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Vietnam Vet Surfers Use Waves To Open Up About Their War Experiences

Vietnam veterans James Lischer, left, and Bobby Lux get ready to surf at Del ...

Above: Vietnam veterans James Lischer, left, and Bobby Lux get ready to surf at Del Mar, June 23, 2017.

A new exhibit at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside commemorates one of the rare bright spots for veterans of the war in Vietnam who still struggle to tell their story.

Bobby Lux grew up surfing in Encinitas. Drafted in 1967, Lux was in the infantry. He typically did not know where he was in Vietnam, except the jungle, away from the ocean. About halfway through his tour, he was told to set down his rifle.

“They took us to the beach in helicopters,” Lux said. “I was pretty excited. I got out there and the surf was mushy, you know, two foot, but they had a stack of boards there. It felt so good.”

He thinks he was at what the Americans called China Beach, the most famous surf spot of the Vietnam War. It was a rest and relaxation station, next to a large military hospital. China Beach was actually My Khe beach in the city of Da Nang.

There were pockets of surfers all along the coast, finding ways to get on the water. Sometimes they built their own equipment from spare parts. Many of them were Californians drafted into the conflict. They were hungry for any taste of life back home.

Reported by Katie Schoolov

The California Surf Museum in Oceanside takes a rare look at war with “China Beach: Surfers, the Vietnam War, and the Healing Power of Wave-riding.”

“I know I got to stand up and ride two, three waves,” Lux said. "I had a few buddies that were from the Midwest and they wanted me to help them try to surf it. It was beautiful and relaxing.”

Lux was at the beach for less than three hours before his unit was sent back to the jungle. He would not surf again until he got back to California. He said he does not talk often about his time in Vietnam.

“War is not good for anybody. … You can survive it. But that’s all you can do,” he said. “And surfing has helped me survive it.”

Lux, 70, is still surfing and he is not the only Vietnam vet in the water. Lux was out at Del Mar recently with Jim Lischer. A retired lifeguard, Lischer does not recall even seeing the ocean during his time in Vietnam. A life-long surfer, his first wave after Vietnam was in Hawaii. He went to the beach with two other surfers, after getting off the plane from Vietnam. They were walking to the beach when a car backfired.

“We all went under a car … instantly went for cover,” Lischer said. “That was right downtown, a block from the beach at Waikiki.”

Lischer said he used the massive Hawaiian waves to wash away the stress of living in a combat zone.

“I took the personal challenge to see how large of a wave I could ride ... That took my mind off the war zone, instantly,” he said.

Over the past two years, the California Surf Museum has been collecting the stories of vets who surfed in Vietnam and those who continue to use surfing as a release for the exhibit “China Beach: Surfers, the Vietnam War, and the Healing Power of Wave-riding.” The exhibit opened earlier this month in Oceanside.

Surfing in Vietnam has been part of the mystique of the war. Surfing was featured in "Apocalypse Now" and later the acclaimed but short-lived 1980s TV show "China Beach".

“I only learned recently through the California Surf Museum that there was a China Beach at all,” Lischer said. “That’s partially because I avoided going to any Vietnam movies for decades and decades.”

The exhibit has been a chance for vets to open up about the wider experience of a war that many of them barely talked about after they came home — even among fellow veterans.

The day he was surfing with Lux at Del Mar, Lischer ran into one of his former co-workers, Eric Sandy. He found out Sandy had been at China Beach during one of his two tours in the Navy.

The two of them met in 1972 back in California. They worked together for 40 years, but they did not talk very much about their experience in Vietnam.

“Nobody wanted to know about my experience,” Sandy said. “When we came back we weren’t very well accepted. It’s not like we were treated as heroes.”

The exhibit at the California Surf Museum includes a recreation of the surf shack at China Beach. Artifacts from the time, include a surfboard fashioned from the parts used to repair swift boats. Among the more than 58,000 troops killed in Vietnam, 1,207 died by drowning or suffocation. The exhibit also recreates the equipment used by volunteers who became lifeguards for their fellow troops in Vietnam. The exhibit is expected to run throughout the year.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

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Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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