With Memorial Day this month and with Roark’s current season set in Vietnam for Volume 10: “Strange Daze In A Hanoi Haze” we wanted to honor one of our U.S. Veteran’s who served during the conflict. Ron Sizemore won the West Coast Surfing Championships off Huntington Beach Pier in 1961 and then the United States went to war in Vietnam and he was drafted in 1966. Sizemore is the real life surfing champion character that was in Apocalypse Now who shared with Roark his experience surfing on the government’s dime during the Vietnam War.
Postscript to my year in Vung Tau
I was to write of my surfing experiences in Vietnam. Sometimes the most interesting part of the destination is the journey. The journey took a year and two months and I thought for the reader that it was very important to add to the story.
To begin with I was extremely lucky to have got out of the Infantry when I did without a scratch to my body or my psyche. (It does sadden me though to actually know names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall).
A person should have other interests no matter the situation. Mine were books and chess. I read Dr. Zhivago on the journey over. Craig Lockwood, whom I had corresponded with (he published several of my letters in the local Laguna Beach paper where I’m from) and at my request sent me Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Catch 22 is a wonderful read made even more so by the environment I was in. I also played chess with some of my “band of brothers”. In Vung Tau I had the opportunity to play chess with some of the crew of the ships I unloaded in the harbor. I call these interests “mental distractions.”
The monsoon season ran from May-August. You could almost set your watch by the arrival on a daily basis. We cut short our surfing sessions when we saw them approaching and would head back to camp and a place that would be dry.
Prior to the monsoon’s hammering us the surf could be a fun 2′-4′ and glassy with a very short period wind swell. When the wind started to pick up we would dump everything into the lifeguard tower and head back to camp–surfing session over for a day or longer. Water temperature was always at 80 plus degrees so there was no need for wetsuits. We also had our share of the tropical sea snakes and would tell the newbies not to stick their finger in the snake’s mouth.
Very seldom did I surf with anymore more that four of the other lifeguards including myself in the water at the same time as one or two had to be “guard duty.” Even if they weren’t working I think they enjoyed watching me surf. As far as the locals went–THEY DIDN’T SURF!!! When the “troops” came down on their R & R I would back up the lifeguards pointing out rips and side currents. Luck would have it that the tide was either too low or too high. Vung Tau had a twelve-to-fourteen foot tide change so the window for surf was a small one.
One of my most exciting times on the beach came on Christmas day 1967. I was not surfing but watching the beach with another lifeguard when an A-9 Skyraider flew down the beach from the North toward us and was on the deck (very, very low!) I took off running to the guard tower as that was where my 35mm Pentax camera was and I wanted a picture. I knew the A-9 was on its way back. The lifeguard next to me had hit the sand to avoid being hit by the plane as I ran to the tower. The second pass was a lot higher than the first but for some reason I knew he (the A-9) would make a third pass and he did!!!
Everyone in Vietnam to my knowledge got a weeks leave out of country and could go numerous places. I went to Australia and stayed with Robert Connelley who had a surfboard shop at Bondi beach near Sydney. I surfed several places there with my only mistake being of going in July. We were just above the equator in Vietnam and the weather was starting to get warm. Australia is just below the equator and they were moving into their winter and the weather was getting cold. No wetsuit and I also bought a sweater after not taking one with me–will not make that mistake again!
Read Surfing Vietnam on the Government’s Dime! part one of three.