King of the Surfers and
California's Forgotten Hero
By Arthur C. Verge
Aloha! And welcome to this chapter of LEGENDARY SURFERS.
In 2001, Arthur C. Verge's "George Freeth: King of the Surfers and California's Forgotten Hero"
was published in the California Historical Society's magazine California History, quickly
establishing his work as the most detailed single source available on the man best known as
"The Father of California Surfing."
The article is reproduced here, with Arthur's permission and with a number of images from the original
publication. We just ask that if you really enjoy this look into the life of George Freeth and want to
donate to a good cause, that you make a donation to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation,
Southern California Chapter:
Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Southern California Chapter
CFF, So Cal Chapter Donations
"Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Not far from the crowded shoreline of
Waikiki Beach is the final
resting place of a native Hawaiian who forever changed California and
its image to the world. Beneath the Freeth
family tombstone is his simple burial marker. Only the engraved
lettering "G.D. 1883-1919" designates it as his grave. The small grave
site makes no mention of George Douglas Freeth,
Jr., as having been awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the
Congressional Gold Medal. Nor does it indicate that he is considered
the father of modem ocean lifesaving. No mention is made that he was
the person who first demonstrated and taught the sport of surfing in
southern California. Within the serene tropical confines of Oahu
Cemetery, however, the light winds blow eastward toward the mainland,
seemingly carrying the gentle spirit of the man whose impact on such
California icons as ocean lifeguards, surfers, swimmers, and water-polo
players, is still felt in modern times. (2)
George Douglas Freeth, Jr., was
born on the Hawaiian island of Oahu on November 9, 1883, to a
well-connected local family. His maternal grandfather, whose grave is
only a few feet from his own, was London-born William Lowthian Green.
Although a once-failed California gold prospector, Green earned a
substantial fortune in Hawaii by helping to found an inter-island
shipping company. He also co-founded and later managed the highly
profitable Honolulu Iron Works. Well-educated and blessed with a hearty
adventurous spirit, Green, in 1880, became Hawaii's Minister of Foreign
Affairs. (3) His daughter, Elizabeth Kaili, who was one-half Hawaiian,
married Englishman George Freeth, Sr.,
on December 16,1879. The union produced six children, of whom George, Jr.,
was the third of four boys and two girls. (4)
At an early age the younger George took to the ocean. He excelled at
both swimming and diving. At a time when island newspapers proudly
boasted that Hawaii was "the home of swimmers," George was selected
captain of the prominent Waikiki-based Healani swim team. (5) In an age
before radio and television, large numbers of tourists and islanders
would congregate to attend local water carnivals. It was during these
events that a youthful Freeth first
made his mark as a gifted waterman. Although a preeminent champion
swimmer, he proved to be a crowd favorite with his skills on the high
dive. To the delight of spectators and the admiration of competitors,
he performed "high and fancy" dives, many of which had never been seen.
Among those who witnessed and admired George's aquatic prowess was the
young Duke Kahanamoku. Kahanamoku, who later
rose to legendary status
in both the sports of swimming and surfing, became a life-long admirer
and friend of the older Freeth. (6)
While Freeth enjoyed exceptional
athletic success in community swimming pools, it was in the ocean where
he excelled. Waikiki Beach was near the family home. There, with its
tropical setting, warm ocean temperatures, and slow rolling surf, he
spent much of his early life. It was also in these waters that George
first attracted international attention from the pen of middle-aged
travel and adventure writer Alexander Hume Ford.
Ford, who later gained fame for his ceaseless promotion of Hawaii
and its culture, settled in Oahu in early 1907, after having traveled
extensively throughout Asia and Siberia. Among his notable works from
these theaters was his coverage of the building of the Trans-Siberian
Railroad. Arriving in the islands as a well-established author, the
South Carolinian quickly went to work researching and writing about
Hawaiian society. (7) One aspect of native culture that particularly
fascinated him was the sport of surfing. Like most people worldwide, he
had never seen anything like it. To better understand the sport, which
at one time had been banned throughout Hawaii by New England
missionaries who deplored its "immodesty and idleness," Ford sought to
learn it. (8)
Ford's early attempts at surfing met with one failure after another.
Nonetheless, he soldiered on, enlisting the paid assistance of local
surfing instructors. Even that failed. He wrote, "It seemed to me that
my teachers must give me up as an inept pupil, and they did." Ford's
persistence paid off, however. As he continued his struggle to stand up
on a board, a young surfer noticed his predicament and paddled over to
assist him. It was George Freeth.
Ford wrote, "A young hapahole (half-white, half-native) took pity on
me. He was the champion surfer of the Islands." Ford wrote glowingly of
his first meeting with the young Hawaiian, "I learned in a half an hour
the secret I had sought for weeks." (9)
Their meeting in the waters off Waikiki proved fortuitous for both men.
In Freeth, Ford found a kindred soul. The young Hawaiian's polite, genteel manner
matched his own cultured southern upbringing. More importantly,
Freeth was very much like the author
himself: restless, driven, and filled with an adventurous spirit. Ford would
not only write of Freeth's skills on a surfboard to a worldwide audience, but he became so taken
with the sport itself that he assisted in establishing the
Outrigger Canoe and Surfboard Club
on Waikiki Beach. He had two goals in creating
the group. One was to encourage and preserve the sport among native
Hawaiians. The other was to use the club's idyllic location, which
fronted several beach hotels, to introduce surfing to visiting
tourists. (10) For his part, Freeth gave Ford's work
credibility among the island population. Not only was Freeth
respected and admired by locals on Waikiki Beach, his reputation was
such that Hawaiian government officials selected him in May of 1907 to
a ccompany a United States congressional delegation that was touring
the Hawaiian Islands on a fact-finding mission. Freeth
acted both as a host and the delegation's chief lifeguard. (11) Also
joining the expedition, which was organized to determine if Hawaii
could qualify for future statehood, was Ford. For years afterward, Ford
used the tour and the connections he made on it as a political conduit
to interest Washington in the territory and its peoples.
As the congressional tour continued to make its way throughout the
island chain, Ford decided to remain behind in Waikiki. (12) It was on
Oahu that he made perhaps his greatest connection in publicizing the
islands and his now-beloved sport of surfing. On the evening of May 29,
1907, Ford spotted fellow adventure
writer Jack London and his wife,
Charmian, enjoying a quiet drink in the foyer of the Royal Hawaiian
Hotel. The southerner strolled over to the couple and introduced
himself. At the time, London was arguably the most popular writer in
the United States. To his good fortune, London was well aware of Ford's
work and invited him to join them for dinner. (13)
While the two men discussed their various writing forays around the
globe, it was Ford's talk of his latest project, which was to document
and revive the ancient Hawaiian sport of surfing, that caught London's
attention. London was so captivated by the other author's description
of the sport that he readily agreed to join him on a "surfing
excursion" in the waves off Waikiki Beach. Several days later, within
sight of Charmian London, the two adventurers began to wade out into
the breakers. Although Ford had greatly improved his skills on a board,
he was certainly no expert, and preferred to surf on the smaller
"inside" waves. However, far out in the distant surf, the two men spied
George Freeth riding speedily across
a large wave. Just as Ford had been when he first eye-witnessed
surfing, London was enthralled. Mustering up their courage, the novices
paddled out to join Freeth. London later wrote:
Shaking the water from my eyes as I emerged from one wave and peered
ahead to see what the next one looked like, I saw him tearing in on the
back of it, standing upright on his board, carelessly poised, a young
god with sunburn. We went through the wave on the back of which he
rode. Ford called to him. He turned an airspring from his wave, rescued
his board from its maw, paddled over to us and joined Ford in showing
me things. (14)
Although London later suffered from severe sunburn and a bump on his
head as a result of getting hit by a loose board, he wrote
enthusiastically of his first experience surfing. He was also
particularly taken with Freeth.
Though the young Hawaiian was modest about his abilities in the ocean,
London immortalized him and his water skills to readers worldwide. He
wrote: "He is a Mercury--a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in
them is the swiftness of the sea." (15)
As Ford and London continued to enjoy Hawaii, Freeth
approached them for letters of introduction to take on a planned trip
to California. Both authors happily complied. The three shared much in
common: they were exceptional at what they did; all three enjoyed
adventure; and all seemed to be afflicted with wanderlust. Now with
introductions from the two notable authors as well as from members of
the Hawaii Promotion Committee, whose purpose was to increase tourism
to Hawaii from the mainland, Freeth boarded the San Francisco-bound
passenger ship Alameda on July 3, 1907.
Freeth's departure from Hawaii was
front-page news in the island's main newspaper, The Pacific Commercial
Advertiser. Under the banner "GEORGE FREETH OFF TO COAST -- Will Illustrate
Hawaiian Surfriding to People in California," the article, accompanied by a
portrait of Freeth, detailed the
twenty-three-year-old's contributions in reviving the once banned sport
of surfing. The newspaper reported:
"At the time when Freeth first took
up surf riding there had been very few here for many years who had been
able to perform the trick of standing on a surfboard, and coming in to
the shore on the crest of a wave. The white man who could do it was
exceptional. Freeth determined that
if the old natives had been able to do the trick there was no reason
that he could not do the same. In a short time he mastered the feat and
then went further. The older inhabitants told of natives in the early
days who stood on their heads when they came in.
Freeth soon proved that this could be done at the present time as well as before." (16)
Three weeks after leaving Honolulu, Freeth
was spotted surfing the waves off the southern California beach
community of Venice. His appearance drew large crowds of onlookers. On
July 22, 1907, a small news article with the headline "Surf Riders Have
Drawn Attention" appeared in the Santa Monica-based newspaper The Daily
The young Hawaiian's arrival in southern California could not have
occurred at a better time. Los Angeles in 1907 was undergoing a large
growth spurt both in population and business formation. Venice and
Redondo Beach were centerpieces of real-estate development along the
region's stunning coastline. In May of 1904, cigarette magnate Abbot
Kinney had announced a grandiose plan to develop a coastal resort
community south of Santa Monica that would be modeled after Venice,
Italy. Within twelve months, what had been derided by many in Los
Angeles as "Kinney's Folly" had become a reality complete with scenic
waterways, gondolas, and picturesque Italianate-designed buildings.
Just a dozen miles to the south, meanwhile, Kinney's sometime
business rival, Henry Huntington, was busy purchasing land in Redondo
Beach. (19) In July of 1905, he bought the Redondo Company, which owned
nearly all the land in the quiet coastal town. "When I studied the
place and saw its attractions," he remarked, "the beautiful topography
it possessed, those terraces rising in harmonious degrees from the sea,
I determined that it presented such features as should make it the
great resort of this region." (20) Very shortly, a three-story,
Moorish-style pavilion began to rise. Housing a massive second-story
ballroom that could accommodate more than five-hundred dancing couples
at a time, the 34,069-square-foot pavilion acted as a lure in
attracting visitors to his real estate interests in Redondo Beach. (21)
In addition, Huntington had solidified his investment in Redondo as
well as his other substantial land holdings in southern California by
developing what would become the region's dominant transportation
system, the Pacific Electric Railway.
By 1907, both resort cities were attracting substantial numbers of
visitors. Many of those who traveled aboard Huntington's big red cars
to the coast fell in love with the beaches and their fresh ocean air.
This, however, proved problematic for parents and children alike in
that the inviting ocean they encountered at the shoreline could prove
deadly for those who attempted to swim out among the waves. Recognizing
the inherent dangers for those wanting to take "swims" along the coast,
both Kinney and Huntington built swimming pools adjacent to their beach
areas. Owing to the fitness craze sweeping the nation at the time,
boosted in part by the very physically active President Theodore
Roosevelt (1901-1909), these warm salt-water pools were very popular
with the beachgoing public.
Although the pools offered water recreation, the ocean was far more
alluring for some bathers, especially venturesome teenagers. Many
parents who once had considered buying coastal property did not,
fearing that the attraction of swimming in the ocean would prove too
tempting for their offspring. So dangerous were the waters that even
experienced swimmers lost their lives at an alarming rate along the
shores of Santa Monica Bay. (22) Following the drowning deaths of two
fishermen off Venice on May 12,1907, both The Herald Examiner and The
Daily Outlook wrote editorials condemning the lack of lifesaving
equipment and trained ocean lifesavers along Santa Monica Bay.
Two months before George Freeth
appeared surfing off the shoreline of Venice, Abbot Kinney, "The Doge
of Venice," was appealing to residents to assist him in recruiting
volunteer lifeguards. With her service group, The Pick and Shovel Club,
Kinney's wife, Margaret, led a fund-raising effort to purchase a boat
that could be used by lifesavers in the event of an ocean rescue. On
May 28, 1907, the Venice Lifesaving Crew was formed with twenty-eight
men volunteering their services. (23) Sadly, only weeks later as the
neophyte crew was practicing, a wave capsized the small two-man
training dory, and volunteer lifesaver Charles Watson drowned in front
of his stunned crew mates. According to The Daily Outlook, "Watson's
drowning probably constitutes the most heartrending tragedy that was
ever enacted within sight of the beach here and took place less than
400 hundred [sic] feet from where more than a score of the life corps
stood, absolutely unable to in any way prevent his untimely death."
The publication of the ocean lifesaving crew's inability to save one
of their own spelled potential financial disaster for the growing beach
tourist trade, as well as the region's coastal real-estate industry.
However, the appearance of George Freeth in July 1907 marked the beginning
of change. In Freeth,
both Kinney and Huntington found a young man whose skill in aquatics
drew crowds to their respective beaches. Moreover, his exceptional
dexterity on the surfboard, which included standing on his head while
surfing down a wave, tantalized beach going audiences as to what fun
swimming in the ocean could be if they, too, could master Freeth's
talents. It also helped that George was personable and intelligent. He
possessed a warm and temperate nature that was ideal for teaching.
Within six months of his arrival in California, Freeth
was commuting between the two seaside communities aboard Huntington's
Pacific Electric Railway. At Redondo, in the employ of Huntington, Freeth
performed his surfing act twice a day under the billing "The Hawaiian Wonder." (25)
Along Venice's beach, meanwhile, Freeth
did surfing exhibitions and worked with the volunteer lifesavers. At
both locations, residents and visitors alike were captivated by the
transplanted Hawaiian. For his part, Freeth
understood the need to showcase his aquatic skills. He was savvy to
promotion. With his surfing act he not only drew crowds to the beach
locales but also to the plunges where he earned his living as a
lifeguard and as a swimming and diving instructor.
Nevertheless, Freeth was not in the
water-sport promotion business solely to make money. His real passion,
which he approached with missionary fervor, was water safety. In the
course of his work he selected and trained a group of young swimmers to
become ocean lifeguards. Several of these would go on to form today's
Los Angeles County, Long Beach, and San Diego Lifeguard Services. Freeth
taught them such lifesaving skills as rescue swimming, ocean rowing,
and paddling. The young neophytes were tutored by the gifted waterman
in the art of using rip currents to help speed them out to swimmers in
distress. Whereas other rescue personnel, particularly lifesavers on
the East Coast, believed rip currents acted as an "undertow," Freeth
demonstrated in his own rescue work that rip currents themselves do not drag
swimmers "under," but instead out to sea. Freeth
taught that fighting against powerful rip currents tired trapped
swimmers and caused them to drown. Under his direction, then, his young
proteges would enter the rip current, swim with it to the victim, and
then guide the victim laterally out of the pulling current. This simple
technique, which is still employed today, was responsible for saving
hundreds of lives within its first five years of use.
Freeth did not stop there. Those under
his tutelage, whether male or female, were expected to become
"watermen." The young Hawaiian's vision of a true "waterman" was a
person who was one with the ocean. Freeth
expected his pupils, after diligent training, to be able to safely
swim, paddle, and row through treacherous surf. Additionally, he taught
his future lifeguards the latest techniques and treatments in medical
first aid. "Innovation" and "efficiency" were his watchwords; he
encouraged people to think "outside the box" when it came to saving
lives. Following his example, several of Freeth's
pupils took up distance sand running, ocean swimming, and surfing to
better acclimatize themselves to the rigors of the ocean from which
they were now expected to protect swimmers.
Evidence of Freeth's devotion to
swimming and lifesaving can be found in the careers of his followers.
At Redondo, he nurtured several young swimmers, one of whom, Ludy
Langer, would go on to set three world records. Discussing Freeth in a
1980 interview, Langer recalled:
"I remember George. You couldn't forget him. To see him in the
water -- well, I can't describe it. He had absolutely no fear of it. It
was his natural place. There was something else about George -- he was
generous, generous to a fault. He coached I don't know how many of
us -- four of us went to the Olympics -- and he never charged us a dime."
Another Freeth protege was Redondo
high diver Tommy Witt. He recalled, "I took my first dive from the
rafters in the plunge when I was seven years old. I can remember
Freeth's instructions and encouraging words. Freeth taught all of us
kids confidence, style and fearlessness of the water." (27)
Freeth's own fearlessness played an
important part in his work with the lifesaving crew at Venice. The
death of volunteer lifesaver Charles Watson was a catalyst in promoting
the need for a well-trained and amply equipped crew. Through
large-scale fund-raising efforts, led by The Pick and Shovel Club, the
Venice Volunteer Lifesaving Crew was able to purchase a sturdy metallic
lifeboat that was built according to federal specifications. On August
24, 1907, with a large crowd in attendance, the new lifeboat was
christened Venice with a bottle of champagne. (28) Two and one-half
months later a second lifeboat was donated by the Pacific Electric
Railway Company. (29) The acquisition of two lifeboats and a small
mortar cannon -- used to signal for help when a swimmer or boat was in
distress -- gave the Venice corps a boost toward professionalism. The
equipment was nearly useless, however, without a well-trained crew.
The federal government sent A.G. Humphries of the United States
Volunteer Lifesaving Corps to give the men tips on rescue work, as well
as to bring them under the agency's direction. (30) But there was a
problem with joining the national corps. The organization was designed
to rescue boats and ships in distress, not swimmers caught in rip
currents. (31) For nearly a year, therefore, the Venice lifeguards
elected to remain independent from the federal body. (32)
During this time, Freeth undertook
to train the men in practical rescue work, which included not just the
use of lifeboats, but also the novel idea of swimming out to bathers in
distress. That was new. So grateful were the Venice guards for his
tutelage that on the occasion of his twenty-fourth birthday, they
surprised their captain with a gold watch and a card that read, in
"Mr. George Freeth, King of the Surf
Board, Captain of the Venice Basketball team, First Lieutenant of
Venice Volunteer Life Saving Corps, and leader in Aquatic Sports and
General Good Fellowship, is reliable, sober, industrious... We, his
comrades and citizens of Venice, extend our best wishes and a watch,
that he may continue to keep abreast of the time to the century mark at
As a further expression of their admiration for Freeth,
the Venice Lifesaving Crew voted him their new captain at the annual
year-end gathering and elections. (34) This was a significant honor,
considering that he had arrived in California just five months earlier.
Freeth's tireless efforts to make the
Venice Volunteer Lifesaving Corps proficient at water rescue work were
tested severely on the afternoon of December 16, 1908. On that day, at
approximately one o'clock, a tremendous winter squall suddenly
descended upon Santa Monica Bay. The usually placid waters turned
quickly into rolling troughs of white caps and blinding spray. The gale
force winds and the high surf they caused trapped several Japanese
fishing boats off the Venice Pier, near its protective breakwater.
Although the crews fought valiantly to stay afloat and away from the
pier's south-to-north jetty of solid rock, the storm's immense strength
proved to be too powerful. (35)
For the next two-and-a-half hours, George Freeth
braved gale force winds, pounding surf, and a frigid ocean temperature
to save single-handedly the lives of seven men. In the process he
nearly lost his own life to hypothermia. Despite being near collapse
from having stayed so long in the chilly waters, Freeth
ignored the pleas of onlookers and dove off the Venice Pier to rescue
still another boat in distress. It was his fourth time out on a long
rescue. The Venice Lifesaving Corpsmen then risked their own lives and
launched their boat to assist Freeth.
Once the object of public ridicule, the now heroic Venice lifesavers
rowed through the powerful breakers in the well-practiced fashion that Freeth
had taught them. Inspired by the example of their mentor's tenacity in
keeping three drowning fishermen afloat in the churning ocean, the
lifeboat crew effected the final rescue. (36) Freeth's
bravery, and that of the corps, was witnessed by thousands of
onlookers, many of whom had left their jobs to watch the prolonged
operation. Owing to Freeth's skills, and those of the crew he trained personally,
not one life was lost in the ordeal.
Rescue of the eleven fishermen made front-page news in all of the
major Los Angeles papers. Both The Los Angeles Times and The Los
Angeles Tribune dispatched eyewitness reporters to cover the story.
Their first-hand accounts brought Freeth
and his crew to national recognition. Ignoring the notoriety, the corps
was back at work the next day. There they were met by the rescued
Japanese fishermen, who presented Freeth
with a gold watch and a financial donation. (37) In addition, the
grateful men announced that they had changed the name of their fishing
village, located at the foot of the Long Wharf, in modern-day Pacific
Palisades, from Maikura to Port Freeth. It bore that name until it was
destroyed by fire five years later. A Herald Examiner reporter who visited
in 1911 found that the villagers performed a nightly Shinto ritual,
during which they burned incense and made offerings of rice and poi to
honor the young Hawaiian responsible for saving seven of their own.
In the days following the rescue, Abbot Kinney also visited the lifesaving
station to thank Freeth.
Besides his business interest as founder of Venice, Kinney had a
personal reason to be proud of these men. His son, Sherwood, was a
member of the lifeboat crew involved in the final harrowing rescue.
Furthermore, Kinney and other leading citizens of Venice
recommended Freeth for official commendation. In a sworn affidavit that was
used to nominate Freeth
for the Congressional Gold Medal, a witness declared, "In my opinion
there is not another man on the beach, or perhaps in America, that
could have accomplished the wonderful feat that Freeth
accomplished in this matter." Another witness stated in his affidavit
received no salary for his services but worked purely on a volunteer
basis. The same witness added: "There is no doubt in my mind that these
seven men would have lost their lives on this occasion if it had not
been for the noble efforts of this said George Freeth." (39)
As a result of these collected statements and the first-hand news
accounts of the rescue, a special act of Congress dated June 25, 1910,
awarded Freeth the nation's highest
civilian honor: the Congressional Gold Medal. It was reported at the
time that he was only the fifth recipient of the honor since George
Washington first received it on March 25, 1776. (40) Freeth
and his crew were also recognized by the neighboring community of
Pasadena, which invited them to participate in the 1909 Rose Parade.
The proud Venice Lifesaving Corps marched alongside a small float,
which they had dedicated to the profession of ocean lifesaving. (41)
The success of the 1908 rescue operation was tempered by the fact
that the majority of the endeavor had been accomplished solely by Freeth.
For more than an hour his fellow lifesavers were unable to lend
assistance because they could not launch their lifeboat in the
extremely high surf. By contrast, Freeth
had managed to save seven lives that might otherwise have been lost, by
the simple act of diving off the pier and swimming successfully through
the powerful waves. His actions on that December day in 1908 ushered in
a new era of ocean lifesaving. Whereas before then lifesavers wasted
precious time assembling crews and waiting for the right moment to
launch their crafts, the new practice demanded dispensing with boats in
favor of swimming out immediately to those in danger, regardless of
weather or the size of the surf.
Freeth played the key role in
revolutionizing the way lifesavers performed their work. Both by
example and reasoning, he emphasized the need to handle rescues in a
completely different manner. When proponents of lifeboats argued that
lifesaving crews could make rescues much farther from shore and carry
more victims than a swimmer acting alone, Freeth
pointed out that rip currents closer to the beach were far more likely
to place people in distress. He was correct. As times changed, and more
and more swimmers abandoned Victorian modesty to venture into the ocean
clad in one-piece bathing suits specifically designed for swimming
activities, older rescue methods became outmoded. After all, the
original lifesaving boats and their crews used in America since
colonial times were intended to save ships in distress, not
recreational swimmers. By 1908, corps members realized that assembling
a lifeboat crew to rescue a distressed swimmer just fifty yards
offshore was nothing short of foolishness. They also recognized t he
inherent problems with use of lifeboats, especially their tendency to
flip over in high surf. (42)
Central to Freeth's contributions
was the way he taught lifesavers to perceive themselves and their work.
During his tenure along the southern California coastline, the term
lifesaver was abandoned in favor of the title lifeguard. To George, an
ocean lifeguard was "at one with the water," being proficient not only
in ocean swimming, but also in rowing and surfing. In Freeth's
vision, the concept of lifesavers, whose primary mission was to respond
to someone in distress, would be replaced by lifeguards, whose purpose
was focused primarily on preventing situations where rescues became
necessary. In short, where the traditional view of lifesaving was
reactive, Freeth's view of
lifeguarding was pro-active. According to this new perception, guards
would patrol area beaches constantly in order to warn swimmers away
from ocean-related dangers such as inshore holes and rip currents. (43)
Freeth worked diligently with his
crewmen to improve their swimming skills for lifeguarding. While
swimming competitions remained popular among the guards and the public
at large, Freeth found that many
swimmers deplored the drudgery of year-round training, with the
consequence that they often skipped workouts during the winter months.
To encourage swimmers to stay in shape, Freeth
helped organize the relatively new sport of water polo. (44) It quickly
became popular with the guards and served to keep many of them
physically fit throughout the year. Freeth
himself competed, playing at various times for the Venice and Redondo
Beach water polo clubs. Before long, he garnered a reputation as the
best water polo player on the West Coast. (45)
In the summer of 1909, Henry Huntington opened an opulent new
"plunge" in Redondo Beach. Located south of the Moorish Pavilion, the
new $200,000 natatorium, Redondo Plunge, looked more like a royal
palace than a public swimming pool. Advertised as the "largest in the
world," the three-story structure occupied 43,688 square feet of
beachside property. With over one thousand dressing rooms and three
heated pools, the Redondo Plunge could hold as many as two thousand
swimmers at one time. It was here that Freeth spent much of his time
lifeguarding, teaching, and performing. L.E. Martin, who developed water
rescue equipment with Freeth's advice, recalled the latter's popularity:
"He had a native wit which sent waves of laughter through the house
and his step and stride were that of an aristocrat of strength. His
skill in diving was an art of unsurpassed beauty and when you see him
come down from an 86-foot stand, or spring into a lifeboat, you marvel
that 170 pounds can, at all times, move with such perfect grace."
So popular was Freeth with plunge
visitors, in fact, that when he suffered a small bout of food
poisoning, local newspapers carried the story. (46) One woman who
attended the plunge on a regular basis wrote The Redondo Reflex stating
that "Many visitors to the beach have wished for an opportunity to
express appreciation for the work of Mr. Freeth
at the bath house. We have been entertained by his wit," she continued,
"rejoiced by his chivalry, inspired by his courage and awed by his
sublime heroism. Redondo Beach is fortunate to have in her midst a
teacher of aquatic expertise who is so perfectly the exponent of that
what he teaches. Long may he live--this large souled, fine grained,
noble hearted Freeth." (47)
Whatever satisfaction he might have derived from performing, competing,
and lifeguarding, Freeth's
greatest enjoyment at the Redondo Plunge seems to have been his work
with young people. He spent much of his time turning his pupils into
well-rounded water athletes who could surf, ocean swim, and compete at
water polo. Free from many of the prejudices of the day, Freeth
also heartily encouraged women to participate. One of his favorite
students was Dolly Mings, whom he taught to swim. With his patient
tutelage and her strenuous conditioning, she developed into a
world-class swimmer. In fact, within three years of her first lesson
with Freeth, Mings set the national record in the
women's fifty-yard freestyle. (48)
Among Freeth's other
responsibilities at the plunge was responding to the needs of
distressed bathers in the adjacent ocean. Newspapers such as The
Redondo Reflex and The Redondo Breeze actively carried stories of such
rescues. Summoned by the ringing of emergency bells placed along the
shore-line or by the phone at the new plunge, Freeth would rush out of the
building and down the beach to rescue whomever was in need.
With increasing popularity of ocean swimming, and as the swimming beaches
grew longer in length, the resourceful Freeth
began devising new methods to handle the growing needs. First and
foremost was his work in creating the Redondo Beach Lifesaving Corps. Freeth
staffed it with many of his young swimmers, including world-class
athletes Ludy Langer and Cliff Bowes, both of whom were able to swim
out to swimmers in need of rescuing.
For lifeguards who did not have strong swimming capabilities, or who
tended to tire during a long return to the shore against the pull of a
wide rip current, Freeth developed a
large rescue reel with the assistance of Byron Minor, the manager of
the Redondo Plunge. Set on a large triangular pod, the reel held 1,500
feet of cable. Attached to the cable was a torpedo-shaped rescue buoy.
When a lifeguard entered the water with the new buoy, he could effect
the rescue and then be reeled in, together with the saved swimmer, by
his fellow guards. (49) A year later, while area fire departments still
used horse-drawn carts to transport emergency equipment, Freeth
combined his innovation with motorcycle technology to allow greater
mobility Specifically, he devised a rescue sidecar attached to a
motorcycle, which he provided with a smaller version of the reel and
its metal rescue can. The new device, financed by local officials, was
an immediate hit. Each morning Freeth
warmed up the motorcycle and then patrolled the S outh Bay beaches. He
assured local residents that once he received an alarm call, he could
be on the emergency scene within three minutes. (50)
Despite his successes at Venice and Redondo Beach, Freeth,
like other lifeguards of that era, was plagued by low wages. In
September 1910, accompanied by two other West Coast lifeguards, he
returned to his native island of Oahu, where he secured work as a
deep-sea diver to construct dry docks at the rapidly growing port of
Pearl Harbor. When not working, Freeth
could be found surfing or playing water polo. His return to Hawaii was
well-publicized by The Pacific Commercial Advertiser and subsequent
news of him often noted his having been awarded the Congressional Gold
In January 1911, Freeth returned to
Redondo Beach, where he was rehired at his old job and former salary at
the plunge. The low pay he received for his work became a concern for
Redondo Beach officials. (51) Fearing Freeth
would leave Redondo Beach and seek employment elsewhere, town fathers
added to his regular wages by hiring him as a "special lifeguard,"
giving him extra work helping to rescue distressed swimmers along the
neighboring beach, at $25 per month. (52) Adding to his woes was a
ruling by the national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) that those who
received compensation for aquatic activities would be prohibited from
competing in the approaching 1912 Olympics at Stockholm.
In July 1913, George's good friend
Duke Kahanamoku visited him at
the plunge. One year earlier, Duke had shocked the sports world with
his record-breaking time in the 100-meter freestyle event, and from
that he attracted an enormous following. To the delight of the crowd,
Kahanamoku and Freeth, along with
several other visiting Hawaiians, went out surfing. When reporters
later asked the Olympic champion to discuss his experiences at
Stockholm in 1912, Kahanamoku complained that the United States would
have dominated the Olympic diving events if his fellow Hawaiian, George
Freeth, had been permitted to compete. Duke ranked Freeth "the world's
greatest diver." (53)
On September 12, 1913, Freeth and
Redondo lifeguard George Mitchell were involved in a motorcycle
accident en route to an ocean rescue. Suffering a broken ankle, George
was unable to work. As a result of the financial strain this placed on
him, he moved from a boarding house to reside in the Mitchell family
home. (54) During this convalescence, Freeth accepted the position of head
swimming instructor at the prestigious
Los Angeles Athletic Club. (55)
From October 1913 to February 1915 Freeth
worked at the downtown club, giving swimming lessons and coaching the
swim team. The LAAC, as it was known, had
among its members many of Los
Angeles's most powerful and influential business leaders. These
included his former employers, Abbot Kinney and Henry Huntington.
George's arrival at the LAAC was the turning point for the club, which
developed one of the country's top swimming programs under his
direction. Its roster eventually included Olympic swimming gold
medalists Johnny Weismueller and fellow Hawaiian Clarence "Buster"
Crabbe, both of whom later acted in Tarzan films. As the new LAAC swim
coach, Freeth brought with him
several of his young proteges from Redondo Beach, such as the future
world record-holder in swimming, Ludy Langer, and the Pacific Coast
diving champion Cliff Bowes. In October 1914, Duke Kahanamoku joined
the team. Under Freeth's guidance,
Duke improved both his free-style stroke and his open turns. (56)
Although the 1916 Olympics were can celed due to World War I,
Kahanamoku won two more gold medals when the games resumed in 1920. At
that date, he was considered to be the world's greatest swimmer. Also
taking medals in 1920 were two other athletes formerly
coached by Freeth, Ludy Langer and Ray Kegeris.
Among Freeth's most important
contributions while working at the LAAC were the articles he wrote for
the club magazine, the Mercury. Influential subscribers read of his
desire to create a year-round, professionally paid ocean lifeguard
service. He also penned several articles on lifesaving and the need for
local schools to incorporate swim lessons into the curriculum.
In 1915, the increasingly prominent San Diego Rowing Club
to take charge of its expanding swim program. Much like the LAAC in Los
Angeles, the membership of the Rowing Club included local politicians
and civic leaders. (57) Freeth
accepted the offer and relocated southward. Within two months he
transformed the Rowing Club's aquatic program to match what he had
accomplished in Los Angeles. So successful were his efforts that by
1919, the club's once undistinguished swim team had become the
pacesetter in California. During summer months, he supplemented his
income by working as a swimming instructor and pool supervisor on
Coronado Island, adjacent to the famous Hotel Del Coronado. He also
gave spectacular diving performances, which were lauded by the local
media. Despite his great reputation, he still struggled financially.
His position worsened considerably when on September 14,1916, the board
of the Rowing Club voted not to continue his employment, owing to a
shortage of funds. (58) The board did allow him to stay in the club's
facilities when his financial situation deteriorated in the fall of
1917. Even that, however, proved temporary. Two days after Christmas
the directors canceled Freeth's sleeping
privileges and use of the captain's room at the club house. (59)
Faced with deepening financial difficulties over the winter months -- a
condition common to weather-dependent lifeguards -- Freeth
took a job at San Diego's Cycle and Arms Company, which was owned by a
sympathetic Rowing Club member. He moved into the downtown Southern
Hotel, and continued to work out at a nearby YMCA hotel in order to
prepare himself for a rigorous summer season back on Coronado Island.
Freeth's position at the sporting
goods store was certainly a disappointment for him. All of his life had
been centered on the ocean. It was a medium in which he thrived and
from which he had gained considerable fame. But as a salesperson, he
lost much of the status he had enjoyed while working along the beaches
of Venice and Redondo. No longer the captain of a local lifesaving
corps or fully employed as a world-class swim coach, Freeth
bided his time at the store while awaiting the return of summer, when
he could once again showcase his lifesaving and surfing skills.
As he continued his sales work, Freeth
witnessed firsthand the growing impact of World War I on the city of
San Diego. In the spring of 1918 the U.S. Army began a crash program to
enlist and train one million service personnel. Military bases
throughout the area were quickly filled with combat trainees. Many of
the new arrivals, when given leave, visited the region's scenic
beaches. As the weather improved, thousands of servicemen could be
found sunning themselves along the local shoreline.
On the first weekend of May 1918, San Diego was enveloped by a
spring heat wave. Large crowds descended on the beaches, where
lifeguard protection was minimal at best. On the first Sunday, strong
rip currents began pulling off the shoreline of crowded Ocean Beach.
Within view of thousands of spectators, several swimmers found
themselves being dragged out to sea. Soon tiring, they began screaming
for assistance. Without a professional lifesaving corps in place, the
victims drowned. At the risk of their own lives, several military
personnel went out into the treacherous surf to assist, only to suffer
the same tragic fate of those whom they had sought to aid. When the
disaster unfolded, thirteen men had lost their lives.
On Monday, May 6, shocked San Diegans, as well as military
personnel, called for a full investigation into the deaths. At a
quickly convened coroner's inquest, a twelve-member jury blamed the
"unusual conditions of tide and currents prevailing on that day" for
the thirteen drownings. (60) In truth, the tidal conditions on that
section of beach were not at all unusual; it was and remains today an
area subject to strong rip currents.
Promoters of Ocean Beach were well aware of their resort's inherent
dangers. Fearing financial ruin, however, supporters continued to
publicize the small town and its recreational amenities. In fact, just
six days after the tragedy, the Ocean Beach Advertising Club announced
a $2,000 buried-treasure hunt along the shoreline. (61) Publicists also
advertised that new lifesaving measures were being implemented to
provide complete safety for the swimming public. Chief among the
changes made was the hiring of George Freeth as the area's lifeguard.
On May 19, 1918, Freeth was back at
work and, ever resourceful, he brought with him his large tripod rescue
reel. The "New Life-Saving Device" was given heavy publicity by The San
Diego Union. To further assist his work, Ocean Beach officials paid for
a motorcycle and sidecar, which Freeth used as his emergency vehicle along the strand.
Now in the employ of the resort owners, Freeth
not only provided lifeguarding services, but again demonstrated his
surfing abilities to the crowds who visited the area's bustling
boardwalk and crowded sands. One newspaper article reported:
"Four thousand beachgoers received a surprise and enjoyed a
succession of thrills and healthy laughs yesterday at Ocean Beach when
George Freeth, lifeguard, presented his unannounced surfboard dive.
Riding on the crest of the wave in the usual manner, Freeth
suddenly leaped clearing the board by at least three feet, turned a
somersault, regained his balance on the board again, then completed his
stunt with a dive. The trick was a thriller, and evoked a storm of
By the summer of 1918, Freeth was
at the top of his form. Large crowds flocked to the beach to enjoy his
surfing exhibitions. More importantly, under his watchful eyes and
those of the lifeguards he commanded, not a single swimmer drowned.
As Freeth guided his crew through
a successful summer season, local military officials contended with a
severe base housing shortage. With the country fully involved in World
War I, San Diego continued to be a leading training center for new
recruits. It also became a major convalescent center for veterans
injured in the conflict. When several bases filled beyond capacity
commanders were forced to house service personnel in local public
buildings. In these overcrowded conditions, the spread of infectious
disease became increasingly commonplace, most notable of which was a
new deadly strain of influenza. The subsequent Spanish Flu Epidemic of
1918 was the worst in the history of the United States. It killed more
Americans in a single year than the combined United States combat
deaths in two world wars. Globally it killed over twenty million
The disease was particularly deadly for American servicemen. Over 40
percent of navy and 36 percent of army personnel became afflicted with
it. (65) San Diego was especially hard hit because of the heavy
concentration of servicemen. The virus also spread so quickly outside
military bases there that three weeks before Christmas, health
department officials enforced a city-wide quarantine. (66) But it was
to little avail. Despite the widespread wearing of flu masks by the
public, the crisis did not abate. In a cruel twist of fate, the virus
often struck those in their prime of life: individuals in their
twenties and thirties. On January 15, 1919,
contracted the disease. (67) In excellent shape before the onset of the
malady, he weathered the first attacks of the virus. Often bedridden,
and now unemployed, his financial situation grew steadily worse. To
swimmers and lifesavers alike, word was sent up and down the California
coast that he had taken ill with the virus. A collection was organized
by his former employers at the San Diego Rowing Club and money for his
support began to pour in. (68)
In late March of 1919, The San Diego Union reported that for the
first time, the relapsed and hospitalized Freeth
was encountering reverses in his recovery. Ludy Langer, who had just
returned from fighting overseas, went to visit him. Officials of the
Agnew Sanitarium where Freeth was
undergoing treatment refused to admit him. However, Langer persevered
and was allowed to see his ailing mentor. Langer recalled, "He was very
ill and didn't say much." But, he added, when the two men talked "of
the old days ... once or twice I got a smile out of him." (69)
Late on the evening of April 7, 1919, Freeth
died. News of his demise appeared in several leading California
newspapers where obituaries recalled his lifesaving exploits and his
prowess at swimming, diving, and surfing. A well-attended funeral was
held five days later at a local mortuary chapel. Since the Freeth
family was unable to travel from Hawaii, his mother's wishes to have
George cremated and returned to his native Oahu were honored by the San
Diego Rowing Club. 
When George Freeth first arrived in
California he had little more than a suitcase with him. When he passed
on, what he had in the way of worldly goods could be placed in the same
suitcase. Freeth was never a man of money; instead he was a man of deeds.
Freeth's greatest virtue was his
willingness and ability to teach and share the exceptional talents that
he possessed. His generosity, integrity, and kindness influenced all of
those around him. In an age when the ocean was to be feared and
avoided, George Freeth introduced surfing to southern California. To the
delight of large crowds gathered along local beaches, Freeth
demonstrated the sport that he would later gladly teach, without pay,
to area youngsters. It was from these warm California coastal waters
that surfing would ultimately gain its greatest appeal amongst the
Freeth also worked diligently to teach
and popularize the aquatic sports of swimming, water polo, and diving.
His legendary status in each of these activities did not prevent him
from sharing his know-how and imparting his skills to his students,
including several divers and swimmers who achieved national and
Freeth's greatest impact on
California, however, remains his instrumental role in revolutionizing
the profession of ocean lifesaving. Before his arrival, a few volunteer
lifesavers utilized ocean safety skills that focused on the use of
lifeboats and rowing crews to save individuals from drowning. Adapting
to changing times, local conditions, and new technologies, Freeth
preached and practiced the importance of quick action to carry out
rescues. As importantly, and as a lasting legacy, many of the young
swimmers under his guidance became the future nucleus of today's ocean
lifeguard services in California. As a result of Freeth's innovations and
the standards he established, drownings on modern guarded beaches in
California have become extremely rare.
Although George Freeth's
"passage," as Hawaiians call the period between birth and death, was
short, it was nonetheless full. From the shores of Hawaii to the sands
of California, George Freeth touched
thousands of lives for the better. Fulfilling the true calling of a
hero, he repeatedly risked his own life so that others could live. His
individual courage and personal actions on behalf of those in great
danger stand as a final testament to a true, but often forgotten, hero
of California history.
Jack London, with his typewriter,
first brought George Freeth
to the world's attention. He penned these prophetic words that would
apply not only to his own short life, but also to that of his Hawalian
"I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather that my spark
should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it be stifled by dry rot. I
would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow,
than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to
live, not to exist."
Arthur C. Verge is a professor of history at El Camino College in
Torrance, California. He is the author of Paradise Transformed: Los
Angeles during the Second World War (1993). Holding a Ph.D. in history
from USC, he is also an active Los Angeles County lifeguard and has
worked the beaches of Santa Monica and Venice since 1974.
(1.) In discussing George Freeth,
legendary surf historian John Heath "Doc" Ball
wrote, "Too little is
known about a great and colorful figure in California's aquatic
history." For over seventy years, much of Freeth's
life has been passed down to ocean lifeguards and surfers through oral
history. Understandably in this process many myths and incorrect
information have been given. Therefore the author wishes to gratefully
acknowledge the tireless assistance of Elayne Alexander, Dave Kastigar,
and the late Gloria Snyder in going through hundreds of rolls of
newspaper microfilms to carefully document the life of George Freeth.
The author also wishes to thank L.A. County Lifeguard Chief Karl "Bud"
Bohn, Charles Johnson, Sandy Hall, and Daved Marsh for their unique
insights into surf culture; fellow historians Elayne Alexander, Ron
Love, Gloria Miranda, Brad Reynolds, Hank Silka, and Jim Kraft for
their editorial assistance; Captain Dave Story and the Los Angeles
County Lifeguard Trust Fund; as well as the generosity of the John
Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, for helping to finance
photo work and microfilm costs; and Professor William Doyle, Jackie
Booth, Shirley MacDonald, William and May Borthwick, the Los Angeles
Athletic Club, the Hawaiian State Archives, the City of Redondo Beach
Historical Museum, and the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum without whose
support and assistance this project would not have reached fruition.
(2.) George Douglas Freeth, Jr., is
buried in Oahu Cemetery (2162 Nuuanu Ave., Honolulu). His grave site is
located in Section 10, Lot 100, Plot Number 6. His cremated remains
share the grave site with his younger brother Alexander Rupert
(3.) George F. Nellist, ed., The Story of Hawaii and Its Builders 3 vols.
(Honolulu, Hawaii: Star Bulletin, 1925), 3:108-109.
(4.) George Freeth, Sr., like his father-in-law,
was English-born and bred. The son of Major General James Holt Freeth
of the British Royal Engineers, George, Sr., and his brother Edward,
took to the sea, both men rising to the level of Master Mariner. Each
would captain ships, with George Freeth, Sr., often sailing routes between
Hawaii and San Francisco, as well as from Honolulu to Layson Island in the Pacific.
(5.) A photo of George as captain of the Healani Swim Team appears
in the February 16. 1907, edition of The Pacific Commercial Advertiser.
(6.) Mercury Magazine 3, no. 10 (October 1914): 39. An insightful
biography of Duke Kahanamoku is Joe Brennan,
Duke: The Life Story of
Hawaii's Duke Kahanamoku (Honolulu: KU PA 'A Publishing, 1994).
(7.) An interesting biography of Ford and his life is Valerie Noble,
Hawaiian Prophet: Alexander Hume Ford (New York: Exposition Press,
(8.) One New England missionary in Hawaii, Hiram Bingham
(1798-1869), reflected in 1847 that "The... discontinuance of the use
of the surfboard, as civilization advances, may be accounted for by the
increase in modesty, industry, and religion. . . ." in Bingham, A
Residence of Twenty-One years in the Sandwich Islands (Hartford, CT:H.
Huntington, and New York: Sherman Converse, 1847) 17.
(9.) Alexander Hume Ford, "Learning to Surf," Mid-Pacific Magazine
75, no. 2 (February 1911): 155.
(10.) A good account of Ford's founding of the Outrigger Canoe and
Surfboard Club can be found in Leonard Lueras, Surfing: The Ultimate
Pleasure (New York: Workman Publishing, 1984), 68-74. In 1911, local
surfers, including Duke Kahanamoku, became disenchanted with the club
and its growing elitism. The dissenters, many of whom were local beach
boys, formed their own club called Hui Nalu ("Club of the Waves"). Its
first "Commodore" was Edward Kaleleihealani "Dude" Miller, who was one
of George Freeth's closest friends.
(11.) The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, July 3, 1907.
(12.) The Congressional fact-finding tour of Hawaii lasted more than
two months, from May 8 to mid-July 1907. Among those on the tour were
28 members of Congress. In the early days of the tour, when Freeth
was accompanying the delegates, several of the legislators and their
aides went to Waikiki Beach where they attempted to learn to surf,
presumably under Freeth's instruction. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser,
May 11, 1907.
(13.) Noble, Hawaiian Prophet, p. 45.
(14.) Jack London, "Riding the South Sea Surf," Women's Home Companion,
October 1907, p. 10.
(15.) London, "A Royal Sport," Cruise of the Snark (New York: The
Macmillian Company, 1911), p. 76.
(16.) The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, July 3, 1907.
(17.) Based on documentation provided by the Santa Cruz Surfing
Museum, the sport of surfing was first demonstrated in California in
July of 1885 by three members of the Royal Hawaiian Family, Prince
Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana and Princes David and Edward Kawananakoa. The
three young men, who attended St. Matthews Military School in San
Mateo, spent several summers in the beach resort community of Santa
Cruz. The city's local paper, The Daily Surf, first reported their
surfing in its July 20, 1885, edition. While other local beachgoers
would take up the sport in the wake of the princes' exhibition, surfing
had limited appeal there due to the region's cool ocean temperatures
and large waves.
(18.) An excellent account of Kinney's early development of Venice,
California, can be found in Carolyn Elayne Alexander, Abbot Kinney's
Venice-of-America: The Golden Years: 1905-1920 (Decorah, Ia.: Anundsen
Publishing Company, 1991), pp. 9-11.
(19.) Although some have speculated that Freeth
was lured to Redondo Beach at the behest of railroad and land magnate
Henry E. Huntington (the nephew of the better-known Southern Pacific
developer Collis P. Huntington), there is no evidence to support such a
(20.) James Thorpe, Henry Edwards Huntington: A Biography (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1994), p. 205.
(21.) David Shanahan, Old Redondo (Redondo Beach: Legends Press, 1982), p. 55.
(22.) The ocean waters off California remain extremely treacherous.
Ocean drownings today, however, are rare given the year-round
professional lifeguard services provided by various coastal
municipalities. In 1999, for example, on the stretch known as Venice
North (Beach), which is less than two miles in length, over two
thousand ocean rescues were performed.
(23.) The Daily Outlook, May 29, 1907.
(24.) Ibid., May 14, 1907.
(25.) From two original handbills in the Jerry Witt scrapbook, City of
Redondo Beach Historical Museum.
(26.) Charles Hinch, "The Man Who Walked On Water: America's First
Surfer in Redondo Beach," South Bay Magazine, July 1980, p. 22.
(27.) F.S. Haynes, "Wave of the Future," Westways Magazine, October 1976, p. 31.
(28.) The Daily Outlook, August 24, 1907.
(29.) Ibid., November 9, 1907.
(30.) Ibid., June 11, 1907.
(31.) Two excellent accounts of the history of the U.S. Lifesaving
Service are Dennis Noble, That Others Might Live: The U.S. Life-Saving
Service, 1878-1915 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994) and Irving
H. King, The Coast Guard Expands, 1865-1915: New Roles, New Frontiers
(Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996).
(32.) On October 23, 1907, the Venice lifesavers voted 24 to 3 to
remain independent of the U.S. Volunteer Lifesaving Corps. In late July
1908 the Venice Lifesaving Corps agreed to become part of the federal
government lifesaving service. See The Daily Outlook, October 24, 1907,
and July 27, 1908.
(33.) Ibid., November 11, 1907.
(34.) Ibid., December 17, 1907.
(35.) The Venice Pier was also known before 1921 as the Abbot Kinney Pier.
(36.) Accounts of Freeth's rescue
and that of his crew were compiled from the December 16-17, 1908,
editions of the following newspapers: The Daily Outlook, The Los
Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Tribune, The Los Angeles Express, and
The Herald Examiner.
(37.) The Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1908.
(38.) This article is quoted at length in The Honolulu Star Bulletin, June 6, 1952.
(39.) The sworn affidavits and nomination letters for Freeth's Congressional
Gold Medal are found in the National Archives, under the name of George Freeth,
Jr. The affidavits and letters were originally submitted to the United
States Treasury Department which, at the time, had jurisdiction over
the United States Volunteer Life-Saving Service.
(40.) The Congressional Gold Medal remains the highest honor a
civilian can receive from the United States government. Each recipient
is given a specially minted gold coin that denotes his particular
achievements. Recipients include Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, and
(41.) The Los Angeles Times, January 2, 1909.
(42.) An interesting account of lifesavers and their reliance on and
use of lifeboat crews along the New Jersey coastline in 1916 can be
found in Richard G. Fernicola, Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive
Investigation of the 2926 New Jersey Shark Attacks (Guilford, Conn.:
The Lyons Press, 2001).
(43.) It is important to note that Freeth
was not alone in taking the lead in changing the concept of
"lifesavers" to "lifeguards." British-born Captain T.W. Sheffield
(1870-1952), a champion swimmer who later settled in Santa Monica, was
a leading figure in professionalizing the local lifeguard corps to be
on constant patrol. A copy of his unpublished biography is in the Los
Angeles County Lifeguard Archives, Manhattan Beach.
(44.) Although Freeth has been
credited by several writers with being the first to introduce water
polo to the United States, the game was already being played along the
East Coast before his arrival in California. See The Pacific Commercial
Advertiser, February 3, 1907. In February 1907, several Hawaiian swim
clubs organized together to form the island's first water polo league,
of which Freeth and his Healanis swim team were
members. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, February 22, 1907.
(45.) Not only was Freeth an
explosive scorer, at one point he moved to the position of goalie and
had four straight shutouts, a feat as rare for a water polo goalie as a
no-hitter is for a baseball pitcher.
(46.) The Redondo Breeze, April 18, 1912, and The Redondo Reflex, April 25, 1912.
(47.) The Redondo Reflex, November 8, 1912.
(48.) The Redondo Breeze, May 17, 1913.
(49.) The Redondo Reflex, June 21, 1912.
(50.) Ibid., June 11, 1913.
(51.) Ibid., March 7, 1913.
(52.) The Redondo Breeze, May 31, 1913.
(53.) The Redondo Reflex, July 12, 1913.
(54.) The Redondo Breeze, September 13, 1913.
(55.) Ibid., October 4, 1913.
(56.) Mercury Magazine 3, no. 10 (October 1914): 39.
(57.) A very brief but helpful account of the San Diego Rowing
Club's early history can be found in Dick Barthelmess, "The Clubhouse
on Steamship Wharf," Journal of San Diego History, October 1960, pp.
(58.) The San Diego Rowing Club Minutes, Collection Number 8, San Diego
Historical Society Research Archives.
(59.) Ibid., Minutes for November 8, 1917, and December 27, 1917.
(60.) From May 8, 1918, Inquest Report, Schuyler Kelly, Coroner, Medical Examiner's
Office, County of San Diego.
(61.) The San Diego Union, May 12, 1918.
(62.) Ibid., July 17, 1918.
(63.) Ibid., March 20, 1919.
(64.) Gina Kolata, Influenza: The Story of the Great Influenza
Pandemic of 2928 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It (New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), p. 7.
(66.) The San Diego Union, December 7, 1918.
(67.) County of San Diego, Death Certificate of George Douglas Freeth, Jr.,
April 7, 1919. California State Index No. 941-248.
(68.) The San Diego Union, March 20, 1919, and The Long Beach Press, March 29, 1919.
(69.) Hinch, "The Man Who Walked on Water," p. 23.
(70.) The San Diego Union, April 12, 1919.
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