Duke Kahanamoku - Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Robert Cyr, 104th Fighter Wing equal opportunity specialist
  • 104th Fighter Wing

This May is Asian American and Pacific Islander cultural heritage month, chosen to commemorate the first Japanese immigrants to arrive on May 7, 1843, as well as the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, where Chinese immigrants made up the vast majority of the workforce who laid the tracks.

While all of us here at the 104th Fighter Wing come from different backgrounds, what binds us to each other is our shared military and American cultural heritage. Our diversity has always been a tremendous asset, and it’s fascinating how often cultural icons also have a nexus to military service.

One such individual who had a profound effect on American culture was Native Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, a military police officer, Olympic swimmer, and one of the strongest influences in the popularization of surfing.

Duke Kahanamoku was born in 1890 to a minor noble family, just a few years before the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown. While he attended grammar school as a child he eventually had to quit to help support his family.

Living close to the beach, he spent most of his free time in the water, surfing and swimming. In 1911, at the age of 21, he swam the 100 yard freestyle in just 55.4 seconds shattering the world record. He qualified for the 1912 Olympics and went on to win a gold and a silver medal in Stockholm. In the 1920 Olympics, he would go on to win an additional 2 gold medals and another silver medal.

As his fame grew, he began touring the world giving swimming exhibitions. It wasn’t long before he began incorporating surfing into his exhibits, and the sport started to become popular in certain regions, most notably in Southeast Australia and Southern California.

It was in 1925, while living in Newport Beach, California, that he noticed a fishing ship in distress. Using only his surfboard, he made repeated trips from the shore to the capsized vessel and saved multiple lives.

His heroic efforts became famous across the country and ultimately led to surfboards becoming a staple of U.S. lifeguard training.

He later moved back to Hawaii where he served as the sheriff of Honolulu for 13 consecutive terms. During World War II, he also served in the capacity of a military police officer on behalf of the United States, (Hawaii was not yet a state and was being administered by the U.S under the Hawaiian Organic Act). He retired from public service in 1962 and passed away in 1968 at the age of 77.

Duke Kahanamoku’s story is just one of many illustrating the power of diversity. His service, both in and out of uniform saved lives, and his unique legacy led to one of the most popular ocean sports becoming the mainstay that it is today.