You never know who you might bump into on the beach.
A few weeks back, there was a gathering of recognizable locals congregating on the sand just south of the Huntington Beach Pier. The Huntington Beach High School and Dwyer Middle School surf teams were practicing for the upcoming National Scholastic Surfing Assn. (NSSA) Interscholastic State Championships. So H.B. coaches Andy Verdone, Brett Barnes and Bill Sharp, along with Dwyer Coach Stacy Wood and others, chit-chatted near Tower 1 while the kids surfed at sunrise.
There was one dude among the group who I didn’t recognize. He was younger than the others, probably early 30s, and we just started talking.
Mostly he was commenting on and admiring the kids in the water, when at some point I brought up my recent trip to the North Shore of Oahu. Then it really got interesting.
He talked about how he lives in Huntington now, but the North Shore is special to him. I thought, “Yeah, the North Shore is special to a lot of people.”
After awhile, as the conversation started to break up, I introduced myself and asked his name. “Johnny,” he said. “People call me Johnny AWOL. Google it.”
I Googled it.
Johnny AWOL is a thing. Turns out this guy has quite a story to tell. He told me there were some people “working on” getting a movie made about his adventure. And after reading about him, I thought this movie needs to be made.
Surfer magazine published details of his story, in Johnny’s own words, on their website, and it’s a must read.
Seems that Johnny AWOL — real name John Smith — really did go AWOL from the U.S. military. Essentially, Johnny joined the U.S. Army with the condition he be stationed in Hawaii, so he could surf the North Shore during his off time.
After basic training in Georgia, Johnny found himself stationed on Oahu and eventually began living off base, even though it was generally frowned upon. It allowed him to surf and live a semi-normal “civilian-type” lifestyle.
“One day, I just decided not to show up for 5 a.m. formation,” Johnny said in the surfer.com piece. “At first, AWOL didn’t feel like that big of a deal. Surfing had always been the most important thing for me. For most, the military is a way to get out of a nowhere town and a nowhere situation. I’d always known where I wanted to go. But after three or four days of going missing, you can’t just walk back on base and say, ‘Hey guys, sorry, I’ve just been doing my own thing for awhile.’
“That’s not how it works. After a week, two weeks, you realize, ‘Man, I just went AWOL.’ It’s considered desertion during a time of war. Technically, in the books, desertion can earn you capital punishment. Some guys get thrown in the brig for years. The longer I was AWOL, the more I thought about the consequences. I thought I’d just bail to Mexico. I’d be absent without leave, for life.
“But a few months in, I was surfing every day: Pipe, Rocky’s. I wasn’t trying to make a name for myself, just attempting to fly under the radar. It’s a small island. I got a job washing dishes in the back at Cholo’s Mexican Restaurant, which was perfect because I couldn’t work in the front. The base was 10 minutes away. A lot of the customers were from the military. I would sometimes look out from the dish pit and see my brigade superiors eating in the restaurant. Once, I dropped my I.D. outside and a military officer brought it in to Cholo’s. He was just being nice, but my co-workers and I were sure he had my number. That’s when the waiters started calling me Johnny AWOL.
“I had near run-ins around the island. One time at Waimea Bay, I walked right by my commanding officers — it was on the side of the highway and there was nowhere to move. I guess the longer hair and beard worked. But then the publisher of Free Surf Magazine came into Cholo’s with a fresh copy. He’d gotten a full-page shot of me published. The job of a pro surfer is to get attention, but that’s the last thing I wanted. I felt like a fugitive. I was afraid to drive, to fly, to be seen in public.”
After two years of flying under the radar, Johnny couldn’t take it anymore. He wanted to be able to live a life without constantly having to look over his shoulder.
He had a friend who knew a retired lieutenant colonel, “Jim,” who agreed to go with Johnny to turn himself in, in the hopes that his punishment would not be so harsh.
“So after work one day, Jim picked me up from Cholo’s in his Corvette,” Smith said. “Here I was, 20 years old, and on the way to turn myself in for going AWOL. I belonged to the U.S. government. Jim drove onto base like he owned the place. Everyone saluted him. We walked into the offices and Jim said, ‘This young soldier would like to turn himself in.’ The officers asked, ‘For what?’ Jim told them that I’d been AWOL for two years. They just went scatter-brained.
“The staff tried to pull up my information on the computer. By that time, all of my commanders had gone off to different places. After 30 minutes, the guy behind the computer told us that there is no record of me ever being AWOL. Jim and I just looked at each other. I said, ‘So, what? Can I just leave?’ They told me no, that I had to wait while they figured it out. Finally, they came up with some financial information that suggested I didn’t serve my full term. I realized right then that I could have stayed gone and the world would never have known Johnny went AWOL. But there I was, and they had no idea what to do with me.”
To find out what they did with him, go to bit.ly/JohnnyAWOL.
JOE HAAKENSON is a Huntington Beach-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.