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.
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
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.
“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
“… 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].”
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
Concertina wire strung along
Waikiki beach and other beaches of Hawai’i and
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.
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
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
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Labels: 1939, 1941, Allies, Axis, December 7, E.J. Oshier, FDR, Fran Heath, Hermosa, john kelly, Lambertson Lung, LeRoy Grannis, NCD, Pearl Harbor, San Lorenzo River, Santa Cruz, UDT, warboards, wetsuits, World War II