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Veterans Head Back To The China Beach Surf

Mike Cotton Productions

A pair of local film makers will be part of an annual film festival this weekend. The movie “Back to China Beach,” and it's one of the featured attractions at the 2020 Pensacola Film Festival. It’s a film about surfing the famous beach during and after the Vietnam War. WUWF's Bob Barrett talked about the film with director Dave Barnes and producer and long-time local surfer Mike Cotton. He asked what drew them to China Beach.

Mike Cotton: Back in 1965, I was growing up in south Florida, a young surfer. And a friend of mine came back and had been wounded in Vietnam, but he told me it was beautiful, they had surf. Other than getting shot at occasionally, it wasn’t too bad. So I’ve been fascinated with this whole story my entire life. I met Dave (Barnes) about 10 years ago, we were working on a TV show together, and I kept telling Dave about this story. And about 3 and a half years ago we decided we were going to move forward with this.

Dave Barnes: China Beach became the place where (soldiers) could get away. Get away from the war. Get away from the pressure. Get away from all that. And it became the vacation spot, for lack of a better term in, Vietnam. And I thought that was very fascinating, that they had a place to go.

Bob Barrett: When people hear the name ‘China Beach’, all of a sudden Dana Delany (from the TV series China Beach) comes into their head. Did you guys have any preconceived notions going into (the project)?

DB: I did not, because I never watched the show very much. I know Larry (Martin) was involved in that show. He was one of the guys who helped us with the movie, so he had some ideas. But I knew nothing about it.

Mike Cotton & Dave Barnes

MC: Larry Martin, who is a Pensacola local, actually ended up having two tours (in Vietnam). He’s the only veteran I know that signed up for a second tour in Vietnam so he could surf the big waves the next season. But he was (an early organizer) getting the China Beach Surf Club organized and helping with all that. And when the (soldiers) would come out of the jungles, he would help them get to the beach (and) surf, if they could surf. But just being at that beach, at the water, it psychologically (helped). And I’ve been surfing now for over 55 years.

BB: When you were doing your research, who were some of the characters that made you think this was going to be a good story?

DB: There were a number of people that came (and) that we interviewed, and the more we interviewed people the more stories that came out. A lot of these guys had not talked about their Vietnam experience at all. One of my favorite stories is when a helicopter landed on China Beach and blew cement, dirt and dust over everybody because they had to get this kid out of the jungle. And they told the kid...

MC: It was actually the Marines who brought him in.

DB: Yeah, and they told the kid to tell them it was an Army helicopter as they threw the kid out. So the Army got in trouble for it.

MC: You know this is not a typical war story, and there are some great ones out there. This is a whole different take on the Vietnam War and I always tell people it’s a film of hope and healing. And it does have a happy ending because we followed these (men, and some women) lives until now. And we took a film crew about a year ago back to Vietnam to China Beach, which is really called My Khe Beach. It’s at Da Nang. China Beach is really a nickname our military personnel gave it since it’s on the South China Sea.

DB: And today it’s all condominiums and hotels.


BB: Isn’t every beach condominiums and hotels? Who did you take with you, did you take any veterans with you?

MC: We met a fellow who was originally from Texas but he (now) lives in Oklahoma named Ronny Radliff, and Ronny went over to heal himself. He couldn’t get much help from the VA in ’98, and he ended up staying (in Vietnam) for 3 years and marrying a lady. Then, when he came (home), he started taking groups of vets (to Vietnam). And this was his 22nd trip back. We were the first non-veteran group (to travel to Vietnam with him).  But it gave us the inside track on everything. So we really didn’t have to think too much, we just told him what we wanted to capture and he set everything up for us. And his story became very important in this film, (about) the problems that he had and how today he feels so much better going back there. And, of course, the Vietnamese people are really beautiful people, at least the ones that we met.

DB: It was a great experience. For a communist country, you’d never know it.  It was very commercial, people were selling stuff everywhere. (There was) total freedom. So it was a very interesting trip.

BB: How free were you to film?

DB: Totally. There was only one time where we had a couple of guys watching us, and they were dressed like civilians. And (I invited them over) and I let them look through the camera and they got all excited.

MC: I told them we were having a family reunion and acted like a crazy tourist and one guy shook his head and walked away. Ronny just about fell on the ground laughing. He said you’ll never see those guys again. By the way they were secret police. But, they’re going to love this film when we take it back because it’s all positive. But as creative people, we definitely didn’t need the government over there telling us how to make this film. We knew what we had to get.

BB: What has been the reaction to the film, both from veterans and non-veterans?

DB: Really positive.

MC: The world premier was at the Pensacola Little Theater on November 24th. Once the film ended, Dave and I knew the one demographic we had to please was the Vietnam veterans. Because if they thought this was B.S. then we were going to put it in a shoe box and forget about it. But the theater went kind of quiet, and then some people started clapping and then they started cheering.

DB: And a lot of people crying.

MC: Yeah, tears. A lot of tears. And those Vietnam veterans were saying we know what happened (over there), this is the most accurate depiction that we’ve seen. And then their families were going now it all makes sense. Because they’ve been hearing these stories in a lot of cases.

Back to China Beach will be shown both Saturday and Sunday at 7 p.m. as part of the 2020 Pensacola Film Festival. The event runs Friday through Sunday at the Studer Community Institute Building on Garden and Spring streets. See the full schedule at pensacolacinemaart.com

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.