Tuy Hoa to Eniwetok- Don Dickinson’s Story

The 1960’s was an important era for the sport of surfing. What was once an exotic pastime for a few became an international craze thanks to the Hollywood media machine that produced Gidget, Beach Blanket Bingo and dozens of similar teen movies. Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer was the trigger that released the final wave of teenage hordes that tumbled to the beaches dragging their surfboards under their arms. Like a tsunami the surf craze rolled west to east until it inundated every beach town on the east coast.

But it was not all orange sunshine and good vibrations. For every able-bodied male over the age of 18 the spectre of the draft was a constant source of worry and dread. On December 1, 1969 the Government activated the Vietnam Draft Lottery https://www.sss.gov/About/History-And-Records/lotter1 . Every birth date was assigned a number from 1 to 366. If you were unlucky enough to have a low number you could expect a transfer from sunny surfin’ USA to the steamy jungles of Vietnam to fight in a war that few people really understood.

Cocoa Beach native Don Dickinson was one of those caught up in that turbulent era-

“I learned to surf in Cocoa Beach in the late 50’s/early 60’s. A neighbor had a homemade balsa board that a couple of kids on our street got to ride occasionally. Then I got a real board for my birthday in 1964- one of the early James and O’Hare boards when their factory was at Port Canaveral.”

Don surfed on the Weber Surf Team then went to Dick Catri’s Hobie Surf Team. https://floridasurfmuseum.orgkahunas/aloha-oe-dick-catri-1938-2017.  He followed Dick to the Design One Team before he enlisted in the Army in 1969. Don describes how that came about.

It’s a strange deal- I enlisted to beat the draft. I received a draft notice for the Marines and went to an Air Force recruiter- no go as they had a 6 month waiting list. Went to the Army recruiter- they gave me a 2 year enlistment (draft was 2yrs so it wasn’t any worse) with an option if I didn’t like the job I got I could take 4 years and get my choice of jobs (my lottery number was 9)… I got in nam in mid 1970.

Once in Vietnam Don was assigned to an advance party that went to Tuy Hoa, an Air Force Base that the Army was tasked to take over.

Because of its location on the South China Sea, Tuy Hoa didn’t get many waves, not even small ones. I was there 8 months and saw two times it got larger waves and small 1 or 2 foot waves maybe a half dozen times. (The) ones in the photos were probably from a big storm in the Philippines’.

Being a surfer, it was inevitable that Don would find a way to surf.

I found an old 12 foot lifeguard paddleboard- I stripped all the glass off and made a 7 foot “short” board. I didn’t have a template or any real shaping tools. It didn’t look like much but in the end it worked. I went to Hawaii for R&R and brought back a gallon of resin and the cloth- I worried the whole trip that the can would leak. I took 3 of the photos of Tuy Hoa and my roommate took the others. He didn’t make it out of Viet Nam.

Don ended up serving 27 years in the Army, retiring as a Command Sergeant Major.

I started out ( in Viet Nam) in choppers/aviation and ended up in admin. Funny cause all I wanted to do was stay alive & go back to CB (Cocoa Beach).

Don always found a way to be assigned duty that kept him close to the ocean, doing two tours in the Panama Canal Zone then on Enewitok, a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands that was an early site for the US atomic bomb testing.

Don making surfboards in Panama

Panama Canal zone was close to heaven on earth. Surfing, fishing, SCUBA. Good duty and cheap to live. I was stationed there twice for a total of 8 ½ years. First time in early/mid 70’s, very few surfers. Second time early 80’s. More surfers but a crowded day was 6 to 10 people and there were so many places (to surf). One day there was a swell on both sides so four of us surfed the Atlantic in the AM and got to the Pacific side in time to catch a few before dark. Another time we SCUBA dove the Atlantic, the lake (canal) and the Pacific in one day.

Eniwetok was a much different animal. Spent a year on an island you could walk around in 35 minutes, about 8 feet above sea level. SCUBA was unreal at its worst and world class at its best…fishing was fantastic. Because of where my little island was on the atoll (there was) not much as far as rideable waves but I did get 2 or 3 times where there were some waves you could ride without killing yourself… Drawbacks- I never once went in the water that I didn’t see a shark. Most were under 5 ft but were very inquisitive, there were some big ones that were a little meaner (tigers, grey reef and white tips). Growing up in Florida and surfing our water with no visibility I was not used to seeing so many big shadows while riding a wave- good thing most shadows were reefs and rocks.

Don in Cocoa Beach

Don eventually retired to Fort Jackson South Carolina about 2 hours to the closest beach. He still visits Cocoa Beach from time to time- back to the roots where his lifetime adventure began.





  • Awesome Article!

    Gretchen Dickinson31 October, 2017
  • Fascinating story!

    Carol Menges31 October, 2017
  • Thank you for your service Don, thank you for coming home!

    Becky Montgomery31 October, 2017
  • I knew you when….. surfing is all we wanted to do… after graduation we all did our thing, but looks like you did the best you could to stay alive in the surfing world…..and in our world, Thank You for you service, and getting out alive…… A very deserving article…….

    Margie Jo Daugherty31 October, 2017
  • Nice writeup! Thanks Don for your service. In Sept. “69 I enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard for four years ,just prior to the Dec. draft lottery. My birth date number put me over 300 in the pick,but those 4 years in the service were character builders. Nice to see other surfers that have served. So many haven’t.

    Mark Perry31 October, 2017
  • Interesting to know Don! GREAT article! So tubular!

    Destiny31 October, 2017
  • Don’s service is deeply appreciated. Thank you!
    This is an interesting article about an interesting gentleman. Finding a means to enjoy your passion for water sports is an admirable way to deal with the stress of war and being moved from one military base to another.

    Jean King Rivera31 October, 2017
  • Al0ha Don! Remember me? Great Article on a Great Guy! Malama Pono! 🙂

    Steve (Wizard) Bowman31 October, 2017
  • WOW! You ARE a superstar — always have told you that!!! 🙂

    Juli Shroble Tucker4 November, 2017
  • Don, thank you for your service, and welcome home. I wish I had the opportunity to surf over there, but things worked out in other areas.

    Will lucas2 February, 2018
  • 7 February, 2018

    […] museum recently had a visit from Don Dickenson whose story was posted in this blog entry: Don Dickenson . Don wished to support the museum with a donation of his team board when he rode for Tabeling […]

  • Absolutely a fantastic article about a fantastic person! So glad to have known you. Thank you for your service. Got my first James & OHare board for Christmas 1963. Surfed mostly by Cape Canaveral Pier.

    Cheri Bordin Johnson8 February, 2018
  • Most Excellent article! 🙂

    Megan19 February, 2018
  • Don, Great story ! welcome home brother ! I also surfed Tuy Hoa, RVN. I got there first part of Nov. 1970. I was with C company Airborne Rangers, 75th infantry. I see you were in aviation at that time, we may have worked those Mountains to the west at the same time.

    I was stationed at Bragg after Nam, used to surf Hateras when I got the chance and myrtle Beach.

    Came home, went to school, graduated, worked the KSC space program for awhile, went to Saudi Arabia in 83 stayed to 87, came home and traveled the world building Theme Parks and Museums around the globe for 25 years.

    retired living back in Brevard county now.

    Anyway, great read brother, thanks for your service, look me up next time you are in Cocoa Beach.

    Darryl Benton15 May, 2019

    DON DICKINSON18 May, 2019
  • Great story and I also appreciate your service. I was a too young to be drafted to nam but my dad served there in 73, navy. Saigon. I salute you and all the vets who sacrificed for our country. Keep surfing. It’s the greatest tribute to freedom.

    Chris Pulver2 October, 2019
  • Hey Don, Learned a lot about you from this article. Don’t recall you mom or dad telling me you served in Nam. You joined the Army about the time I joined the AF. I had a trip to Panama in the early 80s. I somehow found my way to where you were living. You were not at home – probably out surfing. Thank you for your service to our country especially you time in Nam.

    John Coon24 March, 2021
  • Great story Don, your life’s work has always been great. Thank you for your service to America. My first board was a Dewey Weber Performer, it was also my best board. I still remember you surf fishing at Cocoa Beach. You and your family were Cocoa Beach pioneers. Best of luck always.

    Gil Henry25 March, 2021

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