She'd first glimpsed Crabbe in 1929, when she was aboard a cruise ship in Honolulu harbor. "There were Buster and his brother, Edward, in the water," she says, "two gorgeous blond creatures, diving for coins with all the black-haired little Kanaka. Later I met him face to face in the hotel where he was drumming up prospects for surfing lessons."
The Crabbe family tree is rooted deep in the Hawaiian islands. One forefather was a ship captain named Crabbe. In 1821 he made port in Honolulu and married a native woman—a union that made Buster Crabbe one thirty-second Polynesian. Their son, Horace, was born in Philadelphia but returned to the islands in 1847, and he eventually served as chamberlain to King Lunalilo of Hawaii from 1873-74. Buster's grandfather, Clarence, was for many years the Honolulu port superintendent and served from 1902-04 as president of the territorial senate. He has been called the father of the Republican Party in Hawaii. But there was always a certain amount of moving to and from the mainland in the family. Buster's father, Edward, was born in Carson City, Nev., his mother, Agnes, was from Bakersfield, Calif., and Buster himself was born in Oakland, on Feb. 7, 1908. Before he was two, his father had taken a job as luna (overseer) on a pineapple plantation and moved his family back to Hawaii. The elder Crabbe later became a U.S. revenue agent during Prohibition, then ran unsuccessfully for sheriff of Honolulu and got into real estate, but he never was very successful at anything. He did teach his son to swim by the time Buster was four, however. The boy became a powerful swimmer and a superb surfer in the days when the boards were redwood slabs that often weighed more than the surfers who rode them. Buster also became a skillful horseback rider and boxed some, and when he attended Honolulu's famed Punahou School, he won three varsity letters in swimming and was eventually inducted into the school's hall of fame.
During Crabbe's boyhood, the No. 1 Hawaiian sports hero was the legendary swimmer, Duke Kahanamoku, who won his first Olympic gold medal in the 100 free at the 1912 Stockholm Games. He got two more golds, in the 100 free and the 4 X 200 relay at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, and added a silver in 1924 in Paris. Crabbe knew Kahanamoku well and adored him. "Duke was the first really major Olympic swimmer in the world," Crabbe said in an interview several years ago. "People wouldn't believe the times he was swimming until he won in Stockholm. Duke was my god. He was a great sport. In Hawaii, he wouldn't embarrass local champions. He could beat all of them by the length of the pool, but he'd always make it look close."
In 1924, when Kahanamoku and other Hawaiian swimmers left Honolulu on a ship en route to the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, Crabbe, age 16, waved goodby from the dock and swore that he'd be on the boat headed for the next Olympics. And he was. But the '28 Games in Amsterdam weren't entirely satisfying for him. The transatlantic voyage was extraordinarily rough and, along with most everyone else on the U.S. team, Crabbe was very sick. He lost 10 pounds and was weak and dispirited when he arrived in the Netherlands. The training conditions there were less than ideal "For some reason we couldn't practice in the Olympic pool and had to go to Utrecht," he would recall. "There were little fish in the pool there, and they got in our suits. I think the water was pumped right out of the canals." Though fish-free, the Olympic pool itself was no bargain. It was located next to a railroad track, so the swimmers constantly were subjected to the clank of passing rolling stock and the shriek of train whistles. And if the wind was blowing wrong, a fine mist of soot would descend on the pool, which also had a large crack in its bottom. Water had to be constantly added to maintain the level in the pool.
Crabbe's bronze-medal and fourth-place finishes in Amsterdam weren't that bad, but he was disappointed, and he became grimly dedicated to winning at Los Angeles in '32. In the meantime, he briefly attended Yale, then the University of Hawaii and USC, from which he graduated with a B.A. in political science in '32. "His college years weren't happy, I'm afraid," says Virginia. "He had to work so hard. His scholarship was just tuition, and he had jobs. He even washed dishes at the Sigma Chi house in exchange for meals. He trained every day. He had no real coach, so he made up his own regimen, swimming at least an hour a day. As the Games approached, early in the morning he'd sometimes climb the fence at the Olympic pool, which had been built near the campus that year, so he could get in an extra hour or so of training. Everything was aimed at the Olympics."
There was, of course, no guarantee that Crabbe would win a gold medal, but there was much in his favor. He was competing in his own backyard. He was the only American swimmer who had also participated in the '28 Games, and the U.S. had dominated world swimming since 1920 with the likes of Kahanamoku and the fabled Johnny Weissmuller.
However, by 1932 the U.S. was no longer supreme. Japan hadn't been noted for the prowess of its swimmers until 1928, when Yoshiyuki Tsuruta won the gold medal in the 200 breaststroke. Then in 1931, a U.S. team went to Tokyo for a dual meet and, to its surprise, wound up being decisively beaten by the Japanese. Crabbe, the captain of the U.S. squad, finished fourth in the 400, fifth in the 800 and fifth in the 1,500.
The Tokyo meet was a taste of what would occur in L.A. In the six Olympic men's events, the Japanese won five gold, three silver and three bronze medals. And their incredible youth, even by today's standards, made this performance even more amazing; there were 11 teenagers on Japan's 17-man team. The gold medal in the 1,500 free was won by Kusuo Kitamura (see pages 132-133), 14. The silver in that event was taken by 17-year-old Shozo Makino. Yasuji Miyazaki, 15, won the 100 free, finishing a split second ahead of Tatsugo Kawaishi, 20. Masaji Kiyokawa (see pages 120-121), 19, was first in the 100 backstroke, followed by Toshio Irie, 20, in second place, and Kentaro Kawatsu, 17, in third. Then Tsuruta, the team ancient at 28, got the gold medal in the 200 breast with Reizo Koike, 16, second. The Japanese also won the 4 X 200 relay in a world-record 8:58.4. That was 12.1 better than the clocking of the runnerup U.S. and 37.8 seconds better than the Olympic record set by a Weismuller-led American team in 1928.
For swimming insiders, that Japan won big in the '32 Olympics was somewhat surprising. But for ordinary spectators and for sportswriters who rarely reported the sport, the attainments and youth of the Japanese men were stunning. After Japan swept the 100 backstroke, an awed Runyon wrote, "They must teach swimming in infancy in the Land of the Rising Sun. We have little Japanese boys, at an age when our own kids are still balking at spinach, breaking Olympic records and outsplashing the greatest swimmers in the world." Braven Dyer wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "When these kids get their full growth they'll probably have to carry anchors to give their foes a chance." Newspaper headlines described the Japanese as if they were Martians: AQUATIC WORLD BOWS TO NIPPONESE PADDLERS, headlined the L.A. Times, LITTLE BROWN MEN CINCH TO WIN 100 METERS FINAL TODAY, read the subhead.
Sportswriters expounded many theories to explain Japan's success. One wrote, with the authority of total ignorance, "Having shorter legs than most swimmers, the Japanese need not put their heads down so far for balance as do the longer-limbed Americans: This enables them to swim higher in the water which promotes far more speed." One of the U.S. coaches had another theory, only slightly less ludicrous. "This fellow was convinced the Japanese were doped," Crabbe said later, "that they were getting some kind of stimulation from drugs, because when they got out of the pool, they'd have these bright red marks on their faces. This is what made him so suspicious. But do you know what it was? They'd been sniffing oxygen before the race, and the marks were from their oxygen masks—legal as hell."