace, the tail gunner. He was only 22. The story, as told to me by Thomas Platz, Motorcycle Restorer and Conservator for the Harley-Davidson Museum, goes that locals in the village found the wreckage, including Wallace’s body, and buried his remains before the Nazis could find it and destroy it.
After the war, these same locals helped the Van Sandt family recover Wallace’s body, where it was taken back home and given a proper burial. Meanwhile, Wallace’s parents were obviously devastated with the loss of their only son. None more so than his mother, who kept a shrine dedicated to her son which included paraphernalia like sports jerseys, Army uniforms, certificates, medals (including a posthumously-awarded Purple Heart) and of course, Wallace’s cherished Harley-Davidson. Just the way he left it before joining the Army.
Mrs. Van Sandt clung to these items as a parent would after losing a child. After her passing in 1975, Wallace’s nephew, Cleve Porter, who long admired his uncle, took possession of the shrine, the collection and the WLD. In 2007, with Porter realizing his ability to care for the collection were numbered, and nobody else in the family interested in it, he decided to contact the Harley-Davidson museum to see if it would be interested in adopting memories of a war hero, especially the WLD, in its original, unrestored condition exactly as it had been sitting since 1942.
It was a no-brainer for the museum, especially considering the condition of the motorcycle and the history it represents. “But to me,” says Platz, “the most moving artifact of all is a single sheet of yellowed paper inside of a small wrinkled envelope, carefully sliced open from end to end.” He was referring, of course, to the telegram sent to the family informing them of the grim news.
“1944 Apr 24. The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Staff Sergeant Wallace L Van Sandt has been reported missing in action since three April over Hungary. If further details or other information are received you will be promptly notified.”
Van Sandt’s motorcycle and belongings, including the Purple Heart, still reside at the Harley-Davidson musem, and are occasionally put back on display during Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day. But today, on the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, let’s remember our fallen hero, Wallace Van Sandt, by admiring what he left behind.
Be sure to look at the gallery for many more images of Van Sandt, his belongings he left behind and of course, his Harley-Davidson WLD as it sits today in original, unrestored condition.