Surfing in the Vietnam War | How Catching Waves Saved These Soldiers
California Surf Museum’s new exhibition is dedicated to the surfer-soldiers that caught waves moments from the battlefield, and teaches how surfing can heal both physically and mentally
Words by Jade Bremner
During and after the Vietnam War a group of soldiers found a way to break free from the atrocities of the frontline – through surfing and surf culture. Seventy-one-year-old Vietnam veteran Rick Thomas is known for being one of the founding fathers of paddle boarding, but what many don’t know is that he’s also a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder councillor, and a firm believer that surfing can treat trauma.
“I’ve been surfing for 65 years," says Thomas, who was born and learned to surf in Waikiki, Honolulu. Surfing is in his bones, he says: “My mother went to school with the original Beach Boys, she was a tandem surfer and an incredible athlete." In Hawaiian culture the ocean has a regenerative quality, claims Thomas: “All the warriors in Polynesian culture were part of the ocean – it was their playtime, but it also challenged them and healed them."
Tanned and toned, Thomas is covered in ancient Hawaiian warrior body art, but one of his tattoos stands out. It’s a surfboard crossed with a M-16 rifle and is bordered by: “China Sea Surf Club 1964-1975" – his tribe during the Vietnam War. Serving in the Navy’s River Assault Group, Thomas was stationed in Chu Lai in the middle of Vietnam’s 2,000-mile coastline.
Nowhere was safe from attack during the war, but the beach offered occasional respite from the trenches. US military lifeguards managed to get hold of a few sacred surfboards. The lifeguards asked their commanding officers for boards so they could use them as ‘lifesaving devices’. Of course, many of the men just wanted to surf, and the positive release from surfing became hard to deny.
“I remember looking at a river mouth and seeing perfect surf. Talk about a disconnect. Back here there’s war going on, you can hear it, you can see it, and you’ve got all this craziness going on, but then I would look and see these perfect waves," remembers Thomas. “On the hospital ship we would be a mile off the coast; you would always see the beaches. My whole time there it helped me get a break from the war."
In 1960s America, surfing was more popular than ever. While guns were being fired in Asia, counterculture was sweeping the nation back home. Around 2.7 million American men served in the Vietnam War, many of them surfers, content with laid-back beach life before they were posted. Surfing and the music of the time provided much-needed relief from the death and destruction of war. “It would take you back and put you right back in the world," explains Thomas. “If someone sent you a copy of Surfer magazine – you could have people pay you money to read that sucker. There was that duality between keeping focus on your job and doing what you were doing and needing to break away and go into this other world."
After reading some literature he found in the chaplain’s library in Vietnam, Thomas questioned his own role in the war. “I was in a mixed up state, I knew something was wrong with this war," says Thomas, “I talked to one of the chapels, and they needed a chaplain’s assistant. It was one of those transformative moments." He moved from his former Navy post and was given an office with a library, where many of the soldiers would come to collect books, magazines and open up about their experiences of war.
“The chaplains, one of which was a trained therapist, thought I had a gift. I began to run informal rap groups for primary traumatic stress and acute combat trauma. That was my awakening into not only healing myself but healing others." Post-war, Thomas worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 18 years, and wrote the first comprehensive treatment plan for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “In my therapy sessions, especially if I knew they were Californian guys, one of my first questions would be: ‘Did you or do you surf?’" he explains. “I met a couple of guys who went to prison, were heroin addicts, guys who’ve been destroyed by the war. I told them to get boards, and these guys began to get off drugs and alcohol and change their lives."
One soldier treating his own post-traumatic stress with surfing is 67-year-old former marine Jerry Anderson. “You’d take everything day by day [in Vietnam]," he says, “If you thought too much about what was happening it would destroy you." Anderson used the situational awareness he learned through surfing at home in California to aid him in combat. “It kept me alive," he says. Later, it also helped him distance himself from his experience on the battlefield: “One of the first things I did when I got back from the war was get into the water," he says. “With surfing you can do it by yourself and it’s a continuing challenge, as marines the ocean gives you that therapy, calmness and an adrenaline rush as you progress up to different waves."
67-year-old fellow Vietnam veteran Howard Fisher still surfs, after the war he rode waves to help deal with a horrific injury on the frontline. During the largest battle of 1969, he lost his jaw and his teeth. “I’m forever grateful I got wounded, I was there six weeks," explains Fisher, who was given medical discharge on account of his wounds. “I was in the hospital for about six months. 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," he says, “they took some bone off my hip and put it on my face. Surfing was absolutely what I needed, it was a release." At 20 years old, Fisher was awarded a pension, which helped him buy his first surfboard. Then, he travelled to the empty beaches of Mexico to hone his wave riding skills. “I’ve been all over the world surfing since then," says Fisher.
Former Navy soldier Bruce Blandy, 69, surfed during and after the war. In Vietnam, he would surf over a sunken Amtrak Amphibious Assault Vehicle, which created an artificial reef. “You’d get perfect a-frames off of that," he remembers. “Surfing just helped you deal with the war," says Blandy, based in Cua Viet, a Navy base under constant rocket and heavy artillery attack. He remembers being in the water when a round hit and created a volcano.
One of Blandy's jobs was to repair the vessels carrying supplies up the bush-lined Song Thach Han River. Using spare fiberglass from the boats, he managed to shape five boards while stationed in country. He shipped one of his sacred boards, decorated with ‘60s song lyrics and a peace symbol, home at the end of the war. For him, riding waves is still a transformative experience. “My wife would say I’ve become more obsessed with surfing, it’s now part of my everyday existence," explains Blandy, who surfs at the California’s infamous Trestles spot, at a break named ‘Church’.
“It’s my Church," he says. “When I go out there it’s a spiritual reawakening every single time. It releases stress, and without it I don’t know what my life would be." Blandy speaks highly of organisations such as The Wounded Warriors Project, which takes soldiers into the ocean. “It’s pretty amazing when you see an amputee get out there and up on a board. Guys that have had closed brain injuries, it’s tragic, but this helps them, you can see that it helps them, it gives them a sense of accomplishment and hopefully a sense of peace."
Rick Thomas says the evidence for alternative ocean treatments are plain to see. “We know today that being on the water helps guys with traumatic brain injuries. When we put them on a surfboard they’re able to do things they weren’t able to do before. It’s also about getting a positive adrenaline rush." The other surfing veterans wholeheartedly agree. “Surfing gives me peace," Anderson solemnly explains. “Surfing is freedom," agrees Fisher. There’s no reason why surfing couldn’t help other forms of trauma, believes Anderson: “There’s definitely a healing factor [in surfing]. It’s saved my life".
Exhibition Surfing During the Vietnam War opens at the California Surf Museum on May 29 and runs until January 1, 2018. Visit surfmuseum.org for more info.