The conflict in Vietnam remains the second longest “war” in United States history. Over 20 years, almost nine million Americans served, and nearly 48,000 died in action.
While images of the period, and particularly of protests back at home, dominate public consciousness in the United States, few understand how deeply entrenched surfing was in daily life for a number of servicemen stationed in Vietnam. It served as a way to take their mind off of the horrors of war and feel at home again.
To tell the little-known story of these men who surfed and served in Vietnam, the California Surf Museum in Oceanside, CA recently opened an exhibit (called, China Beach: Surfers, the Vietnam War, and the Healing Power of Wave Riding) dedicated to their pursuit.
“We are very proud to put the exhibit on,” said Jim Kempton, President of the Museum. “We are very proud to have been involved with telling a little piece of surfing history that is also able to honor our veterans from that war and from all wars.”
A tremendous amount of work went into getting the exhibit up and running. According to Jane Schmauss, Historian for the Museum, this concept had been building for 10 to 15 years. To see it finally come to fruition, with the stories of the over sixty veterans up on the walls, the complete replica of the China Beach Surf Club, and the incredible archival photos and footage, was really something special.
“We thought we could open last year, but we kept meeting these amazing guys and the story just got richer and richer,” said Schmauss.
Larry “Woody” Martin, Vietnam War veteran and founder of the China Beach Surf Club, shared to the crowd of people at the grand opening, “I hope you enjoy the exhibit because let me tell you what folks…they nailed it.”
These veterans are part of a very special fraternity of surfers and veterans. This exhibit afforded them the opportunity to not only revisit this fraternity, but also learn about each others’ unique experiences surfing in Vietnam.
“What was really neat about this coming together was when I was stationed over at Qua Viet, I thought I was kind of unique,” said Bruce Blandy, a Vietnam vet, surfer, and shaper. “After the fact, when all of this was coming together, you find out about all these other guys and their stories. And that is so cool!”
Each Vietnam vet who visits the museum is given a lapel pin from the Vietnam Commemorative Program of the Defense Department Archives at Camp Pendleton, honoring their tremendous sacrifice and service. According to Bill Schildge, a member of the Museum’s Board of Directors, the California Surf Museum is one of only six groups in San Diego County that can distribute these honorary pins.
Mr. Schildge described a touching story of giving one of these pins to a veteran who had paid a visit to the museum with his family a couple days earlier. The man was pointing to a map to show his grandchildren where he had been stationed when Bill gave him his pin. The man, his wife, the kids, and even Bill himself all were overcome with emotion. Later that day the man’s wife came up to Bill and said, “this is the best thing that’s ever happened to him.”
“That is so rewarding to me,” said Bill of this experience. “The most important thing to me about this exhibit is showing the healing and that is definitely part of the healing.”
The exhibit manages to empower those who served by telling their stories through their own words and experiences. “It’s not the Museum’s concept of what the story and exhibit should be,” said Schmauss. “It’s from the viewpoint of the veterans.”
The photos, artifacts, quotes and stories up on the wall, videos, and complete replica of the China Beach Surf Shop give a detailed, illuminating portrait of what it was like to surf in Vietnam and how it helped the veterans heal during and after the war.
Jane Schmauss said it best when addressing the crowd of veterans, friends, and family who came to the grand opening. “Please if there is a veteran you don’t know, turn around and shake his hand and say thank you and say welcome home,” she said. “That was what they never got when they came back from Vietnam.”
China Beach: Surfers, the Vietnam War, and the Healing Power of Wave Riding is now on display at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside. For more information and to plan your visit check out their website.