Monday, January 17, 2011

1930s: Pete Peterson 4

World War II and the 1940s

[Continued from Part 3]

Pete kept shaping and selling surfboards, “which he sold shaped for the price of thirty-five dollars,” recalled Don James.  “Units sanded and coated with five coats of Val Spar Marine Varnish went for a few dollars more… Pete liked to drop his girl off at the tile factory in Malibu and then surf the break all day.  At five o’clock he would paddle back in and chauffeur his lovely girlfriend back home.”[1]

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Pete initially got a deferment due to the fact he was married by then and had a young son (John, four years old in 1940) and worked in public safety.  Pete’s marriage to his first wife Arlene did not go well and in the middle of the rocky marriage, he was inducted into the U.S. Navy, on February 18, 1943.[2]

By June, Pete had passed all his training in San Diego, testing well due to the fact he was already an accomplished waterman.  Because of his lifeguard lieutenant experience and being skilled at handling small craft, Pete was sent to New Orleans to qualify as a Ship Fitter, with the non-commissioned rank of Petty Officer Third and Second Class.[3]

Pete completed the New Orleans training and took a two-week leave to visit his son in Santa MonicaCap Watkins reinstated him at the beach for five days so he could earn a little extra money.  In a significant generational hand-off, Pete took young Matt Kivlin with him to ride Malibu for Pete’s last surf session before going back on duty with the Navy.[4]  This may have been Kivlin’s first taste of Malibu, the break whose style master he would become.

Pete went back to train in New Orleans and earned his Petty Officer First and Chief.  By November 1944, he had completed both the Navy’s demanding Diving School, its Firefighter’s School and Velocity Power Tool School, going on to qualify as a Diver Second Class.[5]

Pete again had a short leave back in Santa Monica where he lifeguarded for a few days and then shipped out on the U.S.S. Pandemus bound for the Philippine Islands.  By March 1944, the U.S. Navy was operating out of Olongapo in Subic Bay in the liberated Philippines.  Pete was stationed here as well as on board, anchored off the islands of Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  His skills were in high demand and his crew of fitters and divers worked around the clock, often times right next to other crews removing dead bodies from the areas to be worked on.  If the repairs were successful, the ships are put back in action.  If not, they were sent back to Subic for further fixing.  Pete was responsible for heavy repair work, often working underwater, also helping to remove bodies, welding in hard-hat diving gear under conditions so difficult  that he would never talk about them afterwards.  “My dad never spoke of the war,” attested his son John, “even about his service.”[6]

After the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, Japan surrendered unconditionally on August 15, 1945, bringing an end to the war, since Germany had already been defeated earlier in the year.  Even though the war was now over on all fronts, it took Pete a while to get back home.

On the way back, at one of the islands the U.S.S. Pandemus visited, Pete bartered for an outrigger canoe that he was allowed to keep on the fore deck of the ship’s cargo hatch.  In his off-watch hours, when other crewmen relaxed in their bunks smoking, reading or playing cards, Pete would lower the outrigger overboard and sail around the various lagoons, diving and trading odds and ends to villagers in exchange for breadfruit and coconuts.[7]

It took the U.S.S. Pandemus seven months to finally return to its homeport of New Orleans.  Pete was discharged with $142.01 separation pay, of which $99.65 went to bus fare to get back to Santa Monica.  Fortunately, his old job as Lifeguard Lieutenant on the beaches of Santa Monica was still waiting for him.  Finding housing was a different story.  With thousands of G.I.’s returning home before him, local housing was nearly nonexistent.[8]

Cap Watkins again came to the rescue.  He offered the use of one of Santa Monica’s rescue boats so that Pete would not only have a place to stay, but also bring his son John under his wing again.  John, then eight years old, had been staying with family friends since 1943.  Now, father and son reunited in a new home, albeit small.  They had tiny berths in the rescue boat’s cabin, a tiny galley and showers at the lifeguard headquarters.[9]

Even though gasoline was no longer rationed, automobiles, like housing, were hard to get.  No matter, Pete was still able to score a clean 1941 Plymouth coupe and it didn’t take father and son long to use it to hit favorite surf spots and rekindle friendships amongst those who were lucky enough to make it through the war alive.  When Pete got together again with Whitey Harrison, his surfing shifted more to the south, with San Onofre being a focal point.  It was not long before Pete was surfing San Onofre with Whitey and his group on a regular basis on weekends when Pete and John could overnight.[10]

Pete eventually found a small house for himself and his son.  It looked like their lives and those of their friends were getting back to normal, despite the intense disruption of the Second World War.  Yet, there was no returning to the good old days of the 1930s.  They had been lean years and ones where people often had to make do with what they had, but they were pristine years for surfing.  The post-war period was markedly different than the pre-World War II era.  The Depression was a thing of the past and its passing was understandably regretted by no one.  But something of high intangible value was lost as the productivity of the war continued unabated.  The United States became not only the leading country on the planet, but also its richest.  In California, this prosperity was clearly in evidence by the state’s population explosion and sprouting of buildings and highways everywhere.  The spirit of the 1930s was replaced by a more materialistic culture that rode on the crest of this unprecedented period of prosperity.

Plastic Board, 1946

World War II had not only bread American prosperity, but introduced many new technological advances.  One new wartime technology that would have a great impact on water sports was the development of “plastics” – specifically fiberglass, phenols, mono and polyester resins that had begun during the war and had already significantly aided the war effort.  Pete found himself on the inside track of the use of these materials in the repair and making of surfboards due to his friendship with engineer Brant Goldsworthy.

“One small Southern California company owned by an acquaintance of Peterson’s, Brant Goldsworthy,” wrote Peterson biographer Craig Lockwood, “had been a wartime aircraft parts sub contractor.

Goldsworthy had developed a practical working knowledge about resins and fiberglass application and had been in touch with the marketing departments of chemical firms such as Owens-Corning, who had patented ‘Fiberglas’ (one ‘s’) in 1936, and Dupont’s chemical engineer Carleton Ellis, who had patented the first polyester resin the same year.”

All over the country, large corporations, like Owens-Corning and Dupont, were converting their industrial facilities from wartime production into civilian.  Market research indicated to Owens-Corning and Dupont that fiberglass and resin would sell the best to the building industry, commercial aviation, and the small boat industry.[11]

“Brant Goldsworthy is certainly the ‘godfather of fiberglass’ in the world,” attested Hobie Alter who, in the late 1950s, became the key man in the development of the polyurethane foam surfboard for mass production.  “He is looked at as the ‘godfather’ of reinforced plastics.”[12]  Goldsworthy and his partner Ted Thal would, a little later on, become the first ones to sell fiberglass and resin for surfboard construction.

Tom Blake protégé, champion paddler and legendary lifeguard Tommy Zahn said of the Brant Goldsworthy/Pete Peterson connection that Pete and Goldsworthy were more than just acquaintances.  “Pete had been a lifetime friend of Brant Goldsworthy’s.”[13]

Pete recognized the potential for lighter boards using fiberglass.  Before the war, he had made balsa boards to that end.  These had to be coated with varnish to keep them from getting water-logged.  Varnish, however, while flexible and organic, succumbs to ultra violet rays, breaking down in sunlight and lacks tensile strength.[14]  Not so with fiberglass and this is how Pete’s famous “Plastic Board” came about:

Working with Goldsworthy, Pete used a release coat on an existing paddleboard, laying up two halves in a clamshell configuration.  They pulled the two parts off and used these to create a female mold.  The subsequent male molds were then bonded to an inch-and-a-half redwood stringer, sanded and glass taped to seal the joint.[15]  According to Nat Young, the seam was sealed with fiberglass tape.[16]  The result was the first hollow fiberglass paddleboard.  Hollow board creator Tom Blake was so impressed he soon drew up board plans for “all fiberglass construction” of his own designs.[17]

Pete’s first fiberglassed board was constructed in June of 1946.  Brant Goldsworthy helped and Joe Quigg ‑ along with Pete ‑ tested it out in the water.[18]

“Pete had two boards,” at the time he made his fiberglass paddleboard, recalled Tommy Zahn.  “One was ‘The Pete Board’ and the other was this [prototype of the hollow fiberglass] board, which was redwood/balsa… It was just balsa wood with redwood rails.  It wasn’t ‘The Pete Board’ ‑ which was balsa with a redwood deck.  And this prototype, which was wood, was the one he used in big waves.  He didn’t use ‘The Pete Board’ in big waves.

“And so, when the fiberglass first came out, he thought, ‘hey, it would be a real neat idea to reinforce the nose of all these boards with fiberglass’ and [he] started doing that.  Then he covered the whole [prototype] board with fiberglass.  Then, he said, Brant talked him into making an all-fiberglass board.  So he used it [the redwood/balsa big wave board] for a male mold and pulled that – this board [the ‘plastic’] off that one; then, put a center dividing strip of redwood, here, and nailed it on and glassed over that.  Then, the whole board was effectively fiberglass except for this dividing strip – you could see light through the whole board.”[19]

It is possible that the first fiberglass paddle or surfboard could have an even earlier start date.  Twentieth Century surfing innovator Tom Blake told his biographer Gary Lynch that “Before the war [World War II] started… [noted swimmer Jim Handy] had sent a board back East and had it fiberglassed… that’s what Tom swears.  I’ve asked him three times about it, cuz everyone says it couldn’t be true.  But, he said that before World War II, Jamison Handy already had a fiberglass board.  I don’t know why he’d tell me that if it wasn’t true.”[20]

Early surfboard shapers who used fiberglass – guys like Hobie Alter ‑ tend to dismiss this East Coast connection, maintaining that fiberglass was developed on the West Coast for the war effort.  Sending a board back to the East Coast to have it fiberglassed would not have made any sense.[21]  However, it is true that the Whitmans, in Florida, were early on into fiberglass.  It is possible that they got a hold of some before the war, after it and resin were invented in 1936.

Irrespective of Pete Peterson being the first verified surfer to fiberglass a board, this innovation went virtually unknown among surfers of the day.  Even Hobie Alter admitted, “I always thought [Bob] Simmons was the first guy to use fiberglass on a surfboard.”[22]  Anyway, Pete did not produce further fiberglass boards in any number that would have been noticed.


[Continued in Part 5]

[1] James, 1996, p. 136.  Don’s written caption to Pete Peterson and Jack Fuller at the Venice Pier, 1940, on p. 95.
[2] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 58.
[3] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 58.
[4] Lockwood, 2005-2006, pp. 58-59.
[5] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 59.
[6] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 59.  John Peterson quoted.
[7] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 59.
[8] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 59.
[9] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 59.
[10] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 59.
[11] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 62.
[12] Gault-Williams, Malcolm.  Telephone interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
[13] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Tommy Zahn, 27 July 1988.  Tommy Zahn quoted.
[14] Holmes, Paul.  Dale Velzy is Hawk, © 2006 by Paul Holmes, printed by the Croul Family Foundation, Corona del Mar, California, p. 50.  Pete’s first balsa dated as 1936.
[15] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 62.  See also “The Malibu Board,” and “From Wood to Foam,” chapters in the LEGENDARY SURFERS collection.
[16] Young, 1983, p. 61.
[17] Lockwood, “Waterman Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson,” 2005-2006, p. 62.  See also “The Malibu Board,” and “From Wood to Foam,” chapters in the LEGENDARY SURFERS collection.
[18] Young, 1983, p. 61.
[19] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn, 27 July 1988.  Tommy Zahn quoted.
[20] Lynch, Gary.  Interview with Tommy Zahn, 27 July 1988.
[21] Gault-Williams, Malcolm.  Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.
[22] Gault-Williams, Malcolm.  Telephone Interview with Hobie Alter, October 10, 2001.

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