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The Life and Times of American Martial Arts Pioneer Donn F. Draeger, Part 1

The Life and Times of American Martial Arts Pioneer Donn F. Draeger, Part 1

On October 20, 1982, the martial arts world lost one of its most dynamic and charismatic figures. Donn F. Draeger, USMC (retired), budo kyoshi (full professor of Japanese martial arts and ways) and ranked martial artist in perhaps a dozen combative systems, passed away from cancer at age 60 in his home state of Wisconsin.

Draeger is remembered today chiefly as the author of more than 30 books and numerous articles about the Asian martial arts, as well as for being one of the best-qualified and most experienced Western exponents of the combative arts. The oft-repeated legend that he either had or possessed the equivalent of some 100 black-belt ranks is perhaps apocryphal, but he no doubt was among the most accomplished martial artists of his generation, possibly of all time. He held a sixth-degree black belt in judo; a seventh degree in jojutsu (Japanese stick fighting), kendo and iaido; and a menkyo license in the tenshin shoden katori shinto-ryu of bujutsu.

Donn Draeger

Yet Draeger was a private man, and little has been published about his background and how he came to be such a pioneering figure in Western martial arts history. More intent on studying and analyzing than on promoting himself, he made perhaps his greatest contribution to combative studies in the form of the reactivation of hoplology — the scholarly study of weaponry and human combative behavior, a field with which he became familiar by reading Sir Richard Francis Burton’s The Book of the Sword. This volume, first published in 1882 (and available today from Dover Publications), is a seminal hoplological text devoted to a cultural history of the sword from the earliest times to the Roman era, and it had a profound influence on Draeger’s thinking concerning weaponry, systems of combat and their place in global culture.

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But it’s as a pioneering figure in the worldwide investigation into martial culture that Draeger deserves attention, both for his acknowledged contributions and his extensive influence. What follows is a brief attempt at reconstructing Draeger’s personal history from various sources. Whenever possible, the facts have been checked and double-checked to produce an accurate sketch of one of the most remarkable Americans of his generation.

The Beginning

Donald Frederick Draeger was born on April 15,1922, probably in Milwaukee and most likely of German or Dutch descent. Little is known of his family — he may have been an only child — although it appears that after his biological father’s death, his mother remarried, for he had a half-brother named Gary. What is known is that as a boy, Draeger was fond of sports and the outdoors, spending his summers living with members of the Chippewa nation in the northern Wisconsin wilderness. There he learned various aspects of woodcraft and gained the respect of adult tribesmen via his ability to grapple and defeat boys older, larger and stronger than himself.

It was perhaps from this early association with the Chippewa that during the first half of his life, Draeger became an avid hunter. His first recorded fascination with weapons was with firearms. Buying a .22-caliber rifle with money earned from odd jobs, he was able to progress from stalking small game to hunting on most of the continents and accumulating more than 40 trophy heads, including those of the grizzly and Alaskan brown bear. Later, however, he came to detest killing animals except as a means to procure food or when required for self-defense. He renounced the sport and became quietly passionate in his respect for life.

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His early prowess with the rifle, however, was nearly unmatched. In time, Draeger became so efficient that while in the U.S. Marines, he qualified as a distinguished marksman, able to shoot from the hip with the same expertise as many who shot from the shoulder. Only a family death prevented him from accompanying the Marine marksmanship team to the national championships.

Martial Roots

From all accounts, Draeger was a natural athlete, one of the few who possess the right physical equipment for most endeavors. Standing in maturity 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing between 195 and 215 pounds, he was fortunate in that he was big-boned, with large hands for gripping. Beginning the study of jujitsu at age 7 in Chicago, he soon switched to judo and progressed so rapidly through the kyu grades that he attained nikkyu at age 10.

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Early in his judo education, Draeger began looking into weightlifting as a form of supplementary training — at a time when using weights for any athletic purpose was deplored by most coaches. After his investigation, he pronounced it a sound system and started working out in earnest with barbells, eventually gaining a physique that was the envy of many bodybuilders. Robert W. Smith relates that while living in Washington, D.C., during the early 1950s, Draeger was approached by several weightlifting/bodybuilding officials who thought he’d be a shoo-in for that year’s Mr. America contest if he trained full time.

Devoted to judo, Draeger declined and continued lifting weights only for strength and greater efficiency in his chosen endeavors. An early advocate of proper weight-training methods for athletic contests, he influenced the Japanese with his support for pumping iron. Taking the late Inokuma Isao under his wing, Draeger became his personal trainer for the All-Japan Championships, the Olympics and the World Championships, increasing the athlete’s weight from 160 pounds to more than 190. The most tangible result of Draeger’s avid promotion of weight training for competitive judoka may be that today, all Japanese judo champions use weights.

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Draeger’s own physical prowess was unquestionable. Strong and extremely solid — even though over time, injuries caused him to focus more on studying the koryu (ancient martial traditions of Japan) — even in his 50s he was capable of defeating many Kodokan judoka half his age. At 55, he could still squat with 500 pounds on his shoulders.

Military Career

During the Great Depression, the 15-year-old Draeger joined the U.S. Marine Corps, continuing his education — and eventually earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering — so he could become a career officer. He saw combat in the Pacific and Korean Wars and served for a time in Manchuria. He was also in the Shanghai area of China, although his mission there is unclear. From a mention in C.W. Nicol’s classic 1975 memoir Moving Zen, it seems a virtual certainty that Draeger was on Iwo Jima during the celebrated February-March 1945 battle that saw almost 26,000 American casualties and more than 22,000 Japanese killed.

After the war, as a young Marine lieutenant and judo black belt, Draeger made his first visit to Japan as part of the occupation forces. Although most Japanese martial arts were proscribed in the immediate postwar period, he sought out highly regarded exponents such as the legendary judoka Kimura Masahiko, with whom he hoped to train. Years later, he studied directly under Mifune Kyuzo, Sato Shizuya and Ito Kazuo (becoming the uke in the illustrations for Ito’s famous English-language book This Is Judo).

Draeger’s judo background also led to his being on the official military board of the Supreme Command of Allied Powers in Japan, where he helped decide the status and political responsibility of the various Japanese martial systems. Most of the arts that were demonstrated were banned for having been associated with militarism, although karate-do, curiously, was exempted.

An anecdote tells that while a member of this board, Draeger watched as karateka under Gichin Funakoshi demonstrated their kata at a deliberately slow pace to make it seem like a form of exercise along the lines of Chinese tai chi chuan. As the only member of the board who understood karate-do’s true nature and intent, Draeger later claimed he allowed it to pass without the other board members’ knowledge.

Read Part 2 of this article here.

About the author: Paul Nurse is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Ontario, Canada.

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  1. The Life and Times of American Martial Arts Pioneer Donn F. Draeger, Part 2 - Mehanhapkido.com linked to this post on February 26, 2015

    [...] Read Part 1 of this article here. [...]

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  2. Injury update | Screaming Into the Abyss linked to this post on February 28, 2015

    [...] Black Belt recently ran a two-part series on Don F. Draeger. If you don’t know who Mr. Draeger was I’d encourage you to read the article. [...]

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  3. KORYU 古流 | Protective Arts linked to this post on July 12, 2017

    [...] begin researching Japanese Koryu: A great resource is >here< and Don Draeger’s works are classics to [...]

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