A young Florida surfer went to Hawaii on a US Army enlistment contract, only to go AWOL and later become a staple of the California wave scene.
John Smith roams the shores of Huntington Beach, a city known for beautiful beaches, as well as being the birthplace of bands such as The Offspring and Avenged Sevenfold.
Known as “Johnny AWOL,” the surfer is somewhat of a legend in locales across the Pacific Ocean, from the California coast to the islands of Hawaii.
Originally born in Florida, Smith joined the US Army because there just wasn’t much going on in his life, and he wanted to get out of the Sunshine State.
“Back in Florida I considered Bible college, but that fell through,” he said. “I tried to put surfing away for a while but it kept coming back. I moved in with my mom again even though I hadn’t lived with her for years. Then someone told me that there were military bases all over the Islands: Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines. Pensacola is a big Navy town and I wasn’t into that.”
Smith had surfed in California and Hawaii prior to enlistment, and his motivations were clear- he wanted to go back to Hawaii, and his motivation for enlisting came down to getting back to the islands.
“I told the recruiters I really want to join the Air Force, but that I wouldn’t join unless they could guarantee I would go to Hawaii,” he told Surfer. “I could see that this wasn’t going to be a practical request, so I walked out of there. A few doors down, there were a couple of Army recruiters smoking cigarettes and talking story. They asked me where I was going. I told them I’d just walked out of the Air Force office because they couldn’t give me Hawaii. And right there on the sidewalk, they said, ‘We can guarantee you Hawaii.’ I didn’t care what it was, I was going to get out there.”
Joining the Infantry, Smith soon found himself at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he learned to be a soldier. Despite his dislike for the US military life, he had a ticket to Hawaii- and that was good enough.
Soon, Smith found himself in Hawaii, and he was happy to be there. Moving out of the barracks, he soon found himself surfing the waves he fell in love with.
Then, one day, he was told to go pick up desert camouflage uniforms- the kind you get when you’re about to deploy.
“They make you a professional janitor and then hand you a rifle,” he said of his basic training, insinuating that he wasn’t ready for combat.
To make matters worse, Smith’s chain of command was starting to pay more attention to him. In the end, he decided the Army just wasn’t for him.
“The Army is like any organization: if you don’t go along, they have ways to handle you,” he said. “I knew, at that point, I’d gotten into something I didn’t want to be in. I felt trapped, and I realized that sometimes it’s better to not have what you want, than to have something that you don’t want. And I didn’t want the Army.”
One day, Smith didn’t show up for 5 AM formation. Then a few days passed, followed by weeks and months. Smith was AWOL, and he knew there was no going back without consequences.
Hiding in the shadows, Smith worked as a dishwasher to get by, but would often see his former chain of command eating off the very plates he cleaned.
Soon, Smith had a new name- “Johnny AWOL.”
Two years after going AWOL, Smith enlisted the help of a retired lieutenant colonel to help him turn himself into his unit. Rolling up to the company headquarters in a Corvette, Smith expected the worst- only to find nobody actually knew he had gone missing.
“The staff tried to pull up my information on the computer,” he recounted. “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.”
Not officially on the books but not free to leave, Smith was forced to shave his beard and act like a Soldier again. Despite going AWOL, officers and enlisted treated him rather well, and ultimately, he was offered a chance to continue his term of service without any repercussions.
Smith, however, did not want to live out a lie. He opted to be chaptered, something that deeply hurt the command that grew to like him so much.
“I don’t know the word for the disappointment I saw in my officers’ faces when I turned the deal down,” he said. “Not everybody gets a walk-through like that. No one knew what I’d have to face. But the officers honored their word. One captain, in particular, worked hard on my case. Maybe it was because there are so many Johnny Smith’s in the world, or maybe it’s because they just didn’t have enough paperwork on me, but eight months after turning myself in, I received a general discharge, basically, a big nothing.”
“Johnny AWOL” has been featured in numerous publications and surfing magazines since his time in the service- he has since grown out his hair and beard, and likely has no desire to ever go back to the Army.
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