Jake Newby, Pensacola News Journal Published 6:00 a.m. CT Oct. 11, 2019
‘Back to China Beach’ is a documentary produced in Pensacola spotlighting a Vietnam War-era surfing club and the Pensacola vet who helped fine tune it. Courtesy of Mike Cotton and Dave Barnes
Pensacola is just weeks away from the first screening of “Back to China Beach,” a locally produced documentary spotlighting the internationally acclaimed China Beach Surf Club and the local Vietnam veteran who helped grow it.
During the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, soldiers from all branches found reprieve from the rigors of war by riding the waves of the China Sea. Immortalized in museums across the country for decades, the club was shaped by Pensacola resident Larry Martin, a Navy storekeeper during Vietnam.
“Being able to be in the water and to be away from the war that’s happening right on the beach, it was like a relief,” Martin said Thursday. “That’s the only thing that kept their sanity.”
Pensacola-based producers Mike Cotton and Dave Barnes spoke to over 100 Vietnam veterans familiar or involved with the club for their documentary. “Back to China Beach” covers everything from Martin’s initiative to better organize the club and protect surfers from themselves, to the healing power of wave-riding, which many vets practiced long after they returned home.
“They had tried to start a club up originally before I was there and it didn’t really amount to a lot, I think they had 15 to 20 members,” the 73-year-old Martin recalled. “But it didn’t really advance to anything.”
When Martin was deployed to Da Nang, Vietnam, in November 1967, he soon made friends with the lifeguards and gained access to the lifeguard building.
Martin gained permission from his commanding officer to organize the club, agreeing to repair surfboards and take some of the burden off of the lifeguards who cared for China Beach surfers in addition to their standard duties.
Soldiers looking to surf during their down time were assigned a card by Martin, who would personally vet their surfing abilities — or lack thereof — before giving them the green light.
“There were not that many surfboards and we just didn’t really want every Joe Blow to have use of a board that did not really know how to surf,” Martin said. “What I would do is I would actually take the people out to the water, and I would be in the water and watch them to see if they have any skills or anything. And if they surfed well enough and they could use a board without damaging it, I’d issue them a card.”
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During his deployment from the end of 1967 to the beginning of 1969, Martin kept a log and found he had issued cards to between 170-180 servicemen.
“Anywhere where we have a strong military presence and we have veterans, particularly from the Vietnam era, we think it’s important because it’s authentic,” said Cotton, who co-produced “Back to China Beach.” “It’s not Dave (Barnes) and I telling the story — they’re telling their story. And obviously when you interview over 100 of them, you pretty much get dialed into what was really happening there and what their feelings are and what they’re going through today.”
Studio interviews with about 25 of the vets will be featured in the documentary, pieced together between clips and still images shot in Da Nang.
After the premiere screening in Pensacola toward the end of November, Cotton said he plans to take “Back to China Beach” on the road and partner with nonprofit charities across the country that Cotton and Barnes hope will facilitate a venue for a screening in exchange for 50% of the ticket proceeds.
“We’re going to partner with nonprofit organizations everywhere we go,” Cotton said. “We’ll of course give veteran groups priority dibs on being our nonprofit partner.”
Cotton said East and West Coast screenings are already in the works. The location of the Pensacola premiere is still being negotiated.
Jake Newby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8538.
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