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China Beach Surf Club - Part 1
By Joseph Giannini
Off the Republic of South Vietnam
Onboard the USS Dulutt
September 12, 1967
Last night our Amphibious Assault Ships steamed into a large cove and dropped anchor outside China Beach, Da Nang. China Beach is an in-country R & R center run by the Navy. They even have surfboards, and a building groundswell is heading in. I first came here in early August, a little over a month back. We had a great party that day. At dusk, drunk and happy, we headed back to our ships. Got back on board without any mishaps. One day of rest and then we choppered back in-country to start Operation Beacon Guide in Hoi An, Happy Valley. From there on to Operation Cochise in the Que Son Valley—the Valley of the Walking Dead.
Later today, the First Battalion Third Marines, aka 1/3, the Home of the Brave—four rifle companies and a headquarters company, over 500 salty Marines in all—will head to China Beach for a beach party: beer, burgers, and franks.
I share a cabin with another second lieutenant, George Ford. I'm lying on my back in my bunk. Restless. It has to do with knowing there will be surf tomorrow. Summer is coming to an end, and I haven't surfed once. Started surfing at 18.
At 22, moments away from being drafted into the Army, two large Marines wearing Dress Blues walked into the induction room. "Listen up, one said and paused, we are looking for volunteers to join the finest fighting force in the world. The United States Marine Corps."
I was impressed. Marines have a great rep. Known to never leave anyone behind. I figured I was going to Vietnam. My chances of surviving would be better with Marines. Also, Marines would be around water. Waves. I'd be able to surf. I raised my hand.
I arrived in-country in early July 1967, via a Continental Airlines flight from Okinawa to Da Nang. On Okinawa, a Marine personnel officer told me that grunts in Nam have an 80 percent chance of getting hit. I'm an infantry officer—a grunt. I'd been hoping my chances were at least 50/50.
I had orders to join the First Battalion Third Marines. 1/3 was up North in Quang Tri Province just below the Demilitarized Zone. Two days later I choppered into the DMZ, also known as the Dead Marine Zone, to join 1/3.
I just missed a deadly encounter with a large North Vietnamese Army force: 1/3 had gone in to help the First Battalion Ninth Marines, who had walked into a large ambush in the DMZ 1/9 suffered terrible losses and many were missing, some feared captured. After that battle, 1/9 would be called the Walking Dead.
1/3 is part of a Special Landing Force of two battalions. We don't have a base in-country. We go in when and where we're needed, by chopper and by amphibious craft. I've had the First Platoon, Bravo One, Bravo Company, for two months now.
Back in August, when I first came ashore at China Beach, there were surfboards stacked against a small shack on the beach. There was a sign out front: China Beach Surf Club. The waves were small and there was an onshore breeze. After two burgers and several beers, I made for the surf shack. Walked up and told the attendant, "I'm taking a board."
His response: "You can't. You're not a member of the China Beach Surf Club. And you have to be assigned to China Beach to be a member."
"You mean you have to be a Squid to get a board? That's bullshit!" I thought, fuck this, the surf sucks anyhow. I turned away and headed back to my rowdy Marines.
The beach party turned out to be a hoot. Our beer ration in the field and on the ship was one can per month for each Marine. On China Beach, there was no limit. Every swinging dick got shitfaced.
Midday, a young, pretty round-eye wearing a tiny bikini joined us. I assumed she was an off-duty nurse. Some of these Marines hadn't seen a round-eye for as long as seven months. What a brave girl. I thought she might be in for trouble and stood by ready to help. But she was treated with respect.
Near the end of the party, Sergeant Strong punched our Executive Officer, Lieutenant Norris. When I stepped between them, Norris came at me, then backed off. Suddenly a mob of drunk, laughing Marines grabbed both of us, hoisted us in the air, carried us down to the ocean, and threw us in.
That first time, the waves sucked and my Marines got crazy drunk, needed some watching. Not getting a board wasn't a big deal. This time it's different. Tomorrow might be my last chance to surf this summer. Or ever. My right eyelid twitches.
The twitching started when Corporal Listorti was killed on August 12th. It got worse when his replacement, Corporal Calabria, was killed five days later, just three days after he joined my platoon. Both were M-60 machine gunners. Listorti was killed in Happy Valley. Calabria in the Valley of the Walking Dead. The twitch comes and goes intermittently. I've taken to wearing sunglasses, even in our cabin.
Rockaway Beach, NY
September 12, 1965
In my last semester at Hofstra University, I received a Draft Notice. Around the same time, my parents moved from Massapequa, Long Island, back to Brooklyn. I was living off-campus near Hofstra but soon joined them.
Rise in the dark for a Dawn Patrol. Hoping to surf, at Rockaway Beach, before making my first class at Hofstra. I've been going solo for a while. At 22, I'm fearless, invincible. Played some football, wrestled in high school and college, and worked out regularly. Been surfing four years. It was an addiction. A good one
I dress as quietly as possible, trying not to disturb my parents. Grab my Phil Edwards and head down to my Volvo P544. I've removed the back seat and kept the front passenger seat pushed forward. Open the trunk and slide the Edwards all the way in. Close and lock the trunk. No racks. No one has a clue I'm a surfer dude. Get in and start it up. Drive approximately 20 miles to 38th Street at Rockaway Beach.
I arrive just before dawn and park near the boardwalk. Walk up to take a look. It's a cool day with gray clouds hugging the horizon. Light offshore winds and waves that look 3 to 5 feet. Go back to the Volvo, undress, and suit up in a diving bottom and diving top. The top has a beavertail with buckles and zips up the front. Pull out my board. Close the trunk. Wax up and head for the water.
The beach is deserted as I walk up to the waterline. I'm midway between two large jetties. Each is about 15 feet high and approximately 300 feet long. I wade in and start to paddle. The sun is coming up as I head out. The white water is about 2 feet and strong. I paddle straight out, catch a lull and make it outside with dry hair. I'm already past the jetties and waiting for a good wave.
A set approaches. I let the first three waves go under and paddle into the last and biggest. Jump up and turn right down a shoulder-high wall. Trim for a short distance. Then up the face a bit and turn back. Back to trim and up and over just before the wave breaks. Nice.
I paddle back out. I see a set way outside. It's a sweeper set. Point my board at the horizon and start stroking. I'll go over the first three waves and take the fourth. I've gone about 50 yards before I paddle up the face of the first wave. It's bigger than expected. I'm up and over and stroking strong for the second wave. Of course bigger. I go over and stroke for the third. Again bigger.
I'm at a 45-degree angle when I make it over and stroke for the last wave. It's bigger and walling up. I'm too far inside to turn and burn. I paddle into the trough and start up; go completely vertical before reaching the crest. Fuck, I can't punch through or make it over.
I lock my arms and legs around my board. Take a deep breath as I'm pitched backward over the falls. Hold on as the wave tumbles and drags me. White water so powerful I can't right myself and catch a good breath. When I finally do, I'm facing landward. But it's not land I see. It's huge boulders: I'm an arm's length from the end of one of the jetties.
I look back. Another set is approaching. I let go of the Edwards before it drags me into the jetty. Grab my zipper to strip off my top. Realize that's crazy.
Open my mouth to scream for help. But there's no one to scream to. Look back again.
The first wave is closing. Walling up. I dive to my right for the bottom. Deep into the dark. I'm calm. Feel the wave hit above. Tumble forward in the crashing water. Struggle up. Break through. Gasp for air. Another wave breaks and pushes me back under. I struggle to the surface, gasp again.
I'm taking in water. Coughing uncontrollably. Swept along the jetty as I swim for the shallows. Totally exhausted by the time my feet touch bottom. I wade forward, fall to my knees and hands, crawl slowly to the waterline. Collapse. Out of breath. Gasping, shaking. Finally, I catch my breath and rise slowly. Still unsteady, trembling. I look around for my board. It's on the jetty, about halfway out.
I make it to my first class, saltwater dripping from my nose. Hair full of sand.
"Joe, are you OK?" It's Vic Cardino. "You look terrible."
"I'm fine." But I'm not. I have a strange feeling in my gut. Unsettling. Fear: I'd met it out at the end of that jetty. I'm no longer fearless. Or invincible.
To be continued next issue.
Joseph Giannini, a local criminal defense attorney, served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 with the First Battalion, Third Marines. A victim of Agent Orange, he is currently writing a book of short, non-fiction stories about fate, surfing, and war.