Welcome to this chapter in the LEGENDARY SURFERS series, part of Volume 4: The 1940s.
Even after World War II ended, wars and threats of war pervaded the post-war period. Civil wars raged in many areas, the Soviet Union was militarily forcing Eastern European countries to go communist, much of Asia was moving towards communism, and what came to be called “The Cold War” descended upon most of the world split between democratic and communist countries. The Cold War would go on for four decades.
The post World War II period included things like the U.S. testing of atomic bombs in one of the world’s most beautiful areas of the world: the South Pacific; the supersonic breaking of the sound barrier; flying saucers reported flying over the United States; the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls; Bell laboratories invention of the transistor; and by 1947, more than one million American war veterans enrolling in colleges under the U.S. “G.I. Bill of Rights.” Notable books published at this time included The Diary of Anne Frank (1947), Benjamin Spoc’’k’s Baby and Child Care (1946), Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Mickey Spillan’e’s I, the Jury (1947).1
“Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” was a popular song of the time2 and could also be said to represent the prevailing surfer attitude. Surfers certainly were not much concerned with things like the Cold War as much as they were riding waves and exercising their own kind of personal freedom. Possibly the only noteworthy international news that surfers could relate to was Thor Heyerdahl’s sailing of a raft, in 1947, from Peru to Polynesia in 101 days.3
If we consider people like Tom Blake and Sam Reid being the “first wave” of U.S. Mainland surfers to come to Hawaii during the 1920s; and if we consider Preston “Pete” Peterson, Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison, Gene “Tarzan” Smith and their peers being in the “second wave” during the 1930s; then the “third wave” of Californians to surf Hawaiian waters was comprised of the likes of Joe Quigg, Tommy Zahn, Matt Kivlin, Melonhead [Porter Vaughn] and Dave Rochlen in the late 1940s.4
“It was the late 1940s,” remembered legendary Hawaiian surfer Rabbit Kekai. “That’s when the first migration of what you call the haoles came. That was Joe Quigg, Tommy Zahn, Matt Kivlin, a guy they called Melonhead and Dave Rochlen. They were the first guys that brought down what we called the potato chip boards; the Simmons.”5
Revolutionizing surfboard design back on the Mainland in the period after the war, Bob Simmons was the man and his boards were thee machines. Quigg and Kivlin were associated with him and so it was natural that they were riding his designs. Both Quigg and Kivlin were shapers, themselves, and Quigg went on to become one of the great surfboard shapers of the 20th Century. He and Kivlin and the others would be largely responsible for the emergence of the “Malibu board,” which popularized the sport throughout the 1950s. But, at war’s end and the beginning of the closing of what Sir Winston Churchill, in 1946, labelled the “Iron Curtain,”6 Quigg and Kivlin were still the apprentices, while Simmons was the master.
“We were amazed to see them on those boards,” continued Rabbit, “they were just standing at the back end on them because they had those wide tails with just one skeg in the center or concave tails with twin fins. Rochlen and Quigg had twin fins. Kivlin had one of his own single finned boards with a narrower tail.”7
Rabbit was asked if the Hawaiians quit using the Hot Curls in favor of the Simmons boards. “No,” he replied. “We still used our own boards, but we tried those potato chip boards, and... my opinion was... they were mushers. Yeah. That’s what the Simmons were. They had concaves or were wide and flat in the back, with big bellies and kick in the nose. We tried ‘em, but they were mushers... good for doing slow turns and maneuvers. But... (chuckling) no speed.”8
A major factor in surfing’s post-war growth was this migration to Hawaii of hard-core surfers from California. The previous two waves of mainland surfer migrations, prior to the war, had been mild compared to this third. And the third was small compared to subsequent waves that occurred following the distribution of the first big wave photograph over international press services in 1953.
Once the mid-to-late 1940s Californians “rode the great north swell at Makaha, northwest of Waikiki,” wrote Ben Finney in 1960, “the rush from California really began. Since 1949 many Californians, as if proving Jack London’s prophesy, have taken up permanent residence in Hawaii, to be on hand when the surf is running. Many others make the 25000-mile trip annually to spend a month or so riding the towering fall and winter waves on Oahu’s north shore. This flow of Californians bringing new board designs and fresh riding techniques made a terrific impact on the Hawaiian sport. After the war, in fact, Hawaiian surfing was spurred by the combination of its enthusiastic internal growth with this stimulus from its nearest continental neighbor.”9
“A later key participant in this crucial cross-pollination ritual,” surf writer C. R. Stecyk wrote, “was Tom Zahn who arrived in Honolulu in 1947. He in turn immediately lured Joe Quigg, Dave Rochlen and Matt Kivlin to come down soon after. All were armed with provocative, finned balsa Malibu chip surfboards.”10 These wide tailed boards were immediately of interest to the Hawaiians. Quigg remembers a recurrent phrase of the day being repeatedly uttered, ‘Oh, all that balsa, what a waste.’ Rabbit, who personally befriended the Malibu set, rode their boards, but discounted them as ‘mushers.’ The varnished balsa pintail with pine center stringer sported by Quigg employed a dead flat bottom, 50/50 rails and a turned down hard rail in the tail. On his way back to the mainland aboard the S.S. Lurline, Quigg decided to cut the center out of his pintail and reattach the rails, thus making a narrower board.11
When Kivlin and Quigg returned to Malibu where they talked a lot about the speed of the finless hot curl boards. These reports, along with the 1948 arrival on the USA Mainland of Downing, Froiseth and Russ Takaki verified to many the viability of finless, hot curl surfing. It was on this trip that the Hawaiians met Bob Simmons who introduced them to his concepts of composite material construction using foam, wood and fiberglass.12
In 1949, Quigg returned to the Islands with a pared down balsa quiver. While on Oahu, he made some hot curl boards for himself, in Wally’s shop. Kivlin and Rochlen were also in and out of the scene with Dave hooking up an occasional old redwood plank which could be reshaped by himself, Matt or whoever, into a suitable hot curl.13
“Back on the coast,” continued Stecyk, “Quigg built a couple of demonstrator hot curls around 1949/50, ‘just to prove the point.’ One Kivlin project from this period, a redwood replica of Rabbit’s board was an absolute sinker. Joe remembers it as being ‘unpaddleable... at least for us.’ This board was then recycled into a trophy – hence the birth of the ‘Malibu Perpetual Surfboard.’ Around ‘51, Kivlin gave Rabbit a sleek, pulled-in, red colored, finned, balsa chipper which he had originally built for his wife. Kekai rode this board for several years winning both at Makaha and Peru. During this same period, Downing incorporated his high-speed, hot curl theories into a finned, fiberglassed balsa gun. For this board he created an experimental removable fin unit which allowed him to test fin shapes and placement. Wally Froiseth went on to become one of the pioneers of the surfing industry in Hawaii, creating guns as well as a series of innovative paipo boards under his Surf Shop Hawaii label.”14
The reality of the visiting Californians was Spartan. “I befriended Matt and Rochlen,” told Rabbit. “Then we got to know the rest of the guys and hang around together. A lot of times you wouldn’t believe it. No money. They’d come around shoe string, like with about 25 dollars apiece. For housing, they rented a garage from Dickie Cross.15 I think it was like ten dollars a month. This was Matt Kivlin, Melon, Joe Quigg, Dave Rochlen, Tom Zahn. They built bunks out of 2” X 4”s and kept their boards under their bunks and that’s where they lived, in that one little garage.”16
Funding schemes varied by surfer, but most all revolved around the beach. “In those days,” recalled Rabbit, “I had the board rental. How I got it was this man had put on an aquacades show at the Natatorium and they had painted all the surfboards florescent and after the show the guy was stuck with these twelve boards. So he wanted to sell ‘em and nobody had money but I had bucks then because I was... (Rabbit makes a dice throwing motion)... so I told him, ‘OK, a hundred bucks,’ and he said, ‘Sold!’ So I put them down at the banyan tree and we used to rent ‘em for like a dollar an hour. And I used to get bucks, boy. Quigg and the guys, if they’d like a dollar to go eat, I’d tell ‘em, ‘Rent three boards, gimme two, you take one.’ Matt Kivlin and those guys they’d just make the bucks enough to eat and that’s it. I used to live high on the hog off those boards though. I told everybody, ‘You need a dollar to go movie or somethin’ to eat, you know, rent three boards.’ We had a good trick in those days. [The rental] Boards were hollow and we used to put corks in the drain holes. We used to tell ‘em when they’d rent the board, ‘Don’t lose that cork or water will fill it up.’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, OK.’ And when you’d push ‘em out, you’d shove the damn thing and pull the cork out (laughing). And they’d paddle out but come right back in cause the board was so heavy. Shave the time. That’s how we’d do it.”17
The lifestyles were equally colorful. Again, Rabbit provides a somewhat less than honest example, but a comradely one: “I used to rent a place down by where Sonny Cunha lived, and on weekends I’d have about 15-16 guys all over the floor. Sometimes I’d come home and couldn’t find room on my bed. They’d sleep on top, under, on the floor, in the closet, in the bathroom, in the bathtub, all over. So I’d go over to my friends place and sleep there. My take off each day was about $70 or $80 [from the surfboard rental business] and I’d take about $20 and take all the guys I could to the Tavern for the $1.25 all-you-can-eat. And the other guys that don’t have any money they’d sit on the outside and we’d fill up da plate and pass ‘em over the wall. Ahhh, we had fun.”18
Walter Hoffman and his friends comprised the next wave of Coast haoles to come to O‘ahu, after Zahn, Quigg, Kivlin, Porter Vaughn and Rochlen.
Hoffman had started surfing Malibu in 1946 when he was going to school at Hollywood High. “Walt’s father,” wrote Steve Pezman in The Surfer’s Journal, “was in the printed fabric business, was selling to George Brangier and Nat Norfleet Sr. of Kahala (one of the original Hawaiian aloha shirt makers), who sent surfing pictures of Hawaii to young Walter. Also stimulating Walt’s interest in Hawaii were early conversations with Lorrin Harrison at San Onofre who had gone there in the ‘30s to surf.”19
“The first hard-core surf guys to hit Waikiki,” from the Mainland, declared Hoffman, “that I knew of, consisted of Pete Peterson, Lorrin Harrision and Tom Blake who went there before the war... In the next crew were Matt Kivlin, Joe Quigg, Dave Rochlen and Tom Zahn in about 1948 and we were right after them.”20
Hoffman and crew became, in essence, the Fourth Wave of Coast haoles to go Hawaiian in 1948. Hoffman and Ted Crane arrived in Waikiki in the Summer of 1948, having come across on the S.S. Lureline.
“Waikiki was about the only place anybody surfed in the islands at the time,” told Hoffman. “The day we got off the boat the surf was first break. Huge! George Downing took us out to outside Public’s.”21
Hoffman would return to O‘ahu each summer until he enlisted in the Navy and then fortuitously stationed in Hawaii.22
“Over the years during the summer months,” Hoffman wrote of the period 1948-49, “I rented different houses all over Waikiki and lived with different guys – had great times and adventures with them all.”23
Recalling one of the big events of 1949, Hoffman noted the 4th of July paddle race that year, “was one of the big confrontations in George Downing’s life! ‘Big Jimmy’ had been the paddling king of Waikiki until young George beat him in a sprint from the Outrigger Canoe Club to down the beach in front of the Waikiki Tavern. Big Jimmy refused to accept that George was faster, claiming that it was the equipment – that George had used a faster board. So Downing offered to switch boards and go again. According to George, on that second race he stayed close behind Big Jimmy on his left flank – then moved to his right, then passed him at the finish line. After that race, Big Jimmy reportedly quit paddling.”24
Hanging out with Walt Hoffman and friends at the Waikiki Surf Club in those days was Kui Lee, Reno Abellira’s uncle. Kui Lee, “was a young renegade kid who later became a famous song writer (‘I Remember You’ and ‘One Paddle, Two Paddle’),” recalled Walter, “but at the time just a kid who would surf with us and sang and played Hawaiian music with Chubby Mitchell. He died at a young age from cancer and became a legend bigger than life.”25
“When I first got to the islands,” Hoffman recalled, “I heard about Makaha. So I started going out there in the winter and found out that, shit man, the place got really big. Dave Mojas and myself were the first two California guys really actively surfing it three to four times a week for the entire winter. That was the year I took movies (which I still have). I also sent still pictures to Flippy (brother Phillip) and Buzzy [Trent] telling them to get over here – it’s bitchin. And Burrhead [Drever] saw those and all those guys came the next year for the winter, and we camped on the beach at Makaha. From then on for the next few years we would rent houses near Makaha for the winter and in Waikiki during the summertime.”26
World War II had interrupted the lives of most everyone in the “civilized” world and, in the case of surfing, put a lot of things on hold. Following the war, however, there was a resurgent interest in and some changes to how surfing was organized in its traditional early 20th Century capitol, Waikiki.
By the war’s end, the two main original Waikiki surf clubs had already changed considerably. The native Hui Nalu had limited its activities mostly to outrigger canoe racing. The upper scale, haole-dominated Outrigger Canoe Club had become more of an exclusive prestige-type establishment, “with a wide range of social and athletic interests.”27 So, in 1947, the Waikiki Surf Club was formed for the same reasons that the other two had originally been put together in the first decade of the century. “Its purpose,” wrote surfing historian Ben Finney, “was to promote surfing as well as other Hawaiian water sports. It provided board lockers and clothes changing facilities near the beach, for anyone who could pay the small initiation fee and monthly dues.”28
The Waikiki Surf Club filled a void, testified when, under the leadership of John Lind, it enrolled 600 members in three months – some of whom were California surfers that were just starting to come over to the Islands. “We had [island local] members like George Downing, Wally Froiseth, Russ Takaki,” recalled Walt Hoffman. “The Outrigger was down the beach, at $200 per month – a rich guy’s club, very exclusive, you had to be voted in. Our club was for the regular guys who surfed, so it was a great place to meet everybody – where all the transplant Californians hung out.”29
“The club was downstairs in the basement of this house... and consisted of some lockers, showers and a place to leave your board.”30 A local guy named Taka was club attendant around the time Hoffman and Ted Crane came over in 1948.31
The Waikiki Surf Club was followed by other newer clubs and the ongoing health of the older ones, but much of the post-war growth of surfing at Waikiki was due to the existence of the Waikiki Surf Club. The club did more than just provide a place for surfers to hang and keep their gear close to the beach. The club also initiated and sponsored several surfing and watermen events that stimulated public interest and fostered competition. Among these were: the Diamond Head Surfboard Championships, the Molokai-Oahu Outrigger Canoe Race, the Makapu Bodysurfing Championships, and what was to become famous as the first big wave surfing contest: the International Surfing Championships at Makaha.32
In the same building as the club “was the Waikiki Tavern,”33 recalled Walter Hoffman – “watering hole, hangout and ‘cultural center’ for the transplant surfers from California.”34
The Tavern’s hey day as surfer sanctuary spanned, perhaps, no more than the decade of the 1940s. Certainly, by the beginning of the 1950s, the Tavern was history. Rabbit Kekai said that, “when the Tavern went, everything went. They had a bar they called the Merry-go-round Bar. It was like a boxing ring, fights every night. The Waikiki Surf Club was upstairs and next to that was Woody Brown’s house. They tore it all out at the same time and left flat beach, that’s where the Duke statue now stands.”35
Woody Brown, his second wife Rachel – aka “Ma Brown” – and their two kids “lived over the Waikiki Tavern,” continued Rabbit. “The Waikiki Surf Club was down on the side, where Woody, Wally, myself, John Linn were charter members, everybody was there. So, he [Woody] used to stay up there and he used to take care of us kids, my brother Jamma and I. In certain ways we took care of him and in certain ways he and Maw took care of us.”36
An influential surfer/shaper active but rarely mentioned from the 1940s and the decade before is Abel Gomes. Wally Froiseth wrote to his son about Abel in 2010, noting that “Abel, his wife and two sons (Allen and Pat) lived next door to us in Waikiki… Abel was a master woodworker… made the first set of scooped canoe paddles for outrigger canoe racing… made the first hollow boards for Tom Blake using Blake’s designs… worked for Honolulu Sash and Door as a cabinetmaker.”37
“Honolulu Sash and Door got a big contract to build housing projects for the military… Abel came up with the idea to prefabricate the pieces of the houses at the warehouse and in so doing saved time and money for Honolulu Sash and Door… which really impressed the company owners…”38
One day Wally decided to re-varnish the Waikiki Surf Club’s now-legendary koa racing canoe the “Malia.” Working on it right on Waikiki Beach, he and some other paddlers took off all the old varnish. They went to lunch leaving the canoe in the midday sun. Returning to the beach they found an 8 foot long by 2 inch wide crack in the bottom of the koa canoe. Wally was heartbroken by the crack in the beautiful koa canoe and consulted with Abel. Abel told him not to worry about it and bring it down to the warehouse at Honolulu Sash and Door. They put it in the warehouse and several days later returned to find that the crack had closed up to about a half an inch width. Then Abel, the master woodworker, was able to use his woodworking skills to close up the rest of the crack and glue it back together. This event inspired Wally, himself, to get more interested in woodworking.39
At one point, Abel lifted up his house in Waikiki and made it a two-story when he needed more room for the family. Later, when he moved his family to Kaimuki, George Downing moved in and rented Abel’s house.
Abel decided he was going to move to California which offered better job opportunities for him. Wally mentioned that Abel gave him a bunch of woodworking and other tools that he did not want to take with him to the Mainland. Among these tools was an old drawknife that was collapsible and a hand drill and a set of augers. “Wally gave these to me a couple of years ago with some other old woodworking tools,” added Wally’s son Teene.
Wally mentioned that Abel’s son Alan really enjoyed the ocean. Often, Alan would go surfing, spearfishing, and canoe paddling with Wally. Wally noted that Abel’s son Pat was a little bit shy and when he was younger wasn’t into the ocean as much as his brother was. Wally added that when Pat got older he became a really good surfer and loved riding big waves at Waimea Bay.40
Abel did take his family to California where they did well, working with Dale Velzy, amongst others. His son Alan won the first and second Junior Mens competition at Makaha in 1954 and 1955. First glassing for Jacobs and Velzy in Venice, Alan went on to become a well-known shaper in his own right.
1 Grun, 1991, pp. 524-527.
2 Grun, 1991, p. 527.
3 Grun, 1991, p. 527.
4 Stecyk and Pezman, “Rabbit Kekai -- Talking Story,” 1994, p. 68.
5 Stecyk and Pezman, “Rabbit Kekai -- Talking Story,” 1994, p. 68.
6 Grun, 1991, p. 524.
7 Stecyk and Pezman, “Rabbit Kekai -- Talking Story,” 1994, p. 68.
8 Stecyk and Pezman, “Rabbit Kekai -- Talking Story,” 1994, p. 68.
9 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 73.
10 Stecyk, “Hot Curl,” 1994, p. 72.
11 Stecyk, “Hot Curl,” 1994, p. 72.
12 Stecyk, “Hot Curl,” 1994, p. 72.
13 Stecyk, “Hot Curl,” 1994, p. 72.
14 Stecyk, “Hot Curl,” 1994, p. 72.
15 Rabbit must have Dickie confused with his brother or someone else, because Dickie died in 1943 and the third wave didn’t happen until after the war (1947).
16 Stecyk and Pezman, “Rabbit Kekai -- Talking Story,” 1994, p. 68. Rabbit may have been referring to Dickie Cross’ existing garage, as he had died at Waimea in 1943. See Gault-Williams, “Woody Brown.”
17 Stecyk and Pezman, “Rabbit Kekai -- Talking Story,” 1994, p. 68.
18 Stecyk and Pezman, “Rabbit Kekai -- Talking Story,” 1994, p. 68.
19 Hoffman, 1993, p. 79. Intro by Steve Pezman (?).
20 Hoffman, 1993, p. 79.
21 Hoffman, 1993, p. 79.
22 Hoffman, 1993, p. 79. Quigg and others started coming over in 1947.
23 Hoffman, 1993, p. 82.
24 Hoffman, 1993, p. 86. See classic photo, on page 87, of George Downing and Big Jimmy shaking hands, with George holding the trophy and Big Jimmy looking like he was hating life. In the crowd are Walter, Ted Crane, John Lind and Termite.
25 Hoffman, 1993, p. 85. See photo of Kui Lee strumming his uke in front of the Waikiki Surf Club.
26 Hoffman, 1993, p. 79.
27 Finney, Ben R. and Houston, James D. Surfing, The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, C.E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont, ©1966, p. 72.
28 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 72.
29 Hoffman, Walter. “Tales of Town and Country,” Walter Hoffman’s Scrapbook (The Early Years: 1948-1954), The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 2, Number 2, Summer 1993, p. 85. See photos.
30 Hoffman, 1993, p. 85. See photos.
31 Hoffman, 1993, p. 85. See photo same page.
32 Finney and Houston, 1966, pp. 72-73.
33 See Gault-Williams, “World War II,” Dorian Paskowitz’s description.
34 Hoffman, 1993, p. 89.
35 Stecyk and Pezman, “Rabbit Kekai -- Talking Story,” 1994, pp. 68-69.
36 Stecyk and Pezman, “Rabbit Kekai -- Talking Story,” 1994, p. 75.
37 Wally Froiseth to Teene Froiseth, December 24, 2010. Abel misspelt “Able,” throughout.
38 Wally Froiseth to Teene Froiseth, December 24, 2010.
39 Wally Froiseth to Teene Froiseth, December 24, 2010. Teene’s words, slightly edited.
40 Wally Froiseth to Teene Froiseth, December 24, 2010. Teene’s words, slightly edited.