Surf City Showcase - Interview with WWII Vet and 1943 Lifeguard Jim Tucker

This month, we recognize July as “Surf City Showcase—Celebrating Surf Heritage” and salute our veterans on National Hire a Veteran Day (July 25)—a reminder to employers to consider veterans for their open positions.

As we acknowledge our surfing history, we realize our surf and lifeguard histories share deep connections. As surfing gained popularity in HB in the early 20th century, lifeguarding also became popular. Lifeguards were originally stationed at beaches to protect swimmers, but as surfing grew, their responsibilities expanded to include the safety of surfers as well.

Recently, one of our retired lifeguards, Kai Weisser, got the chance to interview one of the City’s first lifeguards and World War II Vet – Jim Tucker.  At 97 years old, Jim is a US Navy veteran who served as a lifeguard in Huntington Beach (1943-44) and graduated from Huntington Beach High School in 1945. A few weeks ago, he toured the HB Marine Safety Headquarters, the beach, and Tower Zero.

Jim is an HB Oiler, Class of 1945, and started his lifeguard career in 1943 at $5 per day.  In May 1944, during WWII, Jim volunteered for the US Navy. For several years during WWII, the beach was guarded by HB Oiler kids.  HB Lifeguard Chief and Fire Chief Bud Higgins often said and proudly wrote that those kids saved many lives and provided an excellent record of zero drownings!  This sounds crazy, but Jim witnessed lifeguard Bud Higgins “dive off the HB pier in flames as the human torch” more than once during the Fourth of July celebrations. 

Jim vividly remembers springing into action when a fighter plane crashed on the beach: “I was on duty, stationed tower #5, when our truck with several lifeguards raced past me to an emergency towards the river jetty about one mile south of Highway 39 (which is now off Newland Street on State Beach).” Jim recalled that on June 27, 1943, a P-38 USAAF fighter plane crashed on the beach, killing four children and injuring many others. The P-38 pilot survived the training mission from March Air Force Base.

“The beach was much different back then,” said Jim.  “There was much less sand. The shoreline was much closer to the base of the pier.  And back then, we had a lot fewer people.  Lifeguard Headquarters was on the pier at the first “T” and over water.  We called the towers on the sand bird cages.”  Today, the HB pier's first “T” is over the sand, far from shore, and has the Kite Connection and Surf City Store nearby. The lifeguard towers on the sand look nothing like bird cages.

The rescue can buoys are formed from heavy plastic, a distinct improvement from Jim’s day. “The metal torpedo can buoy was dangerous.  Running out into the surf required dropping the metal can buoy at the right time, but not too early.”  Returning to shore from the surf during a rescue “was equally dangerous for the lifeguard by not getting hit in the head by the metal can buoy.  And when returning to shore with a rescue victim, stopping to stand up, the lifeguard would release the can buoy and let it wash to shore.”  Jim also remembered, “The sheet metal shop on Third Street made the can buoys.”

Jim first jumped off the pier at age nine, climbed the rope ladder from the water at the second “T,” climbed the wooden ladder from the sand, body surfed, belly boarded, and spent time in the Salt Water Plunge. Jim learned to swim at the plunge, and so did his three children. In 2015, during a lifeguard reunion, Jim jumped off the pier, an organized reunion event, just shy of his 90th birthday. And one of the best jumps of the day!

After WWII, Jim had several jobs, including at a local dairy delivering milk, at the US Post Office, at Surf Theatre usher, earning $1 per day, at HB Bowling Alley at $1 per day, and as a bus driver for HBHS.  From 1951 to 1960, Jim worked part-time, primarily as the HB State weekend night guard. In 1960, Jim was hired as a full-time lifeguard supervisor and aquatic specialist at Folsom Lake. In 1968, he became the California State Parks aquatics supervisor, Region Four, and retired in 1987 with 35 years of California State Parks service.

Jim grew up on Huntington Street, and in 1944, wearing his Navy uniform, Jim married his HBHS sweetheart, Leora Hubbard. He has a big family, including five great-grandkids, and currently lives in Northern California. After his wife passed, Jim met Larue Moorhouse nearly 17 years ago at a Fourth of July party.  They remained committed companions until she passed away earlier this year at the age of 94.

It was a great pleasure to hear so much story and HB history.  Jim briefly recalled spending time at the Golden Bear for billiards and beer, the Pavilion, the many great big bands, and the ever-present smell of HB oil.  He smiled about his adventures in Abalone diving in northern California.

The stories and conversations reminded me of the saying “I’m not talking about the way it was, just the way it’s never gonna be again.” 

Kai Weisser was an HB City junior lifeguard, HB lifeguard, HB Marine Safety Officer, rescue boat operator, and author of Huntington Beach Lifeguards, Arcadia Publishing.