For many, surfing is an escape from the stresses of everyday life – from bumper to bumper traffic to a hostile boss, marital issues to schoolwork. But, for Ron Sizemore during his youth, surfing represented an escape from the harsh realities of war.
“I had booby traps go off around me, fragments of artillery shells whizzing by, and everything else…but you get out in the water and you forget all about that stuff.”
Ron Sizemore’s story is unique. He is one of a very small community of veterans who surfed in Vietnam during the war back in the late 1960s. Yes…you read it correctly…U.S. soldiers surfed in Vietnam.
Sizemore’s been surfing all his life. He started in Long Beach as a young boy and continued when his family made the move to Laguna Beach. There he made a name for himself winning all kinds of contests from the locals-only Brooks Street Surfing Classic to the U.S. West Coast Surfing Championship.
Sizemore’s best known for doing a spinner and riding backward through the Huntington pier at the West Coast Surfing Championships in 1961. He then went on to graduate from high school and spent a couple semesters at a Costa Mesa junior college.
But in May of 1966, his world changed forever.
In 1966, Sizemore was drafted into the United States Army to the 9th Infantry Division.
Known as the “Old Reliables” back in World War II, this was a unique group reactivated during the Vietnam conflict. The division developed a close bond as they underwent basic and advanced infantry training together at Fort Riley, Kansas. “Originally, we were to go over there together and then after the year’s tour come back together,” said Sizemore.
However, while they were stationed in the Mekong Delta, the realities of war took hold. “Guys were getting shot…there were casualties and we were getting a lot of replacements,” he said.
So just a little over a year and two months into Sizemore’s career as an Army draftee, he enlisted to serve three additional years. With the opportunity to choose where he wanted to serve, he knew exactly where he wanted to go. He chose the artillery boats that protected the infantry.
“In order to get to my new company, I could have just walked across the street from where I was, but it didn’t work that way,” he said. Sizemore was flown up to Saigon and then back down to a port city in Vietnam called Vung Tau, which was right across from where he had been previously stationed.
There, fate stepped in.
A colonel asked him if instead of working with the boats and guns, he wanted to stay in Vung Tau unloading deep draft vessels that delivered supplies to the port. Sizemore agreed.
Vung Tau was a rest and relaxation area, known as an R&R spot, in Vietnam. While there, Sizemore discovered that special services around the peninsula had surfboards and there were waves.
“It was really an experience to be able to go surfing over there and kind of forget about the war,” he said. “Surfing, looking at the horizon for waves…it was kind of like an escape from the war really.”
So, by night he was unloading the ships, but by day he was assisting the lifeguards and surfing.
“I keep having to pinch myself because to have gone over there in the infantry and to have ended up in a position where I was working with some of the civilian Vietnamese people, supervising them on loading the ships, and then surfing during the daytime…it was a very surreal experience,” said Sizemore.
In fact, the beach of Vung Tau was a safe zone of some kind or a “hands-off area” as he called it. “You could look off in the distance and you’d hear them dropping bombs and stuff way off,” he said. However, even though the war was all around, the Vietcong didn’t come in and attack the beach in ’68.
“It allowed me to kind of get away from the area that I was in,” said Sizemore. “It was something to look forward to.” This stood in stark contrast to his experience in the infantry, where all he had to look forward to after a patrol was another patrol.
Not only was surfing a distraction during the war, but surfing actually turned out to be valuable training for the infantry. In fact, Pat Farley, one of the two surfers chronicled in the 2008 Vietnam War documentary, Between the Lines, made Sizemore realize that surfers had a unique skill.
“We would spot out anomalies,” said Sizemore. All his years sitting out in the ocean, scanning the horizon, looking for an oncoming set of waves, served him well in the Army. For instance, he can recall three or four instances where this ability to spot anomalies allowed him to see the enemy before anyone else.
Further, despite the nationwide animosity towards the war and the soldiers who fought in it, the surfing community welcomed Sizemore back with open arms. “I just kind of slid back into society without having to go through all the protests that were going on away from the beach,” he said.
Luckily, the military and their actions have a lot more respect from the American people today. Sizemore said seeing people’s support last Memorial Day even brought tears to his eyes.
“I look back at my military experience and have no qualms about it or anything,” he said. “But you talk to ten different people and you are going to get ten different experiences about what they went through over there.”
The California Surf Museum in Oceanside, CA is highlighting these diverse points of view. The museum is revealing the rich stories of the veterans who surfed in Vietnam with a new exhibit called China Beach: Surfing During the Vietnam War and the Healing Power of Wave-Riding.
It honors those who fought and surfed in Vietnam by telling their stories, recreating famous surf icons like the famous China Beach Surf Club building, and exploring how the veterans utilized surfing as a method of healing during and after the war.
For Sizemore, this healing power was certainly true. “I could say that some of the other memorable experiences were in the infantry…getting pinned down for a couple of days and a lot of casualties, but I have taken all of that stuff and put it in the back of my mind,” he said. “It is there, but it is the things that don’t bother you that you focus on.”
Thus, instead of putting his attention on the things that he went through, he avoids PTSD by focusing on the incredible surfing experience he had over in Vietnam. “You paddle out in the water and all your worries and everything else are left on the beach,” he said. “It’s like an ahhh moment where you let your breath out.”
Sizemore’s story is all about silver linings.
While most of us may not be taking our minds off the horrors of war, heavy gunfire, and near death experiences like Sizemore, every surfer can relate to that “ahhh” moment.
Immersion in the ocean through surfing is powerful. Never underestimate its tremendous ability to heal.
China Beach: Surfing During the Vietnam War is currently open at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside, though the grand opening is this coming Saturday, June 10.