Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku
Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku

In the summer of 1921, Johnny Weissmuller broke the world record for the 100-yard event in open water. The previous owner of that record was Duke Kahanomoku, the amazing Hawaiian swimmer who won five medals over three Olympics spanning the years 1912 to 1924.

As Weissmuller won race after race, and broke record after record, the lanky, broad-shouldered boy from Chicago was building a reputation for invincibility. No one could beat him as he crossed over into 1922. But many at the time believed that, until he defeated the champion from the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Duke Kahanamoku, Weissmuller would not be considered the fastest swimmer in the world.

At the end of June, 1922, a faceoff was looking very likely as the AAU National Championships were being held off the beaches of Honolulu Hawaii, where Kahanmoku lived. And the press, according to David Davis, in his well-written biography of Duke, called “Waterman“, were licking their chops in anticipation of this battle of the titans.

The newspapers played up their differences. Duke was symmetrically muscular with a powerful upper body and thighs that seemed custom-made for springs. Johnny had “wide shoulders, flat belly, no hips or buttocks, long, slender, smooth-muscled legs and arms,” according to sportswriter Paul Gallic. Duke was a pure sprinter; Johnny was versatile enough to win at distance events up to 500 meters and at other disciplines besides the freestyle. Duke was old school: reserved and circumspect. Johnny was jazz age: he liked to play the rogue and was an inveterate skirt chaser…. The anticipation that Duke, the human fish, would face off against Johnny, the human hydroplane, was keen.

Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku 2In the end, the public did not get to see Kahanamoku swim against Weissmuller in the AAU National Championships. Weissmuiller was there. The Duke, he was there. But only Weissmuller entered the pool.

According to Weissmuller’s coach Bill Bachrach, in David Fury’s biography of Weissmuller – Twice the Hero – Kahanamoku wisely pulled out of the competition, with some prompting by Bachrach himself. The coach said he gave Kahanamoku his stopwatch and time him himself.

Bachrach sent Johnny into the 25-yeard Punahou pool, and he swam at his top speed as the Duke timed him for 100-years. Kahanamoku was stunned as he watched Johnny swim faster than the Duke had ever done, confirmed by the stopwatch held by his own trembling hand. There was fear in the Duke’s heart, because he knew if he raced on the morrow he would be beaten by this relative newcomer to the swimming wars. The next day, all newspapers announced that the Duke had taken ill, and had left Honolulu to recuperate.

The flip side of this battle of egos was that Kahanamoku never intended to compete in the AAU event. According to members of the Kahanamoku camp, the Duke was actually in poor health, having lost some 10 kilos and was in no condition. And apparently, he was readying for his departure to Los Angeles. According to Davis, Olympic track sprinting champion, Charlie Paddock was adamant that Kahanamoku was not afraid of Weissmuller. “Duke did not quit the swim game because of Weissmuller. He quit because of personal reasons, one of them being that it is necessary to work to make a living, and you cannot work while traveling around the country swimming as an amateur.”

Of course, another consideration is that Kahanamoku was 14 years older than Weissmuller, and whose prime years went untested as the 1916 and 1920 Olympics were cancelled. So if Kahanamoku did decide to dance around possible encounters with the young and future king, it would not be hard to understand.

Regardless, whether you were Team Weissmuller or Team Kahanamoku, you had to wait until the 1924 Olympics before the two would go head to head. And as the two stood at the edge of the pool, just prior to the finals of the 100-meter sprint, Duke is reported to have offered this win-win proposition: “Johnny, good luck. The most important thing in this race is to get the American flag up there three times. Let’s do it.”

At the end of the race, only Americans stood on the winner’s podium, the crowd saluting two of the century’s greatest champions.

Vultee Hale Herwig and Kahanamoku after the rescue
Just days after the rescue, four of Four of the heroes pose for a picture. From left to right: Gerry Vultee, Owen Hale, Bill Herwig and Duke Kahanamoku. ,Courtesy of Paul Burnett

It was a lazy weekend at Newport Beach in Los Angeles on June 14, 1925. Three-time Olympic gold-medal-winning swimmer, Duke Kahanamoku, had just woken up and stepped out of his tent on the beach at 6:40 in the morning for a swim. When he looked out onto the choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean, he saw a disaster unfold. A yacht named Thelma, carrying 17 people heading out to sea looking for tuna did not see the checkered flag, indicating unsafe waters.

Suddenly, a squall struck and waves as high as twenty feet high, were pounding the Thelma, and Kahanamoku watched the yacht list at a 45 degree angle on top of high waves, glass breaking, rigging and men flying overboard. Kahanamoku grabbed his surfboard and lept into the frothy waves.

Waterman CoverKahanamoku grabbed one man, then two, then a third, plopping them all on his surfboard before heading back to shore. By then, two of his camp friends, Owen Hale and Jerry Vultee, met him halfway and took the three survivors to safety. Back went Kahanamoku, as thrillingly relayed by David Davis in his biography of Kahanamoku, entitled Waterman.

Duke turned around, inhaled mightily, and jumped on his board. He dug into the water toward the Thelma. He secured two flailing fishermen and maneuvered them onto his board, then kicked towards Hale, Vultee, and safety. (Local meteorologist Antar) Deraga telephoned for assistance while his wife and a nurse, Mary Grigsby, wrapped the survivors in blankets and tried to resuscitate the unconscious men. Two bystanders, Charlie Plummer of Balboa and William McElhannon from Santa Ana, assisted in the rescue. For a third time, Kahanamoku turned to the sea. He picked up stragglers and placed them on his board until, finally, he could do no more.

Of the 17 on the Thelma, 12 were rescued, 8 saved solely by Kahanamoku.

Kahanamoku said little of this superhuman feat. But said J. A. Porter, chief of police in Newport Beach, “The Duke’s performance was the most superhuman rescue act and the finest display of surfboard riding that has ever been seen in the world.”

While surf lifesaving has become a profession as well as an international sporting competition, particularly in Australia, Davis explains that Kahanamoku himself wrote that his actions over 90 years ago made the surfboard de riguer for beach lifeguards.

“{The rescue] helped sell lifeguard service on the wisdom of keeping paddleboards at he guard towers. The boards soon became standard equipment on the emergency rescue trucks as well as at the towers. In short, some good sometimes comes from the worst of tragedies.”

Duke Kahanamoku and Henry Fonda
Duke Kahanamoku with film star Henry Fonda (1905 – 1982) who is draped in leis. Fonda is in Hawaii for the filming of ‘Mister Roberts’.

Kahanamoku first achieved Olympic glory in 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden, but because of the cancellation of the 1916 Olympic Games, Kahanamoku had to figure out how to remain an amateur for 8 years until he competed again at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.

Only a few months after the 1912 Stockholm Games, gold medalist pentathlete and decathlete, Jim Thorpe, was stripped of his medals and amateur status because he took home pocket change for playing semi-pro baseball in 1909 and 1910.

Kahanamoku, who considered Thorpe a friend, was crestfallen, and was reported to have said, “Jimmy Thorpe was the greatest athlete there ever was. He could do everything. And what happened to him was a bad break for sports and for everyone.”

When Thorpe was stripped of his medals, Kahanamoku and his backers had to be cautious. So, according to author David Davis, when the citizens of Hawaii raised money for Duke Kahanamoku after his gold-medal winning performance at the 1912 Stockholm Games, they weren’t sure how to provide it to him lest they risk Kahanamoku losing his amateur status. And if Kahanamoku lost his amateur status, and could no longer compete in AAU events or the Olympics, then Kahanamoku’s ability to draw tourists and opportunities to Hawaii, it was thought, would diminish. Eventually, a house was bought by a trust company, and Kahanamoku was able to move into a new home. The trust was set up so that he could never re-sell the home. The flip side of the deal is that the powers that be in Hawaii probably kept this transaction under the AAU radar.

While it is possible that Kahanamoku received cash very quietly for appearances at exhibitions all over the world, as well as for low-key advertising campaigns in a pre-television, pre-internet world, Kahanamoku did not financially benefit from his immense celebrity while he was an athlete. This was true even after Kahanamoku had surrendered his amateur status and tried to make it in the world of film. His Hawaiian “otherness”, however, got him typecast as the quiet pacific islander surfer, or native American Indian chief. He was never able to rise to the easy heights of fellow swimmers, Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan films, or Buster Crabbe in the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers films.

Anita Stewart and Duke Kahanamoku
Anita Stewart and Duke Kahanamoku in what I think is the 1927 film Isle of Sunken Gold

Kahanamoku is credited with appearances in 14 feature films, including the WWII naval classic, Mr Roberts, with Henry Fonda and James Cagney. But one film that is not mentioned is The Beachcomber, a film made shortly after Kahanamoku’s triumph in Stockholm. It never got distributed in the US, as it was seen as a threat to Kahanamoku’s amateur status. Here is how David Davis explains it in Kahanmoku’s biography, Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku:

Before returning to Hawaii, Kahanamoku made his motion picture debut in The Beachcomber, shot on an unidentified beach in Southern California. The one-reel silent film was directed by its star, Hobart Bosworth, a pioneer in Hollywood’s nascent movie industry. (Bosworth also was a friend and business associate of the author Jack London.) Duke did not have to stretch much to play a native islander who swims out to rescue Bosworth’s character from drowning. Publicity shots showed him wearing nothing more than a sarong. Bosworth had to delay releasing the film, however, after it was discovered that “the champion might lose his right as an amateur if swimming for money,” according to Motion Picture News. It is unclear whether The Beachcomber was ever shown or distributed in the United States, although foreign audiences reportedly were able to view the stirring flick.

australia surf brands

Surfing is as Australian as vegemite. Champion surfers from Australia are commonplace. The image of an Aussie lifeguard on his surfboard to the rescue is now clichéd. Some of the biggest brands in surfing wear – Quicksilver and Billabong – are Australian. And even though the UGG Australia is an American brand, the company was started by an Australian surfer.

Australia is over 5,600 miles away from Hawaii. But when Duke Kahanamoku came to Australia in 1914, the locals must have thought he was from another planet. Kahanamoku was world famous, which is saying a lot for that time. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, a natural on the water, Kahanamoku was such an amazing swimmer that he got on the US Olympic team and won a gold medal in the 100 meters, and a silver in a relay race at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

Duke Kahanamoku surfing in Australia
Duke Kahanamoku, Cronulla Beach Australia, 7th February 1915

Thanks to the stunning photos of Kahanamoku standing erect on his board while riding the waves in Hawaii, and his accomplishments at the Olympic Games, Kahanamoku was invited to compete in swimming events in Australia and New Zealand. He had heard that surfing on the beaches of Australia was illegal, so he didn’t bring his board. But when he arrived and was told that surfing was in fact legal, he said he would build a board himself. According to author David Davis in his wonderful biography of Kahanamoku, Waterman, Kahanamoku went to a lumberyard, got the wood he wanted, and shaped an eight-and-a-half foot “round-nosed, square-tailed board”.

Kahanamoku wowed them. Davis quotes The Sunday Times (Sydney), from December 27, 1914:

Duke Kahanamoku in Australia
Duke Kahanamoku at the Freshwater Clubhouse, Australia, with the board he made on arrival

“Kahanamoku was the ‘human motor boat,’ wrote one observer. ‘So lightning like was the movement that all one could see was a dark figure – it might have been a post for all that the spectators knew – flying through space. We had known him only by repute; we had seen him in pictures in one of his famous attitudes – standing on his surf board, being borne shorewards on the crest of a wave, a smile on his dusky countenance, and there were a lot of us who imagined the poster to be grossly exaggerated; too theatrical, in fact. But we are wrong. The man on the poster is the Duke all right, but the picture errs on the side of modesty.'”

It is legend that Kahanamoku was the first to surf on Australian shores. But that is not the case. Brothers, William and Tommy Walker of Australia appear to have purchased a surfboard in Hawaii and brought it back to Sydney before Duke was on the scene. But there is no doubt that Kahanamoku, his presence, demeanor and skill, made him and surfing a phenomenon.

“Kahanamoku was the first expert to surf in Australian waters,” wrote Davis. “And, as he had done previously in places like Atlantic City and Southern California, his skill at ‘walking on water’ inspired numerous followers. At least three of the young people whom he directly touched on the 1914-1915 trip – Claude West, “Snow” McAlister, and Isabel Letham – grew up to become influential figures in Australian circles. Once