Pearl Harbor’s Role in Popularizing Surfing

We all have our hobbies, ranging from knitting to metalworking, reading the classics, or computer programming, and many, many more. However, we do not always know the origins of our hobbies. Granted, the majority probably emerged in mundane circumstances, but not all have such simple beginnings.

Clay Blair Jr. was a renowned journalist from the mid to late 20th century as well as a military historian and author. Before Blair became an author and journalist, he volunteered in the submarine service during World War II. It was at this time he and his friends picked up a hobby with an interesting history.

During and after World War II, Blair took many photographs illustrating his love for surfing. He wasn’t the only American to have picked up the hobby after the war, either. Thousands of Americans started surfing after the war ended and that number can be attributed to Pearl Harbor.

Clay Blair Jr. surfing in Hawaii, ca. 1944
Box 341, Folder 3, Clay Blair papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming. 

Pearl Harbor is not normally associated with surfing, but there is actually a close relationship. Prior to the second world war, surfing was a small hobby practiced by a handful of Polynesian individuals on the island of Hawaii. This changed during World War II. There were 35,000 soldiers stationed at Pearl Harbor, and it was the largest military post in the army. This number does not include the thousands of Navy men stationed in the area. Due to its size, it became a popular meeting place.

Soldiers and military officials from all over the United States travelled to Hawaii. As a result, thousands of people experienced Hawaiian culture firsthand. Polynesian activities and cultures spread throughout the United States as these soldiers returned home or moved to different posts. Pearl Harbor was the experience of new cultures, and California became an infusion of said cultures into the population. There was one activity in particular that caught the attention of continental Americans: surfing.

Clay Blair Jr. looking to catch a wave, ca. 1944.
Box 341, Folder 3, Clay Blair papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.  

Like Clay Blair, many Americans formed an avid interest in surfing. However, America did not keep surfing as a secret for very long. As soldiers migrated posts within America and into Europe, surfing spread with them. In the fifty years following World War II, surfing advanced from a hobby mostly practiced by a small group of islanders, to a professional competition sport taking place all over the world. Today, surfing is an Olympic sport with dozens of smaller competitions held every year.

Yes, we all have our hobbies, but not all hobbies have such a fantastic origin story. Pearl Harbor is directly responsible for the growth of surfing, not only throughout the United States, but the world. Without Pearl Harbor’s historical significance, surfing might never have been as popular of an activity nor have gained Olympic status. Clay Blair’s papers offers a look at those World War II-era years of surfing.

Today, between 17 and 35 million people surf, both professionally and as a hobby. Look into the origins and histories of your hobbies and you might just find something interesting.

Post contributed by AHC Photo Archivist Nora Plant and AHC Audio/Visual Archives Aide Kenzie McPhie.


This entry was posted in Authors and literature, Pacific Islander history, Sports and Recreation, Uncategorized, World War II and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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