Surfing and the Vietnam War

During and after the Vietnam War, a group of soldiers found a way to free their minds and bodies from the atrocities of the battlefield through surfing
Surfing and the Vietnam War

Photography Sandro Baebler

The vietnam war took a profound toll on the U.S., both in terms of lives and societal turmoil: Approximately 2.7 million Americans served in the war, and over 58,000 died—mostly in their late teens and early 20s. It was the 1960s. Counterculture roiled stateside as bombs dropped in Asia. A handful of soldiers somehow found a way to surf in Vietnam—some at China Beach, just east of Da Nang, others at their own smaller outposts. Brief moments on the water became a way to leave the battlefield behind, regain some of the joys of home and enter a realm that was, and still is, more serene.

This Memorial Day (May 29), Oceanside’s California Surf Museum will open an exhibition dedicated to these very soldiers, the men who rode waves away from the front line, and used surfing to escape the horrors of combat. Here, we meet five of them, all of whom are now in their late 60s and early 70s, and who still surf regularly in Southern California.

Rick Thomas

Born in Hawaii, 71-year-old Rick Thomas served in the Navy’s River Assault Group, stationed in Chu Lai. He has become one of the founding fathers of stand-up paddleboarding, all the while helping heal veterans through surfing. His tattoo of a surfboard crossed with an M16 rifle is a constant reminder of surfing during the Vietnam War.

I remember looking at the river mouth in Vietnam and seeing perfect surf: Back here there’s war going on, but then I would see these perfect waves.

The first time I went to China Beach, I was out body surfing. I come up and this guy turns ’round, and it’s one of my friends from Ventura. I couldn’t believe he was there. I told him that I’d tried to get one of the lifeguards to let me use one of the boards. My friend from Ventura took care of it, he hooked me up. We became a tribe there.

It was strange: there we were on this beach, choppers flying up and down and all this craziness. There’s a war going on, and I’m in the water surfing. Sitting in the water, it felt like you were in the safest place.

Music and surfing gave me such relief during the war. It would take you back and put you right back in the world. If someone sent you a Surfer magazine, you could have people pay you money to read that sucker. There was that duality between keeping focus on your job and needing to break away and go into this other world.

Since the war, I’ve worked for 18 years in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. I was one of the founders of treating post-traumatic stress. I wrote the first comprehensive treatment plan for PTSD. Today, we know that being on the water helps with traumatic brain injuries. We put veterans on a surfboard and they’re able to do things they weren’t able to do before. It’s also about getting a positive adrenaline rush. Surfing is my heart and my soul. My respect for the ocean keeps growing, I’m still learning. My dream is to die in the ocean.

Kurt McFadden

Before his U.S. Army deployment in Vietnam at Chu Lai, McFadden, now age 68, would surf at Dana Point and Huntington Beach, California. He was lucky enough to get one poignant day of surfing in Vietnam, which he’ll remember forever.

I was in a 14-man recon platoon deep in the field. The recon platoons were bait—you walked around until they attacked you. That’s what my job was. We had hand grenades thrown at us; we once found a freshly dug hole with a machine gun in it. If we’d have run across the rice paddy, we would have all been killed. I didn’t think I would come home.

The United Service Organizations [which provided recreation-type services to U.S. uniformed military personnel] had two surfboards, which surprised me. They said they needed the surfboards “to help save lives,” but I know they just wanted to surf. The waves were small, but I rented one, and that’s when I taught one of my friends to surf. He was from Chester, Illinois. He had never been to the beach before. He didn’t do very well, but we had a lot of fun. He died in battle the following day.

I believe tons and tons of surfers got drafted to the army. Throughout the war, it was fun to find other surfers, even if you couldn’t go surfing with them. In our hooch, we had a surfing guide drawn on the door. It was my life. It’s special to be on a wave. It calms you down. Surfing has always been part of my life, and it’s been part of my life since I came home.

Bruce Blandy

Now 69, the California native enlisted with the U.S. Navy and went to Cua Viet, Vietnam, as part of the Brown Water, Black Berets task force. His command’s mission was to help keep the jungle-lined rivers open for supply deliveries.

I was on a small base. Our perimeter was secure as could be: We had concertina wire and dogs. You just didn’t venture out. I was blessed that my surf break was in the perimeter of my base. I remember looking at the [Song Thach Han] river mouth and the break and I thought “Wow, this has potential. There’s got to be a way I can get out there.” The end of the river patrol boats were made out of fiberglass and foam. I would pour two chemicals together to make the foam; that’s how I started making my blanks. I ended up making five boards over there. We’d write things like “love & sex” on the boards—definitely on the mind of military men stationed alone. We also had peace symbols, part of the cultural statement at the time.

During one of my first paddle outs, I looked down in the water, and I could see the shape of something; it turned out to be the carcass of a sunken Amphibious Assault Vehicle, which created a reef break. Sometimes, you’d get perfect A-frames off that thing.

Cua Viet was under constant mortar, rocket and heavy artillery attack. I was in the water when this huge round hit. A huge fountain of water erupted. It was an amazing thing. Surfing just helped you deal with the war. All you have to do is swim beyond the break line and you’re in total solitude. You turn inward and it gives you a wonderful sense of serenity that nothing else can give you.

Today, the Wounded Warrior Project takes wounded soldiers out in the water as part of the healing process. It’s pretty amazing when you see an amputee get out there and up on a board. You can see that it helps guys with tragic brain injuries. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and hopefully a sense of peace. I wonder how many more days I’ve got, so I’ve got to take every advantage I can to go surfing. For me, it’s a communion with nature. Without it, I don’t know what my life would be.

Howard Fisher

From Del Mar, California, the 67-year-old Fisher used surfing as a rehabilitative force after serving in Vietnam. He was stationed at Landing Zone Grant, in the 1st Cavalry Division.

As I arrived in Vietnam over Cam Ranh Bay, I looked down onto red earth, green jungle, white surf and blue ocean. It looked surfable. I was one of the first guys [in my division] wounded. I’m very grateful for that. It was the biggest battle of 1969. We started losing. They just kept coming. We were running out of ammunition. An officer jumped right in the pit and said, “Who’s the freshest soldier here?” I said, “I am.” They loaded me up with ammo. Hundreds of people were shooting at me. The bullets were making all these different sounds. It was bizarre. But I made it.

I returned, and the officer said, “Would you go again?” I was about to say no, but ammunition was already being put on me. I got a few meters and [rounds] just missed killing me. I couldn’t breathe. It took out my jawbone and all my teeth. I was in the hospital for about six months. I remember thinking everyone in the hospital was so screwed up and so crippled—and I wasn’t. All my wounds were in my face. I still had my hands and my legs. I was in-country for six weeks, but I was so wounded, they gave me a medical discharge. I went on 30-day leave, and that’s when I went surfing in Mexico. I’ve been surfing ever since. Surfing was absolutely what I needed; it was a release and freedom. I’m forever grateful I got wounded.

Jerry Anderson

Originally from L.A.’s South Bay, 66-year-old Jerry Anderson served in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines. He now lives in Encinitas, surfs Swami’s reef break most days and published the book Between the Lines, which tells the full story of surfers in the Vietnam War.

I started surfing in 1963. Surfing was counterculture at that time; if you were a surfer, you were against the grain—it was like riding a Harley motorcycle. You were tanned; you were bums—that’s how you identified. We carried that culture into the Vietnam War. Surfers brought something to the war that was different. It was an advantage—we were used to being in situations like the ocean, when the waves get big; it gave us situational awareness.
I spent two days and one night at China Beach, about three months in. The rest of the time I was in the bush. Boards were shipped out there by the military, for the lifeguards. There were guys out surfing. It was a huge disconnect. You go less than a mile, and you’re in a combat zone. Technically, China Beach was supposed to be a safe area, but it wasn’t really because you could get rockets coming in. There was actually no safe place in Vietnam. You take everything day by day there. If you think too much about what’s happening, it will destroy you. But you could just get in the ocean and feel different … that therapy, calmness and adrenaline rush—it’s a cleansing feeling.

One of the first things I did when I got back from the war was get into the water. Surfing gives me peace. There’s definitely a healing factor. It saved my life.

Learn more about the surfers of the Vietnam War this May at the California Surf Museum, 312 Pier View Way, Oceanside, San Diego;;