On December 7, 1941, a California surfer named Don James set the autotimer on his camera and took a photo of himself and two friends standing with their boards in front of a rented bungalow at Topanga Beach, near Malibu. “Sixty bucks a month rent, split three ways,” James said more than fifty years later, looking at the image. “Right about then news came over the radio about Pearl Harbor, and suddenly everything changed. We all looked at each other, and we all knew we were going off to war.”
Nearly every able-bodied surfer over the age of seventeen enlisted, and within six months American lineups were close to empty. Hawaii, in particular, was transformed. Martial law was declared across the islands. The Lurline, the Mariposa, and the rest of the elegant creamy-white fleet of Matson ocean liners that for years had delivered tourists to Honolulu were commandeered by the US Navy. Razor wire was unspooled around the beach perimeter at Waikiki and Makaha to guard against the expected amphibious landing of Japanese forces, the entire Royal Hawaiian Hotel was leased out as a Pacific Fleet R&R center, and gun emplacements were built on the slopes of Diamond Head. Further, it was rumored that soldiers would direct a blast of machine-gun fire over the head of any surfer who lingered in the water past curfew.
In Australia, the war further burnished the already heroic reputation of the nation’s surf lifesavers. A 1941 newsreel included shots of Bondi Surf Club members while a solemn voice-over noted that surf clubs had “an enlistment record second to none” and were “the crucible from which fighting material emerges.” Manly Surf Club alone placed 271 members in the service during the war; to fill the void, women were recruited into surf lifesaving and sometimes even given beach-patrol responsibilities. Australia was also an active combat zone: Japanese fighters repeatedly bombed the Northern Territory port city of Darwin, over a half dozen merchant vessels were sunk off the east coast, and twenty-one sailors were killed in a daring midget sub raid on Sydney Harbor.
In California, surfboard production came to a near-halt as building materials of every kind were claimed by the military. A Long Beach surf break named Flood Control—the most popular spot between Palos Verdes and San Onofre—was destroyed when the Army Corps of Engineers surrounded the area with a huge Pacific Fleet-protecting breakwater. The Coast Guard built a station at Malibu and put a barbed-wire fence around the point; two or three Coast Guard surfers had permission to ride there, but Malibu’s perfect waves were otherwise off-limits for the duration. Same with San Onofre, now part of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base. The Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships were cancelled. Rationing made surf travel a lot harder: government-issued coupon books allowed most civilians just four gallons of gas a week, and a lightly-enforced but still annoying “Victory Speed Limit” was set at 35 miles per hour. Night driving wasn’t illegal, but using headlights was.
Most American surfers enlisted in either the navy (which then included the Coast Guard) or the marines, and their wartime experience, like that of soldiers everywhere, was generally mundane and occasionally tragic or heroic. Palos Verdes Surf Club founder John “Doc” Ball was a dentist on a Coast Guard transport ship. Navy man Charlie Butler, another PVSC member, went down with the USS Edsall during the Battle of Java Sea. The peripatetic Tom Blake, by then a forty-year-old Miami Beach lifeguard, became a Coast Guard dog handler. Naval Petty Officer Pete Peterson did at-sea repair work on battle ships and destroyers in the Philippines.
John Kelly and Fran Heath served together on a navy escort ship in the South Pacific; their easygoing captain let them to travel with their boards and granted them wave-riding shore leave at Midway Island and Christmas Island. Later, both surfers did underwater demolition work, and Kelly received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for recovering an unexploded submarine torpedo. The day after Pearl Harbor, Kelly, then a Naval Reservist, began a two-week detail crisscrossing the oil-blackened waters of the harbor in search of dead bodies, which he loaded two at a time into plywood boxes.
Woody Brown, a pacifist and registered conscientious objector, remained in Hawaii, surfing and riding his bike—but terror and death found him anyway. On December 22, 1943, Brown drove across the island to the North Shore with a gung-ho high school surfer named Dickie Cross. Then thirty-one, Brown had remarried and was living in a rented apartment above the Waikiki Tavern, a plank-walled beachside eatery that would soon become the favorite gathering place for visiting California surfers. Cross was a headstrong seventeen-year-old from a moneyed Honolulu family; he was on Christmas break during his junior year at Punahou, Hawaii’s best and most expensive private school.
Arriving at Sunset Beach in the midafternoon, Brown and Cross rushed out into what appeared to be ten- or twelve-foot surf. Approaching the lineup, they realized that it was much bigger—too big, in fact. Without catching a single wave, both surfers turned their boards around for a quick retreat to shore, and discovered that the outgoing current in the channel was too strong to paddle against. Again turning around, they sprinted hard to make it over the top of a fringing twenty-footer, only to see the ominous blue-black ribbons of an even bigger set in the middle distance. Ten minutes later, safe for the moment and a half mile offshore, Cross and Brown realized that all routes to the beach were now filled with huge, impassable lines of whitewater. Brown suggested they first move out even further, as a precaution, then paddle three miles west to Waimea Bay, where the North Shore’s deepest channel might still offer a clear passage to the beach. Forty-five minutes later, approaching Waimea, Cross peeled off and aimed for the bay’s eastern point, ignoring Brown’s yelled order to hold back until they’d lined up a straight shot down the middle of the bay.
Sure enough, Cross was caught on the shoreward side of a breaking wave and lost his board, at which point he began swimming furiously toward Brown. But an even bigger set was coming, and Brown, hoping to clear it, had to paddle away from Cross, who was now shouting for help. The first wave lumbered up to vertical, fifty feet from trough to crest, twice the size of anything Brown had ever faced. He didn’t have a chance. On autopilot as the crest folded over, Brown shoved his board away and swam down until the water pressure clamped onto his eardrums, waited until the concussive force passed by overhead, then stroked for the surface. He had time for two or three ragged breaths, and it was back down for the next wave. Then another. And another. Each time Brown managed to get deep enough to avoid the worst of the turbulence. After the fourth wave, he finally surfaced into calm water.
Gasping and light-headed, further out to sea than he’d been just a few minutes ago, Brown looked back toward shore as the set’s final wave churned up the beach, the entire bay now carpeted in a thick residue of foam. Cross had vanished. Brown floated for a moment, taking stock. The late afternoon was turning to dusk, and he wouldn’t survive the night even if he positioned himself even further offshore. There was no choice. He began to swim for the beach, intending to put himself in the path of the next two or three sets. By not avoiding the whitewater, he hoped that he’d be pushed to shore before he drowned. That’s exactly what happened. Fifteen minutes later, tumbling forward naked on a shorebreak wave—his trunks long since ripped away—Brown dug his hands and feet into the sandy Waimea berm and began crawling. He was immediately pulled to safety by a group of soldiers who’d spotted Brown from the highway and rushed down.
Brown was hospitalized overnight, and for two or three years refused to go back to that side of the island. Cross’s body was never found. His death, and the unimaginable two-hour lost-at-sea horror show that the two surfers experienced beforehand, became a cornerstone for what the next generation of big-wave surfers often called the “North Shore voodoo.”
In peacetime, Dickie Cross’s drowning would have been headline news. As it was, he got three short paragraphs on the Honolulu Star-Bulletin obituary page. Soldiers were dying the world over. German factories were in flames along the Rhine, US Navy destroyers were fanning out across the South Pacific, and a million American servicemen were drilling in the UK for what promised to be some kind of huge European offensive. These were the things that Hawaii and the rest of the country were paying attention to.
Meanwhile, for those few hundred GI surfers in foxholes, barracks, tents, tanks, mess halls, and airfields around the world (including Jack Cross, Dickie’s older brother, stationed on Midway Island), surfing and all its attendant pleasures became a daydream; a favorite subject for homesick can’t-wait-to-get-back letters to friends and family. In these letters, soldier-surfers often touched on noble aims like freedom and democracy. But they lingered on things that were less ideological, more immediate and personal—a speedy return to Bondi, or Waikiki, or Malibu, and a mad dash for the surf. This was a form of patriotism, too; a longing for the everyday pleasures that peace and free society allowed.