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.Infantry Ron Sizemore

Surfing Vietnam On The Government’s Dime

By: Ron Sizemore

1st. Platoon, Company B, 4th. Battalion, 47th. Infantry, 9th. Infantry Division

Spyder Wills and I had just finished skateboarding Pacific Island Drive south of the city of Laguna Beach, California. Spyder had driven me back to my house in his 1959 Peugeot 403 and parked in front of the mailbox. As I got out of the car Spyder said, “Bet you got your draft notice today.” I would have lost the bet had I taken him up on it.

The Journey begins

Prior to 1966 the Vietnam War had been going on for several years only with advisors but the United States was becoming more involved now. I was twenty-one and a half and had already finished several semesters of Junior College and had lost my student deferment and I was ripe for the picking. In 1966 the United States did not have an all-volunteer Army like today but instead filled the ranks by the draft. One was given a number and my number was called so I went to the Induction Center in Los Angeles for a physical. If you were found to be fit you were in–simple as that. One more trip to the Induction Center a week or so later and I was bused to Los Angeles International Airport put on Continental Airlines and flown to Kansas City, Missouri. I was then bused to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. All of us inducted spent two weeks there receiving fatigues-olive drab in color, boots, socks, t-shirts and a matching duffle bag to place everything in. Time was spent by the cadre teaching us how to march and we were given a battery of intelligence tests. One of the tests that a select few of us were given was a typing test. I finished the typing test with three pages–I had Typing I and Typing II in high school. I thought I would be assigned as a Clerk Typist, not so all of us were assigned to the Infantry. Along with boots, fatigues etc. we were given “dog tags” two each that had our name; service number beginning with a “US” meaning United States or if one were to enlist the service number would begin with an “RA” for Regular Army. On our “dog tags” were also our blood type and religion. There was a small notch on the end of each tag in the middle and they were to hang around our neck at all times. If we died on the battlefield the tags would be removed and one would be placed in our mouth between our upper and lower teeth and we would be struck in the jaw with the butt end of the rifle locking our jaw onto our identification. Welcome to the world of war.

I had now been out of the water for almost a month without surfing. In 1961 I had won the Men’s Division at the West Coast Surfing Championship in Huntington Beach, California, which is now the U.S. Open of Surfing. Prior to Huntington I had competed in Laguna’s surfing contest held at Brooks Street, several San Onofre contests starting in the boys and then moving up into the men’s when I was older and also the San Clemente Surf Capades receiving second place to Mike Doyle.

My induction into the Army was cramping my surfing style. I had surfed in Baja, most of California, and Hawaii. I had been out of the water and away from the ocean longer than I had ever been before but I was adjusting to it in a slow way. The Army now had all of us in a physical fitness program of marching, doing push-ups, sit-ups and “police call” picking up cigarette butts after smoking–yes, they even let us smoke!

Ft. Leonard Wood was our introduction into Army life, food, marching, saluting (who and when). This was just the beginning. We were bused to Fort Riley, Kansas to an area called Camp Funston for Basic Infantry Training. The trip to Fort Riley took the better part of a summer day.

The buses pulled into Camp Funston, Fort Riley Kansas on a day in late May of 1966 around 6:00pm or 1800hrs, which we were slowly learning, was military time. “Off the bus and line up. When your name is called, sound off like you’ve got a pair.” Sound off like you’ve got a pair would be heard for the next six weeks. When my name was called I was placed in the 1st. Platoon, Company B, 4th. Battalion, 47th. Infantry, 9th, Infantry Division. Up to that point in my life I had belonged to: The Laguna Beach Surfing Club, The Newport Beach Surfing Club, The San Onofre Surfing Club and The Malibu Surfing Association. Never had I been in an organization of the magnitude as the 9th. Infantry Division! I would be with these guys for the next 14 months of my life.

Fort Riley and Laguna

The next six weeks were spent learning to become “fighting machines.” We were issued M14 rifles–7.62mm NATO weapons. We learned how to “field strip” a 45cal. handgun and put it back together, blindfolded! Never did see or have a 45cal. the rest of my time in the service. Outside the Mess Hall was a set of “traveling bars” that we had to hand our way across before breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We went through the bayonet course stabbing hanging stuffed dummies and when we were asked, “What do you eat?” our reply was, “raw meat.” A sergeant noticing that I wasn’t totally involved would send me to the motor pool to get the gas engine tractor with a seat on it. My job was to mow the parade field while everyone yelled, “raw meat.”

During the middle of June we were given three weeks leave so I headed back to Laguna and as much surfing as I could fit in during those three weeks. Laguna was just starting to fill up with Hippies who had filtered down from San Francisco. As they say, “there was sex, drugs, and rock & roll.” And that’s the truth.

Back To Fort Riley

On return to Fort Riley our unit moved up to Custer Hill. Does the name ring a bell? Fort Riley in the middle of Kansas was the home of General George Custer, America’s great Indian fighter and everyone does remember him, do they not? Well if not, Custer lost. Custer Hill was exposed to all the elements. We furthered our training the rest of the year on that damn hill; the winds, sleet and snow blew straight out of Canada with nothing to stop freezing the water in our canteens. Every idiot knew Vietnam was in the tropics and it didn’t snow there.

After spending my three-week leave surfing I was already starting to miss it. I wrote Hobie a letter and asked him to please send me a skateboard–shortly thereafter a “Banana” model with clay wheels arrived in the mail. As one friend wrote some years later. “Sizemore was another of the California kids, a real, live surfer. He had a skateboard with him during training and would do tricks going down the hall outside the platoon bay at Fort Riley.” 1
Ron Sizemore Ft. Riley, Kansas 1966Between skateboarding to stay on top of my surfing skills I attended classes with the rest of the platoon.   To further our proficiency with military weapons we were schooled in Advanced Weapons Training to include:

M79 Grenade Launcher (this is what I carried before getting an Over/Under–M79 under an M16)– the M79 alone was a Blunderbuss!

Machine Gun both M60 and 50 caliber

M72 “Law” shoulder-fired rocket launcher

Claymore mines, which we tore apart in Vietnam when they became useless so we could use the C4 in them to heat our C rations.

In between classes we flew around Fort Riley in Hueys {helicopters) as the 9th. Division was going to maybe be Air Mobile! We camped, dug foxholes, and marched.

Another Leave

On December 15th. 1966 we had a two-week leave. I headed to Utah where I met my brother, sister and parents who had driven up from Laguna Beach. I skied Alta, Brighton, Park City and Tip Haven (shortly after to become Sundance – think Robert Redford) located in Provo Canyon. I was unable to break my leg skiing and be excused from what would become my Surfing Trip to Vietnam.

On The Way

Two feet of snow met us when we returned from leave on January 2, 1967. We were loaded aboard a train in Fort Riley on return from leave. Three days later we were in Oakland, California to then board a troop ship–MSTS John Pope for a voyage across the Pacific (the Pope also served in WWII and Korea). The trip across the Pacific took 28 days with a stop in Okinawa to refuel. We took shore leave and went into the city of Naha to drink beer, eat lunch and return back to the ship later in the afternoon, stone drunk.

January 25, 1967

Arriving in Vung Tau harbor we disembarked and moved to Bear Cat our base camp. Bear Cat was located between Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Vung Tau. We basically went out on patrols into the rubber plantations around the area and conducted night ambushes. The patrols and ambushes provided security from probes into the base camp. Sometime later we moved back to Vung Tau and onto troop ships to be part of a new riverine assault force working with the Navy. I was now to be close to the water although not yet surfing.
Vung Tau, Vietnam Scenes1 1968 copyOne weekend they took us into Vung Tau for a beach party. Now I hadn’t seen sand or a real beach since my leave way back in the middle of June 1966 and it was now March 1967. We were not allowed to swim so we spent the day on the beach drinking beer at one of the local bars and playing “grab ass.” I was stoked just to spend that one-day in the sand.

Our new field of operation was in mud and water in an area called the Rhung Sat (I was to find out sometime later it was also called The Forest of Assassins). The Navy would drop us off and we would be extracted a day or two later by landing craft or the Huey helicopters. We were taken back to the ship where we cleaned our gear, had hot meals, hot showers and beds to sleep in.

We then moved deeper into the Mekong Delta area of South Vietnam to a newly built base camp called Dong Tam. We were still working closely with the Navy. The Navy would insert and extract us in various areas around Dong Tam for us to make contact.

Through attrition (wounded, and death) of my “Band of Brothers” we were starting to get replacements. The army had also started the “Infusion Program” of moving people from our unit into other units so we would not leave a gaping hole when all of us returned back to the States in November 1967.

June 19, 1967 Riverine Warfare on the Rach Nui 2

As you recall I had told you I was assigned to B Co. 1st. Platoon. On June 19, 1967 A Co. walked into an L-shaped ambush the result was as follows:

A Co 4/47 Infantry   27 dead

B Co 4/47 Infantry     3 dead

C Co 4/47 Infantry   6 dead

HHC Co 4/47 Infantry   4 dead

And that is not counting the wounded. The final GI toll: 48KIA and 150WIA

In August 1967 two months after Rach Nui and many new faces in my platoon who were replacements and not yet “battle proven” drove me to a decision that would enable me to surf in Vietnam. An extremely lucky roll of the dice!

I had been in the infantry for a year and two months-total time. To get out of the infantry I had to re-enlist thus becoming Regular Army (I was now RA and no longer US) and would have to give the Army three years of my life from the re-enlistment date thus giving me a choice of duty assignments. I chose from the list, Trains and was told, “We have no trains in Vietnam.” I said, “well send me where the Army has trains.” The re-enlistment NCO said, “The Army doesn’t work that way, pick something else.” I picked “Mike Boats” which was just next-door from where I was in the Delta at Dong Tam; I could have walked right over and started my new assignment. The Army does not work that way either. I had to go to “Mike Boat HDQ. Co.” They were in Vung Tau!!! And then I was to come back to the Delta. The Infantry took my rifle (it belonged to them-not me) and flew me to Saigon and then two days later I was sent by Army Tug Boat down the Saigon River to the Port of Vung Tau. It was the way the army “didn’t work that way” that put me in Vung Tau.

At Vung Tau a “Bird” Colonel asked if I wanted to sign a waiver on my re-enlistment commitment and work at the Port. I was now assigned to the 511th. Trans. Det. as a Documentation Movement Control Specialist-“cargo checker” unloading cargo from ships, supervising/working with Vietnamese at night. The days were mine!

The Cat Is Out Of The Bag

Up to this point in time my “Band of Brothers” knew that I surfed. They thought everyone from California surfed they just didn’t know to what degree I surfed and did not find out until some years later.

After several weeks of getting familiar with my new job in Vung Tau I started to explore. The town of Vung Tau was developed by the French and had a handful of French villas-several with tennis courts (forgot to pack the tennis racket), Vung Tau was a resort for the French. When the Americans arrived Vung Tau became a place for troops to take a week of R & R (Rest and Relaxation). At the beach Special Services had lifeguards and also a handful of surfboards for the troops to surf if they knew how or looked like they did.

My First Surf In Vung Tau, Vietnam
Vung Tau, Vietnam Scenes1 1968 copy 2
September 1967 and I had been out of surfing for little over a year. I approached one of the lifeguards standing near the boards. From this point on I will let Second Class Petty Officer Tom Woods tell of our first encounter:
Tom Woods & Ron Sizemore Vung Tau, Vietnam 1968

“One of the most memorable experiences of my entire tour occurred one morning while lifeguarding. An impeccably dressed man, complete with waxed mustache and black sunglasses asked if he could borrow a board. We would always mentally size up a person before we loaned a board out and something told me this guy knew how to surf, so I loaned him the 9’6″ Greg Noll.”

“As he walked to enter the water I asked, “What’s your name?” “Ron Sizemore,” he replied.”

“His name rang a bell. Then it hit me. Ron Sizemore, the United States Surfing Champion. (I recalled seeing photos of Ron surfing backwards through the Huntington pier. I had even spoken to him once at Wardy Surfboards in Laguna Beach.) From the first wave he caught, Ron’s surfing was poetry in motion. The other lifeguards stopped to watch. The kids on the beach who sold fruit gathered around me as Ron switch-footed his way through knee high waves with total freedom. He hung five toes, then ten toes, then heels and a spinner or two for good luck. Talk about inspiration and enthusiasm; every one of us was stoked! Ron eventually became a volunteer lifeguard. That meeting was the start of a friendship that has lasted four decades. 3”Ron Sizemore Vung Tau, Vietnam - 1968

A Year In Vung Tau

I’ve often said that if you are going on a surf trip spend at least a year. Get to know the people, fish with them, eat with them, and work with them. We did not have 365 days of good surf but when there were good days I was “on it” because I lived there. On one flat day we even took the outboard out and I water-skied behind it in the 80-degree water of the South China Sea. South Vietnam was a beautiful country in 1967-68. I’ve talked to people who come from there and they say the trees are gone and there is traffic now in Vung Tau with hotels on the beach and taller buildings. Much like Laguna Beach and other places around the world cities are loosing the “small town” charm they once had in years past.

A part of me will always miss the year that I spent in Vung Tau living a footloose and fancy-free life even while in the United States Army. I was the real life “Lance Johnson” in the real life Vietnam War eleven years prior to the movie Apocalypse Now appearing in the theaters in the late 70’s.

Read Surfing Vietnam on the Government’s Dime! Part two of three.