Monday, February 16, 2015

1940s: Pioneers in a Changing World

[draft second chapter of volume four: LEGENDARY SURFERS: 1940s]

The 1940s – especially after the war – marked the transition from “The Pioneers” to a whole new generation of surfers, some of whom took off from where their elders had left them and some who just marked new tracks in the waves, themselves. The surfing pioneers had been the ones who took surfing and made it into a modern lifestyle. These were guys like “the Father of Modern Surfing” Duke Kahanamoku, innovator Tom Blake, Whitey Harrison, 1930s champion Pete Peterson, paddling legend Tarzan Smith, surf photog extraordinaire Doc Ball, Canoe Drummond and others of their age less well known.

Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968)

In 1936, Duke had been elected Sheriff of the City and County of Honolulu. A largely ceremonial position. “He was a shoo-in candidate,” wrote Duke biographer Grady Timmons, “elected to thirteen consecutive two-year terms – often without campaigning and more than once while he was not even in the Territory of Hawaii. Being sheriff required him to run the jail, issue summonses, and act as coroner, but for the most part the job was honorary and paid little.”[1]

“After a day at the sheriff’s office, Duke headed for the beach. He rode the surf when it was up, went for long swims when it was not, and played surfboard polo and volleyball at the Outrigger Canoe Club. Duke was forever breaking records for athletic longevity. Up until he was fifty, he rode big surf along with small, and up until 1950, when he turned sixty, he was Waikiki’s best canoe steersman. During the 1940s, he guided the Outrigger Canoe Club to seven straight championship seasons.”[2]

“Long before his days as a competitive athlete were over,” Timmons wrote, “Duke stepped gratefully into the role of being Hawaii’s unofficial ambassador. Whenever there was a famous person in town – a movie star, a king, or the President – Duke would always take him for an outrigger canoe ride.”[3]

A “great change… took place in Duke’s life while he was sheriff,” emphasized another Duke biographer, Joseph Brennan, referring to the entry of Nadine (Nadjesda) Alexander into Duke’s life.[4]

“Nadine was the first child of vaudeville performer George B. Alexander and the Australian opera singer Olive Kerr,” surf writer Sandra K. Hall wrote in a Longboard magazine obituary for Nadine in 1997, “and grew up as a ‘showbiz’ child with natural talents as a pianist and dancer. She had moved to Honolulu in 1938 to teach Latin and ballroom dancing to ‘high society’ at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Shortly thereafter on Waikiki Beach she first met Duke…”[5]

“Nadine Alexander was a worldly and sophisticated dance instructor at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel when Duke married her in 1940,” Timmons explained. “At the time he proposed, he told her that she would be marrying a poor man. Later she confessed, ‘I didn’t know then how poor he really was.’”[6]

“Very soon after they began dating,” Brennan wrote, “Duke was wholly enchanted. She was fair and beautiful, dancing into his skull at night. She laughed a lot – deep, bubbling laughter. When he looked at her his heart rolled over. By this time Duke’s hair was iron gray, but he still had his golden smile and athlete’s body.” She was about 17 years younger than Duke. They married on August 2, 1940, just a few days before his fiftieth birthday.[7]
“Nadine was good for Duke,” assessed Joseph Brennan who helped him write his autobiography. “She gave him the balance he needed and the freedom he could not do without.”[8]

After the war, Duke’s life became slower-paced, in keeping with his age. In 1948, he did one more Hollywood movie, the Wake of the Red Witch and in 1950, he licensed his name to an aloha-shirt manufacturer in an attempt to “finally attain some financial status.”[9]
Entering his sixth decade, “What time he could spare from his duties” as sheriff, “was spent in the surf.” In 1950, the Outrigger Canoe Club threw “Duke Kahanamoku Day” on his birthday and had the biggest party in the club’s history, to that point.[10]

“Even when his physical ability started to wane because of his age,” 1960s world champion surfer Fred Hemmings recalled, “he excelled because of his knowledge of the ocean and what he was doing. I’d watch him surfing when he was older. He was always at the right place at the right time. He always caught the good wave.”[11]

Duke’s wave knowledge covered the wide spectrum of surfing, outrigger canoeing, and body surfing. Duke confirmed that many of the breaks now commonly associated with surfing were first tested by body surfers.

Duke and friends would “body surf, like, Waimea and Sunset and those places… once in a while we used a board, but very seldom. And we don’t think of carrying a board with us because it’s kinda heavy and so we take a ride around island and look at these waves. And some of those waves on… the north side is terrific. And Waimea – we used to go down there and ride body surf all the time.”[12]

“Did you use fins?” Meaning, was this after 1935?

“Oh sure,” Duke confirmed, adding how they used to do what we would call an “El Rollo,” today. “I used to come down and twist right like a seal and come right in and then bodysurf. We used to go down to Makapu because it’s much heavier and stronger [for bodysurfing], you see. And we used to get these waves and twist right around and get on our back and then right side up and then come right in on the waves.”[13]

By this time, the gravitation from the southern breaks at Waikiki to the powerful big western break of Makaha had taken place, lead by Hot Curl surfers like Wally Froiseth, Woody Brown and George Downing. In the mid-1960s, Duke was asked about the difference between the north, west and south shores of O’ahu. Duke gave a glimpse of what it was like to ride big waves in the early days. He had both respect for the later generations of surfers and a reverence for Makaha, which had become the major big wave spot by the late 1940s and early 1950s. From Makaha, surfers moved on to the North Shore in the 1950s:

“Well, I tell you,” Duke said, “you see they run in seasons – summer, the waves are terrific out here (Waikiki) and it’s very quiet on the north side. And just the other way – when it’s rough over there it’s smooth on this side. But the waves over there on the north side are terrific.

“You speak of Makaha. Makaha – we used to ride them, but we never rode the boards like the boys are doing today [middle 1960s]. These chaps are catching waves right in the middle of the dog-darn breaks and then they go straight down and then they get mixed up with the foam. But, what we used to do in those days was we used to sit close to the edge and every time we caught the wave we slid off without having to get mixed up in the foam. And that’s how we used to ride it (Makaha) either to the right or left. And these boys who ride them now, well, they just ride them like – ah, well – they’re just wild! They’re going all over. They’re going way beyond us in riding these trick boards [balsa or foam].”[14]

“You speak about these boards,” Duke continued, talking about the Malibu boards that came out in the early 1950s. “The first [Malibu] board I tackled was Peter Lawford’s board when Peter first came to Honolulu. He brought this board – and I see a picture of Peter right here, now – and we swapped boards right out there at Canoe surf. I took one wave and it was kinda tricky… Well, I thought I better stick to my own solid board, which is steadier and easier to manage. Well, I said to Peter, ‘you better give me my board and you take your board back.’ And that’s the swap and that’s the last time I ever rode on these tricky boards they have [now].” [15]

Duke continued to talk about the early days at Makaha, in the 1940’s, when the guys rode it without board fins:

“When we rode in those days, we had no skeg. And, as I say – why – we used to catch them on the edge. As a matter of fact, if you were in the center, then maybe the skeg would help so you won’t skid. But, I don’t know, sometimes I get into the middle of it and – not too good, I get mixed up – but, I don’t slide off, like a lot of people think that they’d skip and go spinning around. No, you just slip down and… get dumped off.”[16]

Asked about the worst wipeout he could remember, Duke answered:

“Gee, the worst wipeout I had, I think, was right out there outside the Public Bath… The waves were big that day. I dunno, about 25-feet I guess. And they were coming fast, one right after the other. And [on this one particular set of waves] I thought I was [done with the rest of] my life. I got caught in these waves and, geez, I took my breath and, gee, I thought to myself the only way I can save myself is not to struggle, not to fight the wave and just, well, just be cool and just figure not to give too much effort; just sit and wait for the waves as they come in, and just duck as they doggone hit you, and just hold your breath before you do that. And, then if you go under, five or six feet, it’s nothing under there. The whirlpool is not that deep. I mean the water pool. It doesn’t go down any deeper than four or five feet. So, if you get underneath that, you’re safe and these waves go by. Well, this doggone wave – these waves were coming in so fast that I was almost ready to call help and I said, well, I better hang on and God will help me and keep me afloat and then I’ll be all right. And that’s what happened.”[17]

Duke was asked about how they handled gremmies – beginning surfers – back when he was actively riding. “You old time surfers have many wonderful courtesies toward fellow surfers,” the SURFER interviewer said and then asked, “What, for example, would you do for a young fellow who came out and maybe couldn’t handle it?”

“Well,” Duke answered, “we older fellows – we’d make it a great thing to take care of these kids. The youngsters – we would send back into shore. I know a lot of the boys. Tough Bill, my brothers, and many of these fellows – they’d come out and we’d know they can’t handle the big waves, so we’d send them back in shore.

“And we’d say, ‘you stay there until you’re big enough and then you come on out.’ I’ve seen that done. And when they got a little older, and after three or four years experience out surfing in the canoe, they got out by themselves and we let them go. But, we always tried to take care of – don’t care who they are, malahini [tourist, non-Hawaiian] or anybody. And every time we see them getting into difficulty in handling the board or got into the wrong spot, we used to tell them, ‘you go over there, or you go over here, which is easier for you.’ And, they would take a lot of the information we give them and that’s that.”[18]

“Well,” Duke added, “to me I think we have to teach a lot of these kids first to be gentlemen; gotta be clean cut youngsters, you know; and keep the rule and never get in trouble; and try to help one another; and not try and hog the doggone waves, you know. There are so many waves coming in all the time, you don’t have to worry about that. Just take your time; wave come, let the other guys go, catch another one. And that’s what we used to do. We see a fellow’s coming in and we see some other fellow there first, we say, ‘now you’re here first, you take the first wave’ and that’s what we used to do.”[19]

Tom Blake (1902-1994)

Even by the Second World War, the two most influential surfers were Duke – whose rise in surfing began shortly after the turn of the century – and Tom Blake, who came along about twenty years after Duke began.

Between 1939 and 1942, Tom was still shuttling between the U.S. Mainland and Waikiki. He even put in some time with the motion picture industry in Paramount Pictures’ Devil’s Island (1939) and Wake Island (1942).[20] Afterwards, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, despite being forty years old. He didn’t have to enlist in the Coast Guard, but he did so because, as he put it, “it was the thing to do.”[21] Everyone was pulling for the war effort in the ways they thought they could make their best contributions and, for Tom, it was involvement in the ocean in some way. He enlisted as a temporary reservist on August 27, 1942 and after boot camp and training, he was sworn into the U.S.C.G. regular reserve. Shortly after that, he was appointed a squad and then a platoon leader. He continued to rise in the ranks for the duration of his enlistment, at one point commanding a company of 54 men.[22]

Tom’s Coast Guard work amounted to coastal watch in California and Washington State and handling explosives. He left a two-page log of his various tours, written on the inside pages of his Bluejacket’s Manual. These pages document that he first went to boot camp in Wilmington, then to San Clemente Island, California. He spent the fall of 1942 and part of the winter of 1942-43 at Point Arguello, finishing the winter at Port Hueneme. At the beginning of the summer of 1943, Tom developed pneumonia and was hospitalized. Afterwards, he went to Dog Administration School in San Carlos, where he graduated and then went on to serve at the Naval Air Base in Oak Harbor, Washington, in September 1943. From there, he went for training at Ault Field in Clover Valley. Later, in command of forty men and twenty dogs, he established a beach patrol at Swift Beach, located on the Rosarita Straits, in Puget Sound. Early in 1944, he took charge of the kennels at Oak Harbor and was stationed at the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island. In early summer, he was assigned to the explosive detail at Alameda and San Francisco. From there, he went on to explosives loading in Richmond by the end of the summer.[23]

“Knowing the beaches so well,” Tom said, “that’s how I got in… As usual, I took my work too seriously… Most everyone else was trying to get away from the Draft [meaning combat duty]… [My advice to you:] Don’t take it too seriously [anything]; spread it out… I worked day and night. I looked over 40-to-50 men; sent them out on patrols and checked to see that they were on patrol… Later on, we got in on the ammunition loading,”[24] which “used to scare the hello out of me,” Tom admitted.[25]

While serving in the United States Coast Guard for three years during World War II, Tom not only gained training handling dogs and expertise in “the unloading of captured Japanese ordinance,” but also taught swimming and ocean rescue.[26] Because of a Headquarters’ ruling on over-age discharges, all enlisted men over the age of 42 were allowed to return to civilian life in the summer of 1945. It was thus that, at the age of 43, Tom received his honorable discharge on July 7, 1945, in Long Beach, California.[27]

As soon as Tom was done with his military service, he headed for the beaches: first, Waikiki; then Palos Verdes, in Southern California, and then Miami Beach, Florida. A Honolulu newspaper clipping noted his return to civilian life: “Also returning home Sunday was Tom Blake, who has come back ‘to do some surfing’ after an absence of five years. It was Mr. Blake who developed the hollow surfboard about 15 years ago, and for devotees of the sport who have found surfboards among the ‘shortages’ of these past years, he brought good news.

“‘I can promise that we’ll have a supply of boards here soon – and at reasonable prices,’ Mr. Blake declared. He added that wood is still scarce but that satisfactory boards are now being fashioned of plastic [fiberglass] and aluminum. For the past three years, the local man has served with the coast guard from California to Alaska. He was released from the service a few months ago with the rating of specialist, first class, and said he plans to remain in Hawaii indefinitely.”[28]

For most people, “indefinitely” means for a long time – not so for Tom Blake. Through the rest of the 1940s, he logged time back on the Waikiki Beach Patrol, but also put in summertime work in various aquatic roles at Palos Verdes.

The Palos Verdes peninsula is as unique as Waikiki, in its own way. Situated between Santa Monica Bay and San Pedro Bay, Southern California, it had once been an island during pre-historic times. Uplift of the land mass, combined with sedimentation in the Los Angeles Basin, caused the island to be connected to the mainland. As a result, a series of thirteen distinct marine terraces rise in succession from sea level to 1,480 feet. In the 1800s, the peninsula comprised the rancho of the Sepulveda family. It was later developed in the 1920s as an elegant subdivision of residential estates, incorporating as the City of Palos Verdes in 1939.[29]

The San Pedro News-Pilot recapped Tom’s association with Palos Verdes in a 1949 article: “At Palos Verdes peninsula, Blake is back on familiar ground. He was in charge of recreation and swimming at the Palos Verdes Estates Swimming Club in 1941 and 1946. During the war he served with the U.S. Coast Guard aboard an ammunition transport.”[30]

Three articles Tom wrote in the late summer of 1947 give a more detailed picture of his work at Palos Verdes in the late 1940s. He was mostly headquartered at Malaga Cove on the northeastern-most part of the peninsula, which is closest to the city beaches of Torrance and Redondo.

In “‘End of Season’ Swimming Pool Notes,” Tom recaps the summer, writing: “Signs of fall have appeared at Malaga Cove. A large flock of wild ducks circled the bay the other day and headed south; one of those clear days when the distant Santa Monica Mountains seem so close and the sea so blue. The ocean temperature dropped 70 degrees to 68 degrees, and the pool water from 79 degrees to 73 degrees. The season has brought many carefree, happy hours to the children of Palos Verdes. Some have added inches to their height and chest measurements, due in part to the deep breathing and stretching required by swimming. Well-fed and full of fire, they descended on the pool every day, each seeking a means of expression suitable to his age and experience. Some indulged in plain and fancy diving off the one-meter board; groups of a half dozen played tag by the hour. Tossing an unsuspecting person into the tank gives a great degree of satisfaction to the older boys but it is all in the spirit of fun and a girl feels neglected if not thrown in.”[31]

Tom went on to write about the “Mile Club” and the subject of dedication: “Still others swim laps, 52 or more, to make membership in the ‘Mile Club.’ This is a considerable feat, as evidenced by those who fail to swim the required distance… A handsome perpetual trophy is being readied to be given to the boys or the girls; whichever has the most ‘Mile Club’ members.”[32] In describing the Mile Club in more detail, Tom wrote in a subsequent article: “The latest fashion at the Palos Verdes Swimming Pool is to achieve membership in the ‘Mile Club.’ This is an honor group, each of who must swim a mile to qualify. There are no strings attached, and with this goal in mind, kids who never had the incentive to swim the full length of the pool are now navigating a full 52 lengths or more, thereby gaining a greater measure of health and physical benefit that inevitably accompanies a vigorous swim in the open air.

“Boys and girls, some only 10 years old, have seen fit to make the club and various means of locomotion are resorted to in covering the distance. Means include the standard crawl and back strokes, with and without fins. The fins are definitely an asset to any swimmer, not because of the added speed but because they encourage swimming distance by making it easier to move through the water. Many have not been content with swimming one mile but have gone on to strive for a pool record. Mike Eaton and Walter Tilley, ages 12 and 13, have made the longest swims to date. Mike swam an even five miles while Walter chalked up three and a half miles. The rivalry is just beginning and indications are that Walter will slim down a bit before he accepts defeat. The charter members of the ‘Mile Club’ are: Stevie Voorhees, Walter Reese, Jr., Jack Burton, Skeet Stevens, Peppy Peppard, Eddie Riley, Mike Eaton, Buddy Long, Walter Tilley, Mike Neushul, Bill Hadley, Tom Blake, Corky Bjorklund, Peggy Stenzel, Rita Kennedy, and Louise Hastrup.”[33]

Tom’s third article from the end of the 1947 summer was entitled “Swimming Pool Closes After Successful Season,” and it was printed in the Palos Verdes News, September 1, 1947. “An unusually enthusiastic crowd attended and took part in the Labor Day races at the Swimming Club,” he began, “to finish the season with a sunny summer day that topped a perfect record of such days for the months of June, July and August. While highways and public beaches were jammed with city dwellers, the residents of our community found plenty of room to relax and cool off at the club, as well as enjoy seeing the children display their swimming prowess.

“Winners of the mile club cup for 1947 were decided three minutes before the deadline of 1:30 o’clock, when young George Powloff came through with the deciding mile swim, giving the boys 38 members to the girls 37. The girls will have another chance next season, as the trophy will be up again in 1948, the Lord willing. High mileage prize, a gold medal, went to Mike Nushul, age 13, for his total of 25 miles. Mike had the making and temperament of a future champion swimmer, if he gets the breaks. Jack Burton was second, in spite of hard luck, a recent three-day illness, with a total of 22 miles for the season. Ken Gardner won third medal with 7 miles. Other high milers among the boys were: Skeets Stevens, 6; Mike Eaton, 5; Walter Reese, 5; Ebbie Rechtin, 4; Walter Tilly, 3 ½; Corky Bjorklund, 3; Ed Hiesman, 3 in the pool, and an undetermined number in the ocean. It was 2 miles for Buddy Long, Stevie Voorhees, Bill Stewart, and Buzzie Thompson. With the girls, high miler was Virginia Lane with 3 ½ miles; Prusilla Eaton, Margot MacKusik and Louise Hastrip, 3 miles; Rita Kennedy, Leslie Ann Lebkicker and Joan Williams 1 ½ miles. This made a total of 150 miles; it all adds up to health, strength of body and character to those who did the swimming.”[34]

In his writing of pool competition, Tom referred to the importance of keeping to “the golden rule.”[35] That Golden Rule was the one most of us, hopefully, live by: Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you. In his later years, especially after the war, Tom lived by the true Christian ethic, more than many church-going Christians did then and now. He was an example of a man who came to face life head on and was at peace with it. He made other comments akin to the Golden Rule, such as “Don’t say anything if you do not have positive comments,” or “They are doing the best they can, with what they have.” He would also say, “Stick your head up and somebody will take a shot at it.” Tom’s meaning was clear: if one becomes too vocal about certain issues, he should be prepared to pay a price.

Tom’s domain was the Malaga Cove beach and the Roessler Memorial Swimming Pool, a salt-water pool built in 1926.[36] The area had been one of the cradles of Southern California surfing in its earliest days. Just next door to Palos Verdes, Redondo Beach, beginning in 1907, had been where George Freeth had demonstrated surfing the most and built up a core group of lifeguards and surfers that later helped pollinate the rest of Southern California.

By the mid-1930s, just to the west of Malaga, Bluff Cove became the prime spot to ride particularly large waves. It was even sometimes referred to as “Little Waikiki”[37] and became a favorite spot of those early Southern California surfers who were members in the Palos Verdes Surfing Club. By the late ‘30s, some of the men regularly surfing Bluff Cove included: Pete Peterson, Tulie Clark, Gard Chapin, Bud Morrissey, LeRoy Grannis, Doc Ball, Adie Bayer, E.J. Oshier, Grant Leonhuts, Jim Bailey, Johnny Gates, Al Holland, Fenton Scholes, Jean Depue, Hornbeck, Jim “Burhead” Drever, Hal Landes, Hal Pearson, Johnny Dale, Art Alsten and others like Tom Blake.[38]

Tom was certainly not the only surfing innovator the 1940s produced. Another was Jamison Handy, who remains relatively unknown to this day. Tom first met Jam Handy when Handy was an Olympic champion, many years before in Detroit, just before Tom began his life as a surfer and wanderer.

“It was [later] in California [before the war] that he got into some surfing,” Tom said of Handy. “I was making boards then and he come to me for a board and I sold him a board. It was a good board, too, a big tandem board. It was very heavy, though. And then he built his wife a balsa board, which is very light, so she could carry it down the Palos Verdes Cliffs. They used to drag’em [the redwood boards] or put’em on their back [in a sling].

“And that board he made for his wife was balsa and very soft. Every time she’d use it, it’d get a ding in it. He [Tom’s emphasis] got the idea to cover it with fiberglass. He knew about fiberglass before it even hit the [West] Coast [after the war]. He sent the board back to some friends of his – back East [on the East Coast of the U.S.] – who had fiberglass. And that was the first fiberglass board ever made. A lot of our guys have claimed that, you know, but he was the first.”[39]

In 1949, Tom made a switch from the Palos Verdes Swimming Club on the north side of the peninsula to the Portuguese Bend Club, further to the south. “Tom Blake,” wrote one sports columnist from the San Pedro News-Pilot, on April 11, 1949, “former national distance swimming champion and inventor of keeled surfboards and hollow paddleboards, is the new director of recreation and swimming at Portuguese Bend Club on Palos Verdes peninsula. Blake, who was with the Waikiki Beach Patrol in Honolulu for 10 years, was national 10-mile swimming champion in 1922. That same year, swimming for the Los Angeles Athletic Club, he finished second to Johnny Weismuller in the sprint and middle-distance events… For the past two years, he has been with the Waikiki Beach Patrol.

“At Portuguese Bend Club, Blake will teach and coach swimming and will be in charge of all swimming and recreational events, including pool swimming, surf and paddle boarding, sailing, shuffleboard, paddle tennis and croquet. Blake is planning club swimming and paddleboard races for the Fourth of July weekend. Blake developed the hollow paddleboard in the middle 1920s while working in Honolulu. He still holds the basic patent on the board, which has largely replaced the far heavier solid paddleboard. In 1935, Blake invented the keel-like stabilizing fin for surfboards. He also developed the aluminum torpedoes now used by beach lifeguards for rescue work. He reduced the weight of rescue torpedoes from 10 to two and three-quarters pounds.”[40]

Tom continued with the Portuguese Bend Club through the summers of 1949 and 1950,[41] but he did not stay with the job beyond that. He said it was because he “couldn’t stand to see kids in trouble every day,”[42] meaning children who would get in the pool without learning to swim, first.

If people who knew Tom or knew of him thought he was “out of the game,” traveling between Palos Verdes and Hawai’i and doing little else, they found themselves highly mistaken on the morning of Sunday, June 20, 1948. It was on this day that Tom made a dramatic paddle across the Golden Gate, the opening to the sea from San Francisco Bay, California. The board he rode was a Bob French hollow that Pete Peterson had reshaped. The environment in which he paddled was a very swift-moving and dangerous current.

Following his feat, one San Francisco newspaper publicized: “Surfboard Ace Plunks Across Golden Gate in 13 Min., 45 Sec.” The article went on: “Tom Blake who twenty-odd years ago was national long-distance swimming champion, returned to old scenes here from Hawaii one day last week with an idea to sell. He sold it yesterday by paddling across the Golden Gate on a twenty-pound surfboard. (Nup, no oars.) Blake’s idea was that the Red Cross convention here might be interested in use of the paddleboard for rescue work. Cal Bryant, the organization’s national director of water safety, who looked on from the bridge as Blake plunked his way through more than a mile of choppy water in 13 minutes 25 seconds, said afterward that it looked like a good idea to him.”[43]

Tom returned to Waikiki during the non-summer months of the second half of the 1940s and also visited Miami. Florida surfer Dudley Whitman recalled that “Tom… had a hotrod,” a really well-built machine, in the years immediately after World War II; the machine was probably bought with his savings from the Coast Guard service. “I don’t think he ever did any of the construction himself, but he usually had an unusual vehicle of some type. I visited him when he was a lifeguard at the Palos Verdes Club in Palos Verdes… I didn’t really spend hardly any time with Tom in Hawaii. But… [at one point,] he was going to Hawaii with us, and we were driving out [across the U.S.] in a 1936 convertible with two surfboards on top. Of course, in those days you made your own surfboard rack. The car happened to be a convertible and we drove the whole way with the top down. We had to take a solemn oath that we wouldn’t allow three to sit in the front for insurance reasons. When we got, I think, to about New Orleans, Tom had had enough of riding in the back, and he decided that he would go it alone... We parted good company and he said he would make his own way. I guess he didn’t like driving 90 miles an hour, which was pretty fast in those days, and sounds kind of irresponsible. But, I guess at 17 years of age, and a brother who was four or five years older, those kinds of things could happen. I’ll never forget, he [Tom] had a beautiful, tremendous telescope.” Tom had been scanning the horizon and viewing the night sky for many years. “He made me a present of it at that time. We were good friends and we had a lot of fun; had a lot of experiences together.”[44]

Blake returned to Waikiki.

“In the early days, as I remember it,” Tom put his post war return to Waikiki into perspective, “the most important surfer, and the most important admired surfer, and the hero of all of us was Duke, on account of him being an Olympic swimmer and so forth. He had brothers who were also good surfers, Sam and Sergeant. [His brother] Louis surfed, of course, and brother Little Bill. Also, in the early days, after… the ‘Kahanamoku Period,’ George Downing was one of the most outstanding surfers that I remember. He had no fear of the surf, small or large. He could ride any kind of surf, small or large. And there was Scoop Tsuzuki, who took the first big surf camera pictures over there. And there was Don James, with his long lens taking pictures. And Woody Brown, who developed the catamaran, which was not new, because the early Hawaiians came to the Islands in catamarans. But he developed a small one, about fourteen feet long. I remember he took me out on a ride on it and I was astonished at the speed of it. It was very fast. Woody would go up and down the beach… He’d ask somebody if he wanted a ride in his catamaran for a dollar. He made a few dollars that way. It was really worth it. It was absolutely astonishing the speed of that thing. Finally, Woody got the idea of commercializing on it and he built… a big one, forty feet long, and he took passengers out from Waikiki. They would go out in the deep water, way out around Diamond Head. He made a good living at it. Others started to copy it, and finally Joe Quigg started making catamarans, made some good ones. Joe was a great photographer, incidentally...”[45]

When Tom returned to O’ahu, he again “made boards under the Waikiki palm trees” and also engaged in “night surfing and swimming. My main work was obtaining food and shelter.”[46] “We used to pull on an old wool, tight fitting sweater at Waikiki, in March, when the cool trade winds whipped off shore around Diamond Head.”[47] It was during this period that he made a koa calabash cup for the Hawaiian paddling championships. “Carved it out of a solid block of wood,” Tom noted, “and hoped it would stimulate paddleboard racing between California surfers and Hawaii. Do not know who has it now.”[48]

Tom recalled some notable rescues he made at Waikiki after the war:

“1) Henry Lum, on a big surf day at Waikiki. Henry went out about 10:00 A.M. with Wally [Froiseth], George [Downing] and others. To Public. Henry was lost. He finally drifted in (Ewa side) by 5:00 P.M. way outside Popular break. A big set got him, but he managed to hold his board. He was about gone. I saw him through my big glasses from the Moana balcony. I got out my big Kalahuewehe board and went after him. Reached him outside First Break. He said, ‘I can’t get in.’ I put him aboard my fourteen foot board, turned his board loose, and made the Outrigger Club. Henry was cold, stiff and incoherent. Put him in a hot shower and he revived. His board was brought in by another surfer.”[49]

“2) Scoop Tsusuki (photographer). Got outside First Break, Waikiki, on a big day. Then, got tired and frightened and could not get back in. As usual, in the afternoon. I was watching from the Moana 7th floor balcony with my glasses... I spotted Scoop, watched him awhile, got my fourteen-foot board and went after him. Picked him up at First Break and made it in through the waves; his board brought in by another. He was very grateful for the assist. So was Henry.”[50]

About Tom’s famed board Kalahuawehe, California lifeguard, surfer and paddler Tommy Zahn said, “He was still riding that in 1951, when I was down there [at Waikiki]. It was cedar. It looked like it was a Rogers, except it was all cedar. 14-feet, 23 ½-inches wide…”[51] Tommy continued: “Did he ever tell you what he did to it? You won’t believe this. I guess he was sentimentally attached to it, because he decided he was going to go to a short board, so he cut the thing down to 11-feet and all he used [from the original] was the deck and he built a completely new fiberglass hull underneath it. But he still used the same deck made of cedar. One of his experiments.”[52]

Of all the Blake manufactured boards, Tommy Zahn liked the Rogers the best. “The Thomas Rogers… were the best I have ever seen,” he wrote, noting the “‘Tom Blake Approved’ brass drain plug positioning and ‘Hawaiian Paddleboard’ stenciled on the nose. I think these were the most beautiful (and desirable). I, myself, had the ‘Streamlined Lifeguard Model’ that I used for training and in actual lifesaving at my station… The Catalinas and L.A. Ladder Company models… are inferior to the Mitchells and Rogers. Ironically, Tom realized more royalties from Catalina and L.A. Ladder than all of the others… Every high school woodshop had the Popular Mechanics plans…”[53]

Preston “Pete” Peterson (1913-1983)

The number one surfer in California, Preston “Pete” Peterson was shaping and selling surfboards when the U.S. entered World War II. The boards “he sold shaped for the price of thirty-five dollars,” recalled surf photographer 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.”[54]

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Pete initially got a deferment because he was married and worked in public safety. However, Pete’s marriage to his first wife Arlene was not successful and while in the middle of the rocky marriage, he was inducted into the U.S. Navy, on February 18, 1943.

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.[55]

Pete completed the New Orleans training and took a two-week leave to visit his son in Santa Monica. Santa Monica’s Captain Watkins reinstated him at the beach for five days so he could earn a little extra money and while there Pete took young Matt Kivlin with him to ride Malibu for Pete’s last surf session before going back on duty with the Navy.[56] 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.[57]

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 newly liberated Philippines. Pete was stationed there 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 he would never talk about them afterwards. “My dad never spoke of the war,” attested his son John, “even about his service.”[58]

Gene “Tarzan” Smith (1911-1986)

Sometime before the United States entered World War II, legendary paddler Gene “Tarzan” Smith came to know a son of the Alexander Hume Ford family who owned a yacht named the Altair. While Gene was on a long distance sailing trip on the Altair, a devastating storm struck. One of the crewmembers was lost, along with all belongings, and the yacht disabled. Fortunately, the remaining crewmembers, including Tarzan, were rescued by another ship and towed to Pago Pago. In New Zealand, without passports or money, Gene was taken in by the mother of noted actor and swimmer Jon Hall. He resorted to boxing as a way to earn money which eventually got him to Australia and then back to Hawai’i.[59]

Gene was married twice while at Waikiki – briefly both times, not surprisingly. His first marriage started off this way: due to his brawny good looks and water skills, he was able to land some small movie parts as a swimmer. While doing that, he met – amongst others – his first wife Evelyn Thorn, whom he married in 1937. Evelyn was a movie starlet of the time and notable for having taken the place of Faye Raye in the movie Tarzan. It’s possible that this may have been a contributory factor to the popularity of Gene’s nickname, but that is just conjecture on my part. At any rate, Gene’s marriage to Evelyn lasted only a short time.

Later, he met Katharyn Agness Billhardt when she was vacationing in Honolulu. They met and got to know each other for a short time before she had to go back to the U.S. Mainland. Not long afterwards, Katharyn returned aboard the steamship Lurline and Gene even paddled out to greet her. When her affluent father heard that his daughter planned to marry the infamous Gene “Tarzan” Smith, he threatened to disown her. Undaunted, she married Gene in 1941, anyway. She probably should have listened to her father, as the two divorced after only two years together.

Gene had just turned 30 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Switching from the beach to the pavement in an amazing twist of fate for a brawler, Gene got a job as a policeman in the Honolulu Police Department. While there, he became close friends with the sheriff. No doubt for other reasons as well, Gene ran afoul of his own fellow policeman by not only being the one haole on the force, but also the one closest to the sheriff.

One fateful night, Gene took a date to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and later dropped her off at home. While the night was still young in his mind, Tarzan went to a downtown bar for a few drinks with the sheriff. After the sheriff went home, Gene continued to drink until drunk. Four of his fellow H.P.D. officers caught him in an alley outside the bar and beat him brutally, breaking his jaw, one of his legs and causing a severe concussion to the head. It took four of them to do all this to a wasted Tarzan. Gene ended up in the hospital for a number of months and, according to his family, never fully recovered. His sister Phyllis said that this episode caused him to become deeply paranoid and schizophrenic from that point on.[60]

A local restaurant owner named Spence Weaver cared for Gene during his recovery and let him live on his boat moored at Ala Wai harbor. Gene had taught Weaver’s two sons how to surf.[61] A local attorney took up Gene’s case and sued the Territory of Hawaii successfully. Gene was awarded lifetime care, including medical, dental and lodging.[62]

With lifetime care awarded him but a life nevertheless severely beaten, Tarzan’s trail grew faint after World War II. It was not a short trail, but one of a good forty years more – most of which we know very little about. It was a time when the man who was a mystery even to his friends perhaps became a mystery to himself. Throughout the three decades spanning the early 1950s into the early 1980s, he remained a legend to those who knew of him and a loner to those who actually knew him.

It would appear that the first part of his remaining three decades was spent around Honolulu and the later part back in Southern California, where his life at the beach had begun.

“Doc” Ball (1907-2001)

On April 19, 1941, less than a year before the United States entered the war, Doc married Evelyn Young, an attractive registered nurse. Their first child Norman was born in 1942 and their second child John Jr. followed in 1943.[63]

“When the United States declared war in December 1941,” wrote Gary Lynch, “it broke the back of the California surfers’ life-style. The California surf clubs disbanded and almost every able-bodied man enlisted in the armed services. Many of the fascinating personalities of the 1930s would never be seen again. The war took some of the best men surfing had to offer, leaving a trail of waste and broken dreams. If not for the persistent efforts of Doc with his camera we may never have known what the life and times of the first wave of California surfers was like.”[64]

World War II certainly “Shut it out for a while,” Doc agreed. He, himself, joined the Coast Guard and became ship’s dentist on the U.S.S. General Hugh Scott, AP136. “His photographic skills soon became known,” Gary wrote, “and he was given a new Speed Graphic camera. As the official ship’s photographer he photographed much of the South Pacific.”[65]

“During September 1944,” Doc recalled a memorable moment during the war, “I got a big surprise. While I was out on the South Pacific someone said the new issue of National Geographic had my surfing photographs in it. Sure enough, there they were.”[66]

Doc credits Owen Churchill for helping provide some enjoyment during those war years, through his invention of the Churchill swim fins. “He was the one that did it,” Doc told me when I asked him if it was Frank Roedecker or Churchill who first invented the swim fin. “He [Churchill] came over here during World War II and I got acquainted with the guy. I got a couple of original fins from him.” He invented the swim fin “just before World War II,” Doc added, saying, “I think he was more of a diver than a surfer. He was of French origin, I believe… We’d take ‘em [swim fins] aboard ship. When I’d get out into that hot water of the South Pacific, why, I’d go diving and swimming and riding a wave or two; body surfin’. They were somethin’ else!”

“Granny” Grannis (1917-2010)

Just before the war began, at age 23, Granny got a job as a laborer at Standard Oil in El Segundo and worked his way up to boilermaker. In his free time, he continued to surf until World War II blew the entire California surfing scene apart.[67]

“We were down at the beach on December 7 of 1941,” Granny vividly remembers much in the same way a later generation surfer might remember where he or she was when we first landed on the moon or terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. “A whole bunch of us down there, right next to Hermosa Pier. I don’t 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.”[68]

In 1943, while his brother Don patrolled Malibu as a Marine, Granny joined the Army Air Force and trained to be a pilot. Toward the end of the war, he became a flight instructor. After the war, he toyed with becoming a commercial pilot, but opted to go back to Standard Oil. He then went to work for Pacific Bell Telephone, where he worked in management for 31 years before retiring in 1977.

Meanwhile, Granny and Katie had a family on their hands, which meant that surfing and hanging out at the beach became less of a priority than raising four kids.[69]

E.J. Oshier (1916-2007)

E.J. Oshier once told me proudly that San Onofre before the war was a “… procession of parties and surfing.”[70]

The “golden years” at San Onofre are generally considered by ‘Nofre veterans to have been between 1936 and 1943,[71] when the area was owned by Rancho Santa Margarita and leased as a fishing camp. “Back then it was part of Rancho Santa Margarita,” a later Nofre regular Stan King recalled, “and a guy named Frank at the Texaco station charged us a quarter to get in. We usually snuck in, and he’d swipe our clothes while we were out surfing and hold them until we paid the two bits.”[72]

“Believe me,” emphasized E.J., “Back before the war, at the [Palos Verdes] Cove and at San Onofre, the Aloha Spirit was very prevalent. Everybody knew everybody. Your friends were out in the water with ya! There weren’t that many other people. And, so everybody got along, rode their waves and went in and got a jug of wine or a guitar or ukelele and that was a good day.”

“Now, again, the Palos Verdes group were entirely different,” from the San O group, E.J. again emphasized. “We [in the Palos Verdes Surfing Club (PVSC)] used to have an annual dance, a ‘Hula Luau’ we called it… The San Onofre group would never do anything like that cuz they didn’t want to act as a group. They just wanted – they were all independent spirits and they didn’t want any part of an association type thing. Yet, they got along as well as the more formal PVSC guys. It was just a different approach.”

“Well, you know, I’m the kind of guy – if I like somebody, I can make them like me pretty well. And I really, really liked the PVSC guys… But, also, I could switch over to that crazy ‘Nofre bunch which were pretty goofy, you know. There were a lot of wild things [that went on].”[73]

“I was really unique – in a true sense – being a pivot,” E.J. said. “In the winter, I’d be exclusively with the PVSC guys and have a wonderful time and love ‘em all. Then, when summer came, I was down ‘Nofre and I was buddies with everybody down there and everybody loved me and I loved them. But, none of the other guys seemed to switch back – you know, have that ability to be right at home with both groups. That really was, I think, unusual… I got the best of both worlds.”[74]

[1] Timmons, 1994, p. 32.
[2] Timmons, 1994, p. 32.          
[3] Timmons, 1994, p. 32.
[4] Brennan, 1994, pp. 185,187 and 188.
[5] Longboard Magazine, Volume 11, Number 12, May/June 1997. Obituary by Sandra K. Hall. Nadine passed away on July 17, 1997.
[6] Timmons, 1994, p. 33. Nadine Alexander quoted.
[7] Brennan, 1994, pp. 185,187 and 188.
[8] Brennan, 1994, p. 189.
[9] Brennan, 1994, p. 195.
[10] Brennan, 1994, p. 201.
[11] Timmons, 1994, p. 32. Fred Hemmings quoted.
[12] SURFER Magazine, mid-1960’s interview with Duke Kahanamoku.
[13] SURFER Magazine, mid-1960’s (1963) interview with Duke Kahanamoku.
[14] SURFER Magazine, mid-1960’s (1963) interview with Duke Kahanamoku.
[15] SURFER Magazine, mid-1960’s (1963) interview with Duke Kahanamoku.
[16] SURFER Magazine, mid-1960’s (1963) interview with Duke Kahanamoku.
[17] SURFER Magazine, mid-1960’s (1963) interview with Duke Kahanamoku.
[18] SURFER Magazine, mid-1960’s (1963) interview with Duke Kahanamoku.
[19] SURFER Magazine, mid-1960’s (1963) interview with Duke Kahanamoku.
[20] Newspaper clipping, May 19, 1942, “Waikiki To ‘Wake’”. Tom hand wrote on it: “June 1942.” This section on Tom Blake taken from TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman.
[21] Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Interview, April 1988. Tom’s notations.
[22] Blake, Tom. “Log of Thomas E. Blake, Sp. 1/c, U.S. Coast Guard,” Tom’s short personal log.
[23] Blake, Tom. “Log of Thomas E. Blake, Sp. 1/c, U.S. Coast Guard,” Tom’s short personal log.
[24] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
[25] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
[26] Lynch, Gary. Biographical Sketch of Tom Blake. Tom’s own written notation.
[27] Blake, Tom. “Log of Thomas E. Blake, Sp. 1/c, U.S. Coast Guard,” Tom’s short personal log.
[28] Honolulu newspaper clipping, “Tom Blake Back,” 1945.     
[29] California Coastal Resource Guide, ©1987, State of California, p. 302.
[30] San Pedro News-Pilot, “Portuguese Bend Club Names Blake,” April 11, 1949, p. 9.
[31] Blake, Tom. “‘End of Season’ Swimming Pool Notes,” pubication “the News” unknown. 1947.
[32] Blake, Tom. “‘End of Season’ Swimming Pool Notes,” pubication “the News” unknown. 1947.
[33] Blake, Tom. “Swimming Pool has ‘Mile Club’ Activity,” publication unknown, August 14, 1947. Mike Eaton went on to become a renowned paddler and shaper.
[34] Blake, Tom. “Swimming Pool Closes After Successful Season,” Palos Verdes News, September 1, 1947. Tom noted he was then Director of Pool Activities, working at a rate of $200/month, from June 15 to September 1.
[35] Blake, Tom. “Swimming Pool Closes After Successful Season,” Palos Verdes News, September 1, 1947.
[36] California Coastal Resource Guide, ©1987, State of California, p. 302.
[37] Ball, John “Doc.” Early California Surfriders, ©1995, p. 41.
[38] Ball, John “Doc.” Early California Surfriders, ©1995, pp. 39-64.
[39] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, July 25, 1988, Washburn, Wisconsin. The Florida connection may have been the Whitmans.
[40] San Pedro News-Pilot, “Portuguese Bend Club Names Blake,” April 11, 1949, p. 9.
[41] See Portuguese Bend Club, Rancho Palos Verdes, announcement May 1950.
[42] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, June 26, 1988.
[43] San Francisco newspaper clipping, newspaper unknown, June 21, 1948.
[44] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Dudley Whitman, May 10, 2000.
[45] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tom Blake, April 16, 1989, Washburn, Wisconsin.
[46] Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Interview, April 1988. Tom’s notations.
[47] Blake, Tom. Postcard to Gary Lynch, October 29, 1986, from Washburn, Wisconsin.
[48] Lynch, Gary. Thomas Edward Blake Biography Interview, April 1988. Tom’s notes.
[49] Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, p. 7.
[50] Blake, Tom. Letter to Tommy Zahn, pp. 7-8.
[51] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
[52] Lynch, Gary. Interview with Tommy Zahn and Chauncy Granstrom, July 27, 1988.
[53] Zahn, Tommy. Letter to Gary Lynch, June 2, 1988. Some Rogers boards had the drain plug aft, some in the bow. Most were on the bow.
[54] James, 1996, p. 136. Don’s written caption to Pete Peterson and Jack Fuller at the Venice Pier, 1940, on p. 95.
[55] This section on Pete taken largely from LEGENDARY SURFERS Volume 3. See also Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 58.
[56] Lockwood, 2005-2006, pp. 58-59.             
[57] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 59.
[58] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 59. John Peterson quoted.
[59] Foster, Steven. “Gene ‘Tarzan’ Smith Pictorial Biography,” December 16, 2003. Power Point presentation. In Australia, John Hall’s mother, 30 years Gene’s senior, took him in until he could make it back to Hawai’i. This section on Tarzan is taken from LEGENDARY SURFERS Volume 3: The 1930s.
[60] Foster, Steven. “Gene ‘Tarzan’ Smith Pictorial Biography,” December 16, 2003.
[61] Foster, Steven. Email to Malcolm, January 3, 2004.
[62] Foster, Steven. “Gene ‘Tarzan’ Smith Pictorial Biography,” December 16, 2003. Some say Gene was let go by the Department because of how he roughly handled people in the line of duty. Given his personality, this probably went on to some degree, but was not the cause of his separation from the H.P.D.
[63] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with John “Doc” Ball, January 10, 1998.
[64] Lynch, Gary. “Doc Ball, Legendary Lensman,” April 10, 1990.
[65] Lynch, Gary. “Biograhical Sketch of Dr. John Heath Ball,” February 2, 1989. See also Gault-Williams. Doc was very specific on the vessel number. He said he’d never forget it: U.S.S. General Hugh Scott AP136.
[66] Lynch, Gary. “Doc Ball, Legendary Lensman,” April 10, 1990. Doc Ball quoted.
[67] Photo: Grannis -- Surfing’s Golden Age, 1960-1969, ©1998, p. XII.
[68] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with LeRoy Grannis, Carlsbad, California, 26 June 1999.
[69] Photo: Grannis -- Surfing’s Golden Age, 1960-1969, ©1998, p. XII.
[70] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with E. J. Oshier, October 10, 1998.
[71] Cowell, 1994, p. 14.
[72] Longboard, Volume 4, Number 5, November/December 1996, p. 18. Stan King quoted. Two bits equals one quarter ($0.25).
[73] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with E. J. Oshier, October 10, 1998. E.J. mentioned there was one PVSC guy he didn’t get along with, but I didn’t catch the name.
[74] Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with E. J. Oshier, October 10, 1998.

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