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World War II

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and suddenly what had been the United States' material and psychological support to counter worldwide imperialism and fascism turned into an active alliance against the Axis -- Germany, Japan and Italy. Suddenly, also, as Lueras puts it, "most of the beach boys who had hitherto spent their every bit of free time on the blue became, by Executive Order, boys in blue."

World War II had profound effects on all of American society, including surfers. As Solberg and Morris wrote in A People's Heritage, "Although the United States was never totally mobilized for war, World War II produced far greater government intervention in the nation's economic and social affairs than during World War I or the depression. As a result, the years 1941-45 altered radically the country's self-image, restoring the self-confidence Americans had felt before the Crash. The years between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima were a time of ferment leading to new values for the American people economically, socially, and in their technological outlook."

"World War II cramped surfing's style for long, too long," Duke Kahanamoku told his ghost writer, Joe Brennan. "Most all of the able-bodied young men who had been contributing to the fast development of the sport wound up in the military service or in defense plants. It was a time of vacuum for surfing."

Concertina wire strung along Waikiki beach and other beaches of Hawai`i and California symbolized the shutdown surfing suffered during the ensuing war years. Since surfing was considered impractical and self-indulgent and most surfers were in the armed services -- mostly the Navy -- no surf contests were held during the war years of 1941-1945.

War Board

In one of the stranger chapters of surfing's history, it was toward the end of the Second World War that surfboards were seriously considered for use as an instrument to advance military objectives.

After the United States Marines suffered over 50% casualties in the taking of Iwo Jima in the summer of 1945, the Navy brought several Naval Combat Demolition (NCD) teams to Camp Pendleton to learn how to use surfboards. It has been proposed that the Navy was also inspired by Gene "Tarzan" Smith's travels between the Hawaiian Islands on his paddleboard, unassisted.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, Fran Heath credited his fellow Hot Curler John Kelly with the idea of using surfboards militarily. Both became members of the Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) during the war. "We considered using surfboards for reconnaissance missions," recalled Fran. "That was Kelly's idea. But, boards are too easily spotted from low-flying aircraft and there's no protection if you're spotted, so that idea was scrapped."

Naval Combat Demolition teams were different from the UDT's which were more sabotage/espionage oriented. The NCDs were "created when the Navy realized how many casualties were being caused by landing craft grounding on unchartered reefs and other underwater obstructions during Pacific island invasions," according to Larry Kooperman. The NCD teams consisted of 30 highly trained frogmen. The job of the NCD's was "to swim in to the beaches of Japanese-held islands in the dead of night, reconnoiter the reefs and other obstructions, chart them or blow them up and swim back to their ship or submarine before the sun came up. The NCD teams never gained the fame enjoyed by the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams, the parent of today's Navy Seals. Perhaps the reason for this is the NCD teams spent all their time swimming, whereas the UDT's, like the Seals, did some of their best work above the high tide mark."

"The Navy perfected the NCD surfboard in the summer of 1945," Larry Kooperman documented. "Its first mission was to be the reconnaissance off the coast of Japan in preparation for the invasion of the Japanese homeland by units of the United States military. These Warboards were hollow wooden surfboards built of a thin layer of redwood over a wooden frame. They were about 14 feet long and weighed about 60 pounds. They were camouflaged so as to be almost invisible in the night-dark water. Built into these boards, between the frames, was a depth sounder. Each board was to be equipped with a two-way radio that was used to relay the depth sounder's readings to the mother ship."

In late summer 1945, the NCD teams were "ready to paddle to war." However, the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima on August 6th and on Nagasaki three days later preempted the need of the Warboards and they were never used operationally.