Wednesday, March 25, 2020

George Freeth, the village of Maikura, and the 1918-1920 pandemic

   In December 1908, at the age of 25, the "father of surfing" George Freeth saved the lives of nine Japanese American and two Russian American fishermen off Venice beach when a violent Pacific storm lashed the coast. For his heroic actions, Freeth was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for bravery.

   In April 1919,  at the age of 35, the Hawaiian-born Freeth--noted for his physical fitness and still in his prime--died after a long battle with the flu virus spreading across the globe.  He was the first person to surf the Huntington Beach pier at its re-dedication in 1914.

LEFT: George Freeth in 1909, a year after he rescued fishermen off of Venice beach after the "sudden appearance by a heavy northwester."  He was 25 at the time and was reported to have "made a spectacular dive from the wharf," swimming through the boiling water to pilot the fishing boats to safety. (Image, Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1909)

  Freeth was a remarkably skilled surfer, the one Jack London described during his 1907 visit to Hawaii as "his heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea." But, he isn't remembered just because he was a surfer. In Southern California, he was a local hero who dedicated his life to saving others.

   On December 16, 1908, the "heavy northwester" hit the Southern California coast, catching local fishermen by surprise. Boats were floundering and being pushed toward the rocky breakwater. As a powerhouse alarm sounded, Freeth "made a spectacular dive from the wharf" into the water and swam to the most endangered boat first. The ocean water temperature off the coast of Los Angeles County in December averages a chilly 60°F (16°C).

   The Los Angeles Times reported the next day that Freeth "successfully piloted the craft, which contained two Japanese fishermen, around the pier to a safe landing." Freeth dove into the water repeatedly until he had helped eleven fishermen safely to shore. He crawled onto one of the Japanese American fishing boats and "by a trick known only to himself, piloted the craft through the surf at railroad speed and made a safe landing on the beach." Freeth was a surfer and followed his instincts, surfing the boat to shore.

   One Japanese American fishing boat capsized as they tried to make their way to shore, with three men falling overboard and too far ashore to be thrown a life buoy. Freeth again dove off the pier carrying a life belt for each of the three men so they could stay afloat until his volunteer lifeguards arrived by rescue boat. All were saved.

RIGHT: George Freeth with a life-saving buoy he designed, described as a "hollow, air-tight, copper torpedo forty-two inches by eight, which will hold up a dead weight of five-hundred pounds." (Image, Recreation, Volumes 52-53, 1915)

   A few of the fishermen caught up in the storm were identified by the Los Angeles Times as T.O. Shiro, T. Caneshira, I. Igi, T. Yamauchi, Y. Kato, and T. Tokushima.* The majority of the fishermen are identified as being from the small fishing village off present-day Pacific Palisades, in a beach area near the "Long Wharf" known as Maikura.

   The day after Freeth's heroic rescue of the Maikura fishermen, they returned to see him, bearing gifts.  In addition to a cash gift of $50---an equivalent of about $940 today---they presented Freeth with a gold watch (average price of a gold watch in 1918 was $12.93, an equivalent of about $240 today). They donated an additional $37 to the volunteer lifeguard benefit fund. The fishermen reportedly announced to Freeth that they were renaming Maikura as "Port Freeth" (Our L.A. County Lifeguard Family, LACoFD, Lifeguard Operations) A 1910 Los Angeles Times article about a Yamato Association picnic on the beach near the fishing village north of Port Los Angeles noted "which by some is called Freeth--so named in honor of George Freeth, the Hawaiian life-saver, who rescued a number of Japanese fishermen who were caught at sea during the storm of two years ago."

ABOVE RIGHT: Local media reported on the daring rescue and on the gestures of appreciation from the fishermen the following day. ("Japanese fishermen thank life saving crew," Los Angeles Times, December 18, 1908)

  Fast forward to 1918, a decade after his nationally-reported heroics rescuing the Japanese American fishermen, Freeth was working a lifeguard job at Ocean Beach in San Diego. He continued to demonstrate his surfing skills for awestruck beach crowds, including one stunt where he "suddenly leaped clearing the board by at least three feet, turned a sumersault, regained his balance on the board again, then completed his stunt with a dive. The trick was a thriller, and evoked a storm of applause."

LEFT: A stone plaque for George Freeth embedded in the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame on Main Street in 2014, one hundred years after he first surfed the Huntington Beach pier. (Photo, M. Urashima, 2014) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

   Months later in January 1919, Freeth was overtaken by the flu virus. The pandemic had taken root in the military bases in San Diego and, despite flu masks and a citywide quarantine in December 1918, the virus continued to spread in the surrounding community. 

   Freeth recovered, then relapsed, and was hospitalized again. He would not fully recover. On the evening of April 7, 1919, he passed. The Honolulu Star Bulletin reported on April 8, 1919, that "George Douglas Freeth, well known local athlete and swimmer, died at Ocean Beach, California, last night of pneumonia, according to a cablegram received by Honolulu relatives today. In December 1908, Freeth rescued nine Japanese fishermen during a storm at Venice, Cal., for which he was awarded the Congressional medal for heroism."

RIGHT: The Japanese American fishing village of Maikura (aka Port Freeth) as it appeared the year Freeth died in 1919. The Los Angeles Times described Maikura as "one of the most picturesque spots on the coast and a large number of the houses are built after Japanese plans. The customs of the settlement are entirely Japanese." Both Maikura and George Freeth met their demise in 1919. This photograph was taken before the 2,000 residents of Maikura were displaced by the Pacific Electric Railway. Japanese American fishing villages were targeted by those fomenting anti-Japanese politics in California. Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. campaigned against the villages in the San Francisco Examiner in 1923, characterizing the communities as "aliens" monopolizing an industry. Forced to move from Maikura in 1919, the residents relocated to the fishing village on Terminal Island, where they would lose their community again in 1942. ("Old Japanese fishing village at Port Los Angeles to disappear," Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1919)

   During the 1918-1920 pandemic, the mortality was a "W" curve. The virus hit hardest those younger than five, 20-40 years old, and those sixty-five and older. Many who succumbed were fit and healthy before the virus, like George Freeth.
LEFT: George Freeth, of Hawaiian-British descent (ethnically Hawaiian-Irish), with his Congressional Gold Medal and U.S. Volunteer Life-Saving medal for Valor pinned on his lifeguard uniform. (Photo, Los Angeles County Lifeguard Trust Fund)

   The number of lives lost during the 1918-1920 pandemic is estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC also notes, "with no vaccine to protect against influenza infection and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections that can be associated with influenza infections, control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly." (1918 Pandemic - H1N1 Virus, Centers for Disease Control)

   George Freeth, the son of Elizabeth Kailikapuolono Green Freeth was laid to rest in the O'ahu Cemetery in Honolulu County, Hawaii after friends in California sent his ashes home to his mother. Freeth's legacy in Southern California is not just as the "father of surfing", but also the lives he saved during his short time on earth. His story is one out of the millions of souls lost to the 1918-1920 virus. 

   At the time of this writing, the Huntington Beach pier that George Freeth famously surfed in 1914 is closed to limit public gatherings due to the global pandemic coronavirus, COVID-19. For those reading this in the present day, stay home. Flatten the curve.

*Names of the Japanese American fishermen as spelled by the Los Angeles Times in 1908.

© All rights reserved. No part of the Historic Wintersburg blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, Mary Adams Urashima. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

In the time of the virus

A 1915 Model T two-door sedan, the automobile driven over bumpy country roads to the Nishizu home by Mr. Goya when he came to their aid during the flu pandemic, circa 1918-1920. (PHOTO: Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia)
   In October 1918, the flu pandemic spreading in Orange County prompted the County's Board of Health to appoint three doctors to head up an emergency response. A "scarcity of doctors and nurses adds to the gravity of the situation," reported the Santa Ana Register on October 26, 1918. "That the situation is more serious than many people think was brought out yesterday...doctors are going night and day and are worked to the limit of their physical ability, that there is a decided scarcity of nurses and that there are a good many people who are not reporting their cases and others who are not observing quarantine regulations."

   Orange County had a population estimated at 55,195 in 1918. The Santa Ana Register reported six county doctors who came together for the emergency response planning. They described a rapid spread of the virus and "an increase of fifty to 100 percent" west of the Santa Ana River. The shortage of nurses was so severe, the County called on "volunteers of any kind, women who may not have had any special training even as practical nurses, are needed in homes here, and women who are willing to volunteer for assistants for the county hospital should take the matter up over the telephone at once with the hospital, Orange 417 on the Pacific..."

RIGHT: A Honey and Tar bottle uncovered in the former Wintersburg Village in 2015. Foley & Co.'s Honey and Tar syrup was marketed from the 1870s through the 1960s. It was widely promoted during the 1918 flu pandemic, which affected Wintersburg Village and Huntington Beach. The original mixture was seven percent alcohol mixed with a special solution of pine tar and honey, terpin hydrate, sodium benzyl succinate and gum arabic. Pine tar historically is used as a wood preservative on baseball bats and as a cure for skin ailments. In the case of Foley & Co.'s Honey and Tar, it was recommended for nagging coughs, pneumonia, and consumption. Pine tar was banned by the FDA in the 1990s due to a lack of proof of effectiveness. Even with honey, this did not taste all that good. (Photo, M. Adams Urashima, 2015) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
In 1982, Wintersburg Japanese Mission congregant Clarence Nishizu recalled the global flu pandemic during his oral history interview with Arthur Hansen for the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project with California State University Fullerton.

   "After World War I...there came a time in the United States when an epidemic of influenza spread throughout the country and resulted in 548,000 deaths. Influenza is an acute infectious respiratory disease caused by a filterable virus. It was taken for granted that all members of every family would be afflicted by this flu. Our family was no exception. Every member of our family came down with the flu. I was only ten or so years old when this epidemic hit. One day we found out that my parents both had been infected, and that there was nobody to care for us. Suddenly, Mr. Goya came to our house. My mother asked him to please leave, or otherwise he would certainly contract the flu himself. But he utterly refused to go."

LEFT: The situation was hinting at improvement by January 1919 in Wintersburg Village. Henry Winters, for whom Wintersburg Village was named, restarted construction on his ranch home which had been delayed due to flu. In Orange County, entire households were sick at the same time. Four members of the Winters family were reported as succumbing to the flu in December 1918. The Oceanview school reopened for the third time in January 1919, optimistic that students were healthy and could return to their studies. (News clip, Santa Ana Register, January 10, 1919)

   "Let me tell you about Mr. Goya. He was the most respected, intelligent, and eloquent Issei pioneer among the Kasuya Gun Jin Kai, a close-knitted group or club organized among the Issei who had come from my parents' area in Fukuoka. He had a mustache like Charlie Chaplin. He had his serious moments where he would just sit there thinking, but he also had his hilarious moments when he would laugh and tell funny, sexy stories. I overheard some of these stories, but I hesitate to repeat them now. His speech was full of humor, yet to the point, not long like the speeches my father used to make. When he spoke everybody was all ears and his remarks, filled with wisdom and humor, were the talk of the whole Kasuya group. 

    The most important thing is that he came to nurse our family knowing that we were all sick. To come to our rescue at the risk of his own exposure is a trait that is so beautiful. It is like the story of Father Damien, the Catholic priest who saw the sad condition of the lepers on Molokai island in Hawaii in 1873 and volunteered to tend to their spiritual needs. He managed by the labor of his own hands and by appeals to the Hawaiian government to improve the water and food supplies and housing. Thus, he gave his own life and died of leprosy [on April 15, 1889]. Anyway, Mr. Goya came to our place in an old Model T two-door sedan." The Nishizu family recovered and Clarence Nishizu became a key individual in the growth of Orange County.

   In February 1919, the Santa Ana Register reported that the virus "has proven to be one of the worst epidemics ever visited on the suffering world." The Register admonished people to stay home and observe quarantine, and not walk about and spread it to others. By June 1919, it was reported that California's flu cases from October 1918 through March 1919 had totaled 305,856, roughly ten percent of the state's population. There had been 200 virus-related deaths in Orange County in the two-month period of October-November 1918.

RIGHT: An advertisement for Foley's Honey and Tar from 1919, promoting the "clean and wholesome tar of the pine and the balmy, tasteful, demulcent honey of the bees combined with curative plants found in the forest and field."

   Reported cases of the virus appeared to have peaked by March 1919 and some quarantine cases were beginning to walk out into the sunshine.  However through 1920, the Santa Ana Register continued to provide reports on flu or suspected flu, including reports from other states and around the world. Having seen friends and communities suffer, a vigilance about public health practices remained for a generation as efforts to develop immunizations and means to combat disease became a global mission.

   On New Year's day 1920, the New York Times reported "there were times during 1919 when the era leading up to the war seemed, in the casual retrospect, like some far-off Golden Age." While some communities improved, the virus continued to return in various parts of a tired country in 1920. In California, every resident of the Paiute community in Inyo County--later home to the Manzanar Relocation Center during WWII--was found by a mail carrier to be stricken with the virus and without medical care. One hundred died.

   The virus did ultimately diminish by the end of 1920. It had touched every family and altered the perspective and politics of the country.

   Communities coming together to help each other through tough times is the history of the peatlands. It's how missions were built and barns were raised, how schools set up classes in donated buildings, and how the harvest was done.  It's how families endured loved ones heading off to a world war. And, it's how families survived a global pandemic a century ago.

ABOVE: The celery harvest in the peatlands of Wintersburg Village and Smeltzer. (Photo courtesy of Center for Oral and Public History, PJA 026) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

© All rights reserved. No part of the Historic Wintersburg blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, Mary Adams Urashima.