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1940s: World War II

The following is a draft of my first chapter in my work-in-progress: LEGENDARY SURFERS: The 1940s, volume four in the series:

1943; photographer unknown

The surfing decade of the 1930s ended with the United States entry into World War II, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.[1]

The war was already well underway, having begun in Europe in September 1939. The Japanese and Chinese had been at war even before then.

World War II was a global war that more or less lasted from 1939 to 1945. It involved most of the world’s nations, including all the great powers of the time that subsequently formed two opposing military alliances known as the Allies and the Axis. The Second World War was the most widespread war in human history, with more than 100 million people serving in military units. In a state of “total war,” the major participants placed their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities at the service of the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources. Marked by significant events involving the mass death of civilians, including the Holocaust and the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare, it resulted in 50 million to over 70 million fatalities. These deaths make World War II by far the deadliest conflict in all of human history.[2]

The Empire of Japan aimed to dominate East Asia and was already at war with the Republic of China by 1937. The world war is generally considered, however, to have begun in September 1939 with the invasion of Poland by Germany and subsequent declarations of war on Germany by France and Britain. From late 1939 to early 1941, in a series of campaigns and treaties, Germany formed the Axis alliance with Italy, conquering or subduing much of continental Europe. In the early stages of WWII, Germany and the Soviet Union partitioned and annexed territories between themselves of their European neighbors, including Poland

At this point, the United Kingdom, with its empire and Commonwealth, remained the only major Allied force continuing the fight against the Axis, with battles taking place in North Africa as well as the long-running Battle of the Atlantic. In June 1941, the European Axis launched an invasion of the Soviet Union, giving a start to the largest land theatre of war in history, which tied down the major part of the Axis’ military forces for the rest of the war. In December 1941, Japan joined the Axis and attacked the United States and European territories in the Pacific Ocean, quickly conquering much of the West Pacific.[3]

“In 1940, going into ‘41,” Palos Verdes Surfing Club member and San Onofre regular E.J. Oshier back-storied, “it more and more looked like there’d be a war.” War was already underway in Europe and in Asia

“There was a couple of guys from Oakland that had started surfing, that I could go down with. They never got very good, but they were very good friends of mine. They decided they were going to enlist in the National Guard. At that time, you serve a year in the National Guard and you could get out and you’d served your time, right? Except it wasn’t right (laughs). I thought, that’s a good idea. I’ll get in with one night a week with the National Guard. So, I did that and everything was going fine until December 7, 1941,” the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, outside of Honolulu, Oahu.

“That day… was a beautiful day at Santa Cruz,” E.J. remembered. “I was out at the Rivermouth, where the San Lorenzo River empties out. There’s pictures of me in Doc Ball’s book taken at the Rivermouth.” Back in those days, the Rivermouth could get really good.

“Oh, it was phenomenal!” praised E.J. “It was absolutely machine waves. In the winter, a big sand bar would build up off the San Lorenzo River, you know, sort of a narrow triangle and the waves would hit the peak of that triangle, out there at a good distance offshore and start to build. The shoulders would just taper off magnificently, like they were right out of a machine. There’d usually be a set of 3 or 4 waves, then a lull. You absolutely couldn’t go wrong.

“I was out there having a wonderful time. I surfed a few hours and one wave I took close to the point. Some guy ran over and say, ‘Hey! You better get out of there and get back to your car and go back to San Louie Obispo –” where the National Guard armory was – “The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor! Everybody gotta get back to their camps!’ Well, there went my ‘year.’ It ended-up five years in the army instead of one year [in the National Guard],” E. J. laughed about it. “I was surfing the day they bombed Pearl Harbor.”

“… It was such a good day. The sun was out, it was warm, and the waves were beautiful. And that was the last time I surfed Santa Cruz. Never had an opportunity to surf it, again. But, I had a lot of good surf there [during those two years].”[4]

Another Palos Verdes Surfing Club member, LeRoy “Granny” Grannis remembered the day well, also:

“We were down at the beach on December 7 of 1941. A whole bunch of us down there, right next to Hermosa Pier. I don’t know what we were doing; playing volleyball or something. All of a sudden – somebody had a radio – and we heard over the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and we all looked at each other and we knew that nothing would ever be the same. Eventually, just about all of us ended up in one branch [of the armed forces] or another.”[5]

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, what had been the United States’ material and psychological support to counter worldwide imperialism and fascism turned into an active alliance against the Axis – Germany, Japan and Italy. Suddenly, as writer Leonard Lueras put it, “most of the beach boys who had hitherto spent their every bit of free time on the blue became, by Executive Order, boys in blue.”[6]

U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Declaration of War speech to Congress:

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to the Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya. Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island. This morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation. As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounded determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph - so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

World War II had profound effects on all of American society, including surfers. As Solberg and Morris wrote in A People’s Heritage, “Although the United States was never totally mobilized for war, World War II produced far greater government intervention in the nation’s economic and social affairs than during World War I or the depression. As a result, the years 1941-45 altered radically the country’s self-image, restoring the self-confidence Americans had felt before the Crash. The years between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima were a time of ferment leading to new values for the American people economically, socially, and in their technological outlook.”[7]

“World War II cramped surfing’s style for long, too long,” Duke Kahanamoku told his ghost writer, Joe Brennan. “Most all of the able-bodied young men who had been contributing to the fast development of the sport wound up in the military service or in defense plants. It was a time of vacuum for surfing.”[8]

“The ocean itself became off-limits to civilians,” wrote surf writer Craig Stecyk, “as many [surf spots]… were sealed off in the name of defense. Malibu became a Coast Guard base. Point Dume was dynamited and occupied by military observers. San Onofre beach was pressed into duty as a Marine training area. Panic ruled the coast. The Elwood oil field near Santa Barbara was shelled by a Japanese submarine. Another marauding coastal raider surfaced off Ocean Park.”[9]

Concertina wire strung along Waikiki beach and other beaches of Hawai’i and California symbolized the shutdown surfing suffered during the ensuing war years. Since surfing was considered impractical and self-indulgent and most surfers were in the armed services -- mostly the Navy -- no surf contests were held during the war years of 1941-1945.[10]

In one of the stranger chapters of surfing’s history, it was toward the end of the Second World War that surfboards were seriously considered for use as an instrument to advance military objectives.

After the United States Marines suffered over 50% casualties in the taking of Iwo Jima in the summer of 1945, the Navy brought several Naval Combat Demolition (NCD) teams to Camp Pendleton to learn how to use surfboards. It has been suggested that the Navy was, in part, inspired by Gene “Tarzan” Smith’s paddling between the Hawaiian Islands on his paddleboard, unassisted.

Hot Curl surfer Fran Heath credited his fellow Hot Curler John Kelly with the idea of using surfboards militarily. Both became members of an Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) during the war. “We considered using surfboards for reconnaissance missions,” recalled Fran. “That was Kelly’s idea. But, boards are too easily spotted from low-flying aircraft and there’s no protection if you’re spotted, so that idea was scrapped.”[11]

Another idea that ended up with surfers involved was the formation of Naval Combat Demolition teams. These were different from the UDT’s which were more sabotage/espionage oriented. The NCDs were “created when the Navy realized how many casualties were being caused by landing craft grounding on unchartered reefs and other underwater obstructions during Pacific island invasions.”

The NCD teams consisted of 30 highly trained frogmen. The job of the NCDs was “to swim in to the beaches of Japanese-held islands in the dead of night, reconnoiter the reefs and other obstructions, chart them or blow them up and swim back to their ship or submarine before the sun came up. The NCD teams never gained the fame enjoyed by the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams, the parent of today’s Navy Seals. Perhaps the reason for this is the NCD teams spent most of their time swimming, whereas the UDT’s, like the Seals, did some of their best work above the high tide mark.”[12]

“The Navy perfected the NCD surfboard in the summer of 1945,” Larry Kooperman documented. “Its first mission was to be the reconnaissance off the coast of Japan in preparation for the invasion of the Japanese homeland by units of the United States military. These Warboards were hollow wooden surfboards built of a thin layer of redwood over a wooden frame. They were about 14 feet long and weighed about 60 pounds. They were camouflaged so as to be almost invisible in the night-dark water. Built into these boards, between the frames, was a depth sounder. Each board was to be equipped with a two-way radio that was used to relay the depth sounder’s readings to the mother ship.”[13]

In late summer 1945, the NCD teams were “ready to paddle to war.” However, the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima on August 6th and on Nagasaki three days later preempted the need of the Warboards and they were never used operationally.[14]

A more lasting war technology that was to effect surfing profoundly was the development of the neoprene wetsuit. According to Bev Morgan, the neoprene wetsuit was invented by Hugh Bradner for use by Underwater Demolition Teams during World War II.[15]

With masks, fins and now wetsuits, underwater sabotage became a reality. Although short-lived, another technological advance was the Lambertson Lung. This “most primitive self-contained rig,” as Fran Heath put it, “enabled you to swim underwater without leaving the telltale string of bubbles typical to the scuba.”[16]

And then there was fiberglass and resin... 

[1] Gault-Williams, LEGENDARY SURFERS, Volume 3: The 1930s.
[2] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II
[3] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II
[4] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with E. J. Oshier, October 10, 1998.
[6] Lueras, Leonard. Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure, designed by Fred Bechlen. Workman Publishing, New York, ©1984, p. 109.
[7] Solberg, Curtis B. and Morris, David W. A People’s Heritage, ©1974, John Wiley & Sons, p. 179.
[8] Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 45.    
[9] James, Don, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 16.
[10] Lueras, 1984, p. 109 and 111.
[11]  Gault-Williams, Malcolm. “Legends of the Hot Curl.” Fran Heath quoted.
[12] Kooperman, Larry. “Wave Warriors of the Navy,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 1, Number 2, Summer 1992.
[13] Kooperman, 1992.
[14] Kooperman, 1992. These may have been what Fran Heath referred to as “Kelly’s idea.” See Chapter 12, “Legends of the Hot Curl.”
[15] The Surfer’s Journal, “Undercurrents,” Volume 1, Number 3, 1992, p. 125.
[16] Gault-Williams, Malcolm.  “Legends of the Hot Curl.” Fran Heath quoted.

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