‘China Beach’ exhibit opens; shows impact of surfing on troops during, after Vietnam War

‘China Beach’ exhibit opens; shows impact of surfing on troops during, after Vietnam War
The evolution of surfboards from the 1960s to 1970s is on display. Surfboards became lighter, shorter and more maneuverable. Photo by Promise Yee

OCEANSIDE – The “China Beach: Surfers, the  Vietnam War, and the Healing Powers of Wave Riding” exhibit opened at the California Surf Museum on Memorial Day, and drew a steady stream of visitors, many of them veterans and military families.

The exhibit shares firsthand accounts of the positive impact surfing made on troops during and after the war. Over 60 veterans were interviewed about their war experiences and return home from the unpopular war.

Included in the exhibit is a full-size re-creation of the China Beach surf club where troops took a break from war duties. Inside it are boots, gun belts, posters and other war memorabilia, much of it donated by veterans. A map shows the locations of five other “surf clubs” veterans went to for respite while on a two to three day leave during the war.

“It impacted  them, and helped them heal,” Rick Matthews, Vietnam veteran and exhibit advisor, said.

There are period surfboards on display that span the 1960s and 1970s, when boards went from 30 pound, 10-foot longboards, to more maneuverable 15 pound six-foot short boards.

Accounts share how some surfboards were made on site or “pirated over” for troops. Among the surfboards is a shortboard crafted and used by a veteran while in Vietnam. The exhibit also includes photos, and a variety of looping videos.

More stories are shared in the book “China Beach: Surfers, the Vietnam War, and the Healing Powers of Wave Riding” and on the museum website at surfmuseum.org, which also shows construction of the exhibit. “It was a big undertaking, it’s quite sensational,” Matthews said.

A catalyst for the exhibit is this year marks the tenth anniversary of the Vietnam veteran paddle out held at Oceanside Pier to honor veterans in 2007, which was organized by Matthews. The exhibit and book is another way to remember and thank veterans who were not given a warm welcome when they first returned from war.

Museum staff and volunteers gathered firsthand narratives for 18 months, then organized veterans experiences in themed displays. Eighty percent of the exhibit text is direct quotes from veterans.

“It’s really in their own words,” Rick Wilson, museum volunteer, said.

Wilson added the exhibit allows veterans a safe space to talk about their war experiences. It also provides a first person insight for visitors.

The California Surf Museum will hold a grand opening for the exhibit on June 17. The exhibit will remain on display through Jan. 1. The museum is at 312 Pier View Way, Oceanside.

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