The Harley-Davidson WLA Was Affectionately Dubbed the ‘Liberator’ By American Troops

Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

During the tumultuous years of the Second World War, the Harley-Davidson WLA played a pivotal role in US military operations. Renowned for its ruggedness, reliability and versatility, the motorcycle became an iconic symbol of the US Army’s power, and was a cherished companion to soldiers serving on the battlefield.

The US called upon Harley-Davidson to produce a specialized motorcycle for the armed forces in 1940, and the result was the WLA, which was affectionately known as the “Liberator” by those serving on the frontlines.

Designed for combat and transportation, the motorcycle was a robust machine capable of enduring the unforgiving conditions of war. Its sturdy frame, strong suspension and high ground clearance made it the perfect vehicle for traveling across rough terrain, while the WLA’s powerful engine provided the speed and agility needed for military operations.

The WLA’s versatility was a key asset. It was equipped with blackout lights, a reinforced luggage rack and a larger oil filter for enhanced engine protection. Another defining characteristic was its exceptional reliability. Engineered to withstand the rigors of war, the engine was well-suited for long-distance travel and performed admirably, even in adverse conditions.

While the machine was reliable, those driving it weren’t. According to men serving with the 6th Armored Division, there were a large number of accidents on the WLA. Mel Rappaport said, “We had a lot of bad motorcycle accidents and a lot of drivers were hospitalized, all due to recklessness.” His general ended up getting rid of the motorcycles, as they’d become a liability.

That being said, the WLA was still kept in use by a variety of different troops during the conflict. Shown in the above photo are men of a US Armored Division who were among those to adopt the motorcycle in earnest. One notable example was the 82nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Armored Division, who used the WLA for intelligence gathering and running messages.

It was used similarly by other units, as well as for military police operations.

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Estimates vary as to how many WLAs Harley-Davidson produced during World War II. At present, the range sits between 70,000 and 90,000 units. While production ceased upon the close of the war, it ramped up again after the US entered Korea.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.