A military branch commissions an expert to create a high-tech weapon that uses an electronic pulse to wipe out the enemy’s computer chips and thus reduce the amount of deadly force needed—and blood shed—during combat. In addition, he’s asked to develop nanotechnology (tiny computers that can be injected into the body) and ultrasensitive lie-detection devices. Because he’s also a longtime military officer, his credentials open doors for him to investigate paranormal phenomena: fire walking, spoon bending, the death touch and using ki to influence physiological functions.
It’s easy to imagine that all this is fodder for an episode of The X-Files, but it’s very real. Welcome to the amazing world of Dr. John Alexander, cousin of Black Belt Hall of Fame member Gary Alexander. A black belt in his own right, the Nevada-based retired U.S. Army colonel is perhaps better-known for his commentary on modern warfare than his martial arts expertise, for in addition to being a technical consultant for the military, he has shared his vast knowledge with authors Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy. Yet John Alexander’s link to the fighting arts stretches back nearly half a century.
Black Belt: Were you exposed to the martial arts before you joined the Army in 1956?
John Alexander: I grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin. It’s a very small town, and I don’t think we had even heard of karate. It had not permeated American culture at that time. The Special Forces had just come into existence, and I had read about them. The recruiter said it would be good to jump out of airplanes first, so I joined the 101st Airborne Division. It was between wars, so getting promoted to sergeant was extremely difficult. One of the ways to move up was to go to Ranger school. When I returned to the 101st Airborne, I was under 21, but they needed instructors at jump school, so I was sent down to try out. I was selected as one of the black-hat guys.
While I was there at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the ground-training unit had a non-commissioned officer named Sgt. Maj. Henry Slomanski— or “Hammering Hank,” as he was affectionately known. He was one of the early forces in karate in the United States. He was about 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. He had spent a fair amount of time in Japan and acquired a chitoryu karate black belt. He rose up the chain and became a very good fighter. His biggest feat was defeating 119 Japanese karate experts in consecutive full-contact, no-pads matches over two days. Because of his size, he had a reach and could kick farther and use his weight in ways the Japanese couldn’t counter. He was later appointed as the commissioner for the Western hemisphere.
Black Belt: What exactly did he teach you?
John Alexander: Sgt. Maj. Henry Slomanski started a karate club and was teaching there. In the Rangers, we had American hand-to-hand combat, which was a derivative of jujutsu and American judo. His program also had a fair amount of traditional martial arts techniques. In addition to punches and very exacting kata, he also spent a lot of time learning about physiology and understanding how the body works and where to hit it to get a certain effect on joints and nerves. It was deep, far beyond “How hard can I hit the bag?”
Black Belt: Did you learn any other martial arts techniques during your military career?
John Alexander: Yes. The martial arts were part of all the military organizations I was with. For example, I was with Special Forces units for 10 years, and for my first tour in Asia, we teamed up with the Thai Special Forces. What they brought that was different from what we’d seen was Thai kickboxing. They used their feet differently from the way we did: They’d get in close and hold us and use their knees in ways that were not in traditional American fighting. I was there from 1966 to 1967, so there was plenty of time to train with them.
After a tour in Vietnam as a Special Forces A-Team commander, the Army gave me a year off to complete my bachelor’s degree [in Omaha], so I looked for some kind of martial arts training there. That’s where I first ran into taekwondo. In 1972 I was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. I was an infantry company commander. The executive officer there, Rich Haake, was Hawaiian. His father was a police captain on Maui. There was a large group of ethnic Samoans living in Hawaii who were really big, and the Hawaiian police were looking for ways to physically control them without having to shoot. Aikido became their method of choice, and through Rich Haake, …