OLYMPIAN OWEN P. CHURCHILL
By: SCYA SC Shawn Milligan
A man who perhaps was the greatest sailor of his time, Olympic gold medalist, an inventor and in all likelihood, the Olympian who gestured to Adolph Hitler with his middle finger “The Bird” during the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympiad in Nazi Germany…
In 1984, during the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, the chairman of the Los Angeles Olympic Committee, Peter Ueberroth, gave special recognition to a man whose life story is only known to some but had a huge impact on sailing and even the world.
Owen Porter Churchill was born in 1896 and was the son of a well-known banker who founded the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Los Angeles. As a young man, Owen took to the sport of sailing and quickly became a first-class yachtsmen, winning many races. In 1925 Owen Churchill won 5 first place awards in his boat “Galliano”. Owen was recognized in Southern California as one of the greatest sailors of the day and quickly became a hot commodity. This boosted him in 1926 to the position of Vice Commodore of Southern California Yachting Association and Commodore of Catalina Island Yacht Club.
Owen Churchill was instrumental in attracting big name racers from around the Country to Southern California to challenge him, which helped promote the start-up of the now nationally recognized SCYA Midwinter Regatta. It was realized early on that for Southern California to have a chance at medaling in Olympic competition (proving to the world that we had the highest caliber yachtsmen in the world), Churchill would be the best bet to accomplish this goal and he was!!! He was a member of four U.S. Olympic teams; 1928, 1932, 1936 and 1952 holding the title of team captain for three of those yachting teams and winning Olympic gold in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics on his 8 Metre yacht, “The Angelita“.
In 1939 Owen Churchill invented and began to manufacture the first vulcanized rubber “swim fin”, a term which he was the first to coin. A few years later in 1942, a French naval lieutenant named Jacques Cousteau along with French engineer Emile Gagnan invented the Aqua-Lung which was the first open circuit, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, better known as SCUBA. These two devices together would prove to be invaluable for the war efforts during World War II for those servicemen of the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Service) now known as the C.I.A. and Navy underwater demolition teams now known as Navy SEALS. British armed forces specializing in underwater demolition also used the Churchill swim fins which the U.S. War Department had a monopoly on manufacturing during World War II. Today Churchill’s swim fin design is extremely popular with body surfers and spear fishing enthusiasts around the world.
It was known that Owen Churchill had a vast contempt for Adolf Hitler and would make fun of him when given the chance. As the captain of the United States sailing team in 1936, Churchill along with 358 other fellow American athletes, marched into Reichssportfield which was the Olympic stadium built for the 11th Olympiad in Nazi Germany. The United States athletes were under strict orders not to salute or wave to Adolf Hitler during the opening ceremonies. As legend has it, Owen Churchill raised his middle finger and flipped off Adolph Hitler who was in the reviewing stands with 110,000 screaming fans in attendance, of which most were fanatic Nazis.
As mentioned above, Owen Churchill at age 88 was honored during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics for his Olympic service by Peter Ueberroth for his lifelong efforts to promote yachting. Churchill’s Star Fleet Yacht, the Angelita, was fully restored for the occasion and re-christened at the time in Los Angeles harbor. Owen Churchill passed away one year later.
April 28, 1936 En Route to the Olympic Games
SCYA photo: Olympics-002
(From the back of the photo)
Owen P. Churchill of Los Angeles, winner of the 8-meter Championship in the 1932 games, loads his sloop Angelita aboard the Danish East Asiatic Liner Canada and sails to represent America in the 1936 Olympic sailing races at Kiel, Germany. Photo shows Owen P. Churchill and Olympic Games party on the deck of the Angelita, aboard the liner Canada, as she sails from Los Angeles. At the rear, left to right; Bob Sutton, Mrs. Owen P. Churchill, John Morrow, Carl Dorsey, Owen P. Churchill, William Keane. In front, left to right; Gabrielle Davis, Tony Churchill, Patty Lou Churchill, Althea Davis, Barbra McCarney.
By Shawn Milligan
It was known that Owen Churchill had a vast contempt for Adolf Hitler and would make fun of him when given the chance. Here is one such example, where Owen along with friends, fellow Olympic team members and family, enjoy a moment to “take a jab” at Adolf Hitler for the national newspapers.
*Photo at the beginning of this article is a blow up of Churchill from this image.
Credits for the photos on this page come from the back of the original photos:
Photo Olympics-002 and 004: Reference Department 5-8-1936 N.E.A. Credit ACME
EN ROUTE TO THE OLYMPIC GAMES
Owen P. Churchill of Los Angeles Winner of the 8-Metre Championship in the 1932 Games, loads his sloop Angelita aboard the Danish East Atlantic Liner Canada, and sails to represent American in the 1936 Olumpic sailing races at Keel, Germany. Photo shows Owen P. Chruchill and Olympic Games party on the deck of the Angelita, aboard the liner Canada, as she sails for Los Angeles.
Photo Olympics-003: Stamped on the back, Reference Department May 28,1930 N.E.A. ACMENEWSPICTURES 481 Eighth Street, New York “For Cleveland”