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Some WWII California Surfers



World War II put surfing in a kind of suspended animation. There were guys surfing when they could, but most everyone was involved in the war effort on some level and the war took everyone’s time – one way or the other:


“Convertible” Larry


“Convertible Larry was a veritable unsolved mystery,” Don James wrote of a San Onofre regular during the summer of 1942. “On Friday nights he’d arrive at San Onofre driving a LaSalle convertible and wearing a business suit. No one was sure what Larry was involved with back in the city during the week, but his hedonist orientation on the weekends was unparalleled. One day we found out that his car trunk was filled with Leica cameras and Leitz lenses. All of this equipment was sitting in velvet-lined boxes and was worth a fortune. Stuff from the German Leitz factory was rare before the conflict and during the war nobody wanted to be anywhere near it. Larry never was seen taking a picture, and he professed to know nothing about photography. It was a sign of the times that false rumors began to circulate that Convertible Larry was a Nazi spy.”[1]


Freddy Zehndar


“Freddy was an impressive character who used to execute flat swan dives [into the surf]… in a couple of inches of water, to amaze the young lovelies,” recalled Don James. “He was an Olympic team swimmer during the 1920s, and he later worked as the head stunt diver on the [1970s] movie Jaws.”[2]

“Freddy Zehndar… was a newsreel cameraman for the Fox Movietone News in 1928, and he filmed the Panay incident, where the U.S. Marines fired upon a Chinese vessel. The resulting furor almost started a war. The Hollywood theatrical film The Sandpebbles was based upon the occurrence.” [3]


Jack Quigg


“Jack Quigg… was a superlative athlete,” wrote Don James. “Once at UCLA, Quigg was goofing around in the broad jump pit, when a football flew over from the adjacent field where the varsity team was working out. Jack was barefooted, and he kicked the ball in a perfect high spiral arc all the way to the end of the other field. It was a magnificent feat. The head coach came running over immediately and asked Quigg to come out and join the squad. Jack ignored the coach and uttered some undecipherable grunt and walked away. The coach was quite taken aback; here was this incredible prospect who wouldn’t even acknowledge his offer. We used to call Quigg ‘Indian Jack’ because he was so stoic; he never said much of anything.”[4]


Joe and Jack Quigg, 1932

Jackie Coogan


“Jackie Coogan was an actor who’d earned a fortune as a child star,” wrote Don James. “As an adult he had to sue his parents for misappropriation of his funds. He didn’t receive a lot, but because of his case, there are now laws protecting minors’ wages. Coogan was relatively philosophical about the fiasco, and he was able to live in the Malibu Colony, where he surfed regularly. Back then, Malibu Point was fenced off and there was no public access. Since Jackie’s house in the Colony was just a couple of hundred feet from the best waves in the world, he considered himself to be extremely fortunate. Coogan let us come up to his house and surf, and he remained a great guy despite the emotional rollercoaster he was on. In later years, when Jackie’s career had resurrected itself and he had become a highly recognizable star… we would laugh about those quiet times in the Colony…”[5]

“Jackie used to bring his wife, [Hollywood star] Betty Grable, with him to San Onofre, and she would complain constantly, saying things like ‘get me off this filthy beach.’ We were never sure what reception might await us when we walked through the couple’s Malibu Colony house on our way to Surfrider Beach. One day Coogan had sold all of Grable’s furniture without her permission and then used the proceeds to purchase a new Mercury convertible. Jackie’s transgression instigated a tremendous argument. He came out in the water to surf and said, ‘Well, boys, it looks like I’m going to have some extra time on my hands; I think I’ll chrome my new motor.’ I never saw Betty again,” wrote Don James, “except as a pin-up on other sailor’s foot lockers.”[6]


Eddie McBride


“McBride was a surveyor who bought a new Dodge every year on the second of January, like clockwork,” recalled Don James. “He possessed a lucrative contract from the federal government’s Geological Survey to take depth soundings along the entire coast. The fact that Eddie rowed a dory eight hours a day, five days a week, during the course of his work also meant that he was in phenomenal physical condition.[7]


Mary Kerwin Reihl (1912-2004)


Mary (Kerwin) Reihl – or “Mimi” as she was better known to her family and friends – was an early California female surfer. Born in 1912, Mary Kerwin was among the first generation of children from her family to be born and raised in Hermosa Beach. Her grand uncle, Bernard “Ben” Hiss, was an early real estate entrepreneur in the South Bay area, who was on the original Board of Trustees that was responsible for incorporation of the City of Hermosa Beach in 1907. Her father, John Kerwin, emigrated from Ireland in 1905. After meeting Mary Emma Hiss in Hermosa and then marrying her, he started the family bakery business in Hermosa Beach in 1910.

Mary/Mimi was the second of nine children born at the family residence and bakery business on Pier Avenue, less than a half block from the beach. “You could spit out the window at the water, and that was our playground,” recalled Mimi’s brother Ted. She attended Ocean View School in Hermosa Beach, which was located at the crest of the sand dunes, near the current location of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Monterrey Boulevard. Although the little town of Hermosa Beach was growing rapidly at the time, the town center and surrounding residential area essentially consisted of an expanse of sand that was the landward extension of the adjoining beach area. With the ocean as a backyard, it was only natural that Mary and her siblings would get into the ocean. She was a natural athlete, and although she was generally the only female surfing her home break, she didn’t feel particularly special or unique because that was just one of the family activities when you lived at the beach.

“We were born and raised with our feet in the ocean, all nine of us,” said Mimi’s sister Emma Halibrand. As kids, Ted Kerwin recalled, they rode waves on everything from belly boards made of scrap lumber to discarded wooden ironing boards before progressing to much larger and heavier paddleboards and solid-wood surfboards.

Mary graduated from Redondo Union high School in 1931, and married Ward Reihl, a Southern California Gas Company employee, three years later at Saint James Church in Redondo Beach.

In 1934, Mimi’s older brother John founded the Hermosa Beach Surfing Club, whose 14 original members included their brothers Joe, Jim, Fred and Ted. Mary, however, could not join. It was a strictly male organization, although she represented the club in contests.
When Riehl started surfing in the 1930s, the sight of a woman riding the waves was a rarity. “There were very, very few women surfers,” said Ted Kerwin. “It wasn’t the thing to do for many women.”

“She was the best I saw at that time, which wasn’t really that earth shaking,” said Mimi’s other surviving brother, Jim Kerwin, a resident of Oak View, near Ojai. “She just rode straight in; there were no fancy maneuvers like they do today.”

The gregarious Riehl -- “I always called her Molly-O because she was a typical Irish gal,” said brother Ted, adding that she loved all sports and was an avid tennis player. “She was in the middle of everything.”

Mary, her sister Emma and a few of the other local ladies represented Hermosa Beach in the women’s division of the surfing and paddling competitions during the 1930s and early 1940s. Although Mary and Ward’s daughter, Joan, was born in 1936, Mary continued to represent Hermosa Beach, and won the prestigious Pacific Coast Surfing Championship that was held in Long Beach in 1939.

Jim Kerwin still has the 12-foot, 65-pound paddleboard he made out of pine and quarter-inch plywood for Mimi in 1939. It’s the same board she used to win the Pacific Coast Surfing Championship in Long Beach. She also used it to compete in other contests, including the 1939 national paddleboard and surfing championship in Long Beach: She placed first in the women’s division for the quarter-mile national paddleboard championship, with a time of four minutes, 32 seconds.

Mary’s second child, Robert, was born in 1941, shortly before the departure of most surfers, including her five brothers, to serve during World War II. With the attention of the country directed to the war, the surfing scene in Southern California had a general hiatus for several years. Although Mary’s affection and family ties to the beach continued, her children and family became her primary focus and her surfing career was relegated to a past of pleasant memories.

Mary/Mimi continued to surf after her two children were born, but gave it up after World War II. Her nephew, Scott Kerwin, said that when quizzed about her early surfing days at family reunions, his aunt wasn’t much interested in the subject. “She was more interested in what was going on now than what was going on in the past,” he said.

Mary remained a “kid at heart” throughout her long life, and is remembered as never being far from a good time, which combined to make her a favorite with the younger generations of her large family and extended family.

In recognition of her “pioneer” status in the sport of surfing in Hermosa Beach, Mary was inducted into the Hermosa Beach Surfers Walk of Fame in March 2003, along with four of her brothers. At the time, Mimi was too ill to attend the ceremony, but Ted Kerwin said, “she thought it was fantastic.”

Mary/Mimi Kerwin Riehl passed away at the age of 91, on March 16, 2004.[8]



Still Others


There were other surfers around during World War II who had either achieved legendary status – like Pete Peterson – or would become – like Dave Rochlen:

“Nobody loved the ocean better than I did,” declared Rochlen in an interview done in the early 1960s. While serving in the U.S. Navy, “All through the war I slept on top of the deck with my fins in my pack and my arm through the pack straps. I figured if the ship got blown up, at least I might have a chance. All I want is half a chance – I might be able to last longer with fins – might even be able to take a couple of guys with me.”[9]

Manhattan Beach local Dale Velzy joined the Merchant Marines. At one point, while stationed in Guam, Velzy scrounged up some plywood and built a hollow paddleboard/surfboard. He paddled and rode it in Guam, Malaysia and Australia. On one memorable night of darts, beer and Aussie “sheilas,” Velzy gave the board away.[10]

Another surfer wave-born in the 1930s and, like Velzy, would end up making a significant contribution to surfing was Jack Quigg’s brother Joe. Although not dramatic, Joe Quigg’s leave from military duty in the summer of 1944 put Quigg in contact with some of the key surfers who would end up affecting not only him but most all California surfers by the early 1950s:

“I was in the Navy during the war,” retold Quigg, “and I came home to Santa Monica on leave that year. Right after I got home, I drove up to Malibu to surf, and though the waves were good that day, there were only three guys out. One was a guy with a withered arm named Bob Simmons, and the other two were kids named Buzzy Trent and Matt Kivlin.”[11]

Matt Kivlin had just been introduced to surfing by the husband of his mom’s sister. Preston “Pete” Peterson introduced the 14 year-old from Santa Monica to the wonders of Malibu on July 2, 1944.[12]

Peterson’s doings are especially worth noting. One instance was documented by Stecyk, about September 6, 1944:

“A ruler edged rolling seven foot south caresses the empty point [Malibu]. Pete Peterson gazes longingly at the surf through the barbed wire enclosure which surrounds the Malibu Point Coast Guard facility. This government base is guarded 24 hours a day and impenetrable. Peterson resolves to go elsewhere and turns to leave when he spies a lone surfer eagerly running up the point. Dale Velzy, the patriot, has somehow convinced the base commander to honor his merchant seaman’s papers as an access pass to the surf. Pete is incensed... after all, at least when Don Grannis surfed there he was stationed there... but this was an outrage. Peterson waves at Velzy and leaves laughing, admiring the Hawk’s superior artistry. Following his go-out, Dale manages to enjoy a sumptuous repast of roast beef and ice tea, courtesy of the base mess hall. Not bad in an era of severe rationing.”[13]

In recalling his beginnings as a surfer and a shaper, Velzy said, “One of the first surfboards I ever used belonged to someone I didn’t even know. I found it sitting along the side of someone’s house on 6th Street in Hermosa Beach. I used it every day one summer, until my dad, who was a lifeguard at Hermosa, agreed to help me make my own board.

“We lived next door to Hoppy Swarts and Leroy Grannis, two surfers from the thirties. My dad made my first board off the design of their boards. I was eight or nine at the time. Not long after he’d made it, I ran into the pier on it and split it down the center. In those days, this would happen quite a bit. We’d just glue it back together, bolt it and put a cork in over the bolt. After you broke these boards a few times, they got a little waterlogged, so you’d have to bring them in and reshape them. That’s what got me started shaping and designing boards. I became real interested in design, in making the boards work better, according to a person’s weight and style.

“Eventually, other guys started asking me to make changes to their boards. We didn’t have fiberglass then. We didn’t even varnish the boards. We’d get splinters, but we’d just take them out and keep surfing. It was a while before my dad would loan me his good tools to try my hand at shaping balsa wood. My best board was the second redwood I made for myself. I was in the Merchant Marines, and went off to the war in ‘44. I left my board with a friend, Ed Edgar, and told him that he was the only person who could ride it while I was gone. I came home to find out that someone had stolen the board.

“It took a lot of finesse to ride those old redwoods. They were like old Cadillacs on a freeway – a real smooth ride, and everyone got out of your way.”[14]





[1] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 136. Don James written caption to image on p. 94.
[2] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 124. Don James written caption to image on p. 32.
[3] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 131. Don James written caption to image on p. 69.
[4] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 124. Don James written caption to image on p. 34. See also other images featuring Jack Quigg and contemporaries.
[5] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 124. Don James written caption to image on p. 36.
[6] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, pp. 128-129. Don James written caption to image on p. 58.
[7] James, Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 125. Don James written caption to image on p. 39.
[8] SurferMag Bulletin Board, 3/28/2004.
[9] Grissim, John. Pure Stoke, ©1982, Harper and Row, New York, p. 20. Dave Rochlen quoted.
[10] Young, 1983, 1987, p. 73.
[11] Lueras, 1984, p. 111. Joe Quigg.
[12] Stecyk, “Humaliwu,” 1992, p. 36.
[13] Surfer, Volume 33, Number 12. Researched by C.R. Stecyk, p. 40.
[14]  Noll, Greg and Gabbard, Andrea.  DA BULL: Life Over the Edge, by Greg Noll and Andrea Gabbard, © 1989.  North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California.  Dale Velzy’s recollections, pp. 25-26.

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