Black Belt featured the fist of isshin kempo founder William S. Russell on its April 1977 cover, along with a two-part feature on his take on the martial arts. Three decades later, we thought readers would appreciate an update on the evolution of the system through the eyes of its current leader, Christopher J. Goedecke.
If isshin-ryu karate, birthed on Okinawa in the mid-1950s, was considered a radical system for its unique karate techniques—like its thumb-on-top fist formation and forearm blocking—then isshin kempo, the American offshoot founded in 1970 by the late William S. Russell, can be considered a radical commentary on mainstream isshin-ryu.
Begin with a bewildering assertion from isshin kempo’s current leader, Christopher J. Goedecke: “There are no punches in the isshin-ryu kata.” The lanky, articulate sensei says that after nearly four decades of practicing traditional isshin-ryu forms, “the internal structure of isshin kata present immensely rich and layered techniques beyond the obvious kick/punch responses. It has become our challenge to unlock as many of these lessons as possible.”
Isshin kempo evolved around several core questions espoused by Russell. Trained in Western boxing with peripheral studies in aikijujutsu, mantis kung fu and the hung system of kung, he believed the early presentation of isshin-ryu kata appeared disparate from actual fighting. He wondered if the gap resulted from a misunderstanding of the depth of its kata by early American followers and wasn’t a design flaw. Years of professional boxing lessons with a Golden Gloves champion, a tough teenage street life and his enrollment in a pioneering New Jersey martial arts school prompted him to anchor his forms with more realistic interpretations.
“Russell never doubted the effectiveness of isshin-ryu,” Christopher J. Goedecke says. “Like other professionals, he suspected that pioneering American students had simply not penetrated their kata’s core lessons. No one expected any U.S. servicemen, in a few tours of duty, to walk away with a full grasp of the teachings of a master with 59 years of experience.”
Isshin kempo grew out of William S. Russell’s scrutiny of the isshin-ryu karate system he found himself drawn to in his early 20s. Considered a rebel for his radical ideas about turning stress into productive energy, William S. Russell had a physical prowess and curious mind that ferried him through the ranks to eventually helm one of New Jersey’s premiere dojo. The Bank Street School, founded in 1962, was a high-ceiling, two-room facility that covered nearly 3,500 square feet. Its teaching roster included some of New Jersey’s top instructors: Robert Murphy, founder of isshin shorinji-ryu Okinawa-te; Shimamoto Mamoru, All-Japan judo champion; Gary Alexander, founder of isshin-ryu plus; and Edward Doyle, American-goju headmaster under Peter Urban.
The 1,000-man dojo that William S. Russell built in the 1970s provided grist for his theories about karate’s potential to unify the body/mind complex and tap into stores of personal energy. In his 1977 Black Belt feature, he stated, “The principal aim of karate is nothing less than to make its practitioners into complete, fully realized human beings, both mentally and physically—people who can call forth all their resources and use their total capabilities at will.”
William S. Russell’s system has since expanded into a multifaceted martial art with numerous followers who’ve stuck with it for more than 20 years. William S. Russell named his fledgling art “isshin” for its kata curriculum and “kempo” for the classical values he infused into it.
“Although Russell’s focus later shifted into the motivational and psychological realms, he was a strong kata advocate who planted the seeds for a technical legacy through his keen perceptions of isshin-ryu kata,” Goedecke says. “Since its 50-year run in the United States, isshin-ryu karate has gone through some difficult periods of fragmentation with limited reunification. This created technical ambiguities that Russell sought to clarify by provoking intelligent dialogue about isshin-ryu’s kata.”
Although the language has changed since the 1970s, Christopher J. Goedecke says that isshin kempo’s most significant distinction remains that of following the enlightenment traditions of the martial ways. “Our overall objective is to achieve a healthy state of ‘no conflict.’ This is not a contradictory aim. To understand the nature of conflict, you must find an arena in which to explore it. Martial arts provide the perfect arena. Martial study is ultimately about cultivating peace.”
Technically, isshin kempo consists of the Shaolin-originated rokushu (six-palm pattern) and a compact short form called “double arrow,” which slightly resembles the I-patterned taikyoku shodan form still taught in some isshin-ryu schools. Students warm up with kempo yoga, and black belts practice internal-strength techniques. Other non-isshin-ryu influences include kobudo forms with a 3-foot-long hanbo (short staff).
“We do, however, utilize all the isshin kata,” Christopher J. Goedecke says. “For most isshin-ryu schools, that consists of eight essential forms generally taught in sequence as seisan, seiuchin, naihanchi, wansu, chinto, kusanaku, sunsu and sanchin.”
It’s fairly certain from William S. Russell and Christopher J. Goedecke’s perspective that the first American isshin-ryu teachers walked away with fairly intact forms but an incomplete understanding of their technical potential. In a brief interview with Christopher J. Goedecke years ago, isshin-ryu authority A.J. Advincula concurred that the early American practitioners “did not know what they had.”
Consider also that Tatsuo Shimabuku may not have completed the construction of his own style. The Tennessee-based Buddhist master Arakawa Tenshin, speaking from 45 years of experience, said: “Why would a master of shorin descent, already considered a great master, create another karate ryu almost the same as shorin extraction but intensify its technique to a higher, more scientific tier? He did not need two arts, one in the same, but instead sought to present distinctive aspects of karate-do. Isshin-ryu was meant to become the hierarchy of the shorin-te lines, which he would elevate his black belts to study.”
Do internal principles exist in the isshin-ryu forms beyond the esoteric sanchin kata? Were the kata interpretations brought back by postwar servicemen up to par? “Today’s isshin-ryu factions align between the ultra-orthodox view that its kata depth was only what Tatsuo Shimabuku presented and, on the flip side, that isshin-ryu kata was an inheritance of a previously complex, principled and dynamic forms legacy of which Shimabuku himself was a student,” Christopher J. Goedecke says. “If the latter premise is true, then Shimabuku may either have only partially revealed or partially uncovered all his own kata’s lessons.
“We like what isshin-ryu has to offer. Rather than look outside our kata curriculum, we have peered deeper into it. As a result, we consider our system a rebel isshin-ryu.”
Does Christopher J. Goedecke believe there are no punches in advanced isshin-ryu bunkai (applications)? He admits to a partial ploy meant to arouse sleepyheaded karateka out of rigid thinking. “Far fewer interpretations of the vertical punch as a fist strike appear in our kata applications,” he says.
Isshin kempo practitioners interpret most of their kata’s straightforward vertical fists as part of a joint-locking sequence. Christopher J. Goedecke also believes that many isshin-ryu practitioners don’t fully appreciate their unique punching equation. “The thumb-on-top hallmark of isshin-ryu fist work was never meant as an absolute punching formula,” he says. “And the axiomatic witticism, ‘You can’t fall up,’ often used to describe the merits of a rising punch, falls short of a definitive rationale for punching in other directions. Specific internal principles exist for rising, horizontal and lowering fist strikes.
“One must consider if ‘rising punch’ is a reference to the arm rising from its waist-high chamber, a reference to the unique ‘pop’ sometimes seen at the end of Shimabuku’s vertical punch or a reference to a rising torso, resulting from extending the legs. All these factors are contributory. The devil is in the details. We’ve spent years evaluating kata subtleties. We believe Shimabuku was demonstrating multiple rationales to cover both the ballistic and joint-manipulative merits of this action.”
Tatsuo Shimabuku’s 1966 kata films clearly show the founder “popping” his three punches upward at the end of their extension in the opening moves of the seisan kata. Christopher J. Goedecke believes that current explanations for this action have missed the mark. Subsequently, most isshin-ryu instructors dropped the nuance. He suggests this subtlety isn’t a fist strike but rather the actions of a three-step arm-locking maneuver.
“Seisan kata is a master’s form with exciting layers of well-formed techniques and concepts,” he says. “We never believed that isshin-ryu’s first kata revealed something profound with the idea of stepping and punching into an opponent three times. That’s a beginner’s introduction.”
Okinawa’s karate history demonstrates an unparalleled expertise in the fist arts. Even the sanchin kata, found in the isshin-ryu, goju-ryu and uechi-ryu systems, developed in China and traditionally performed open-handed, was improvised into a fist form by an Okinawan master. Christopher J. Goedecke claims that wasn’t necessarily an improvement over the open-hand version. Rather, it was a cultural stamp on what the Okinawans knew best. They modified sanchin to express the height of their fist art.
Another of Christopher J. Goedecke’s insights is that isshin-ryu kata contain an internal infrastructure. “Okinawan kiko (relationship of breath and ki), or more broadly, energy-management techniques, are evident in all the isshin-ryu forms, not just sanchin,” he says. “Shimabuku himself used the term chinkutsu or chinkuchi to describe the synergy between the body’s biomechanical systems and ki. He even diagramed a particular sequence of muscular contractions for performing sanchin to illustrate the correct distribution of ki. The word ‘chinkuchi’ translates roughly as ‘sinew/bone/energy control.’ ”
“Shimabuku understood ki and taught energy principles …” and probably recognized these principles in his forms, says Frank Van Lenten, an East Coast goju master who studied with Tatsuo Shimabuku in the 1950s. However, because so few American isshin-ryu pioneers ever commented on this aspect of their art, one wonders if they were fully exposed to it. William S. Russell wanted to broaden the dialogue on those unspoken rebel teachings within his group because he’d experienced firsthand the tremendous power of tapping into the body’s internal reservoir. Although the concept of an internal isshin-ryu isn’t new to some advanced practitioners, most are unaware of its complex workings.
It’s been said that chinkuchi is the essence of isshin-ryu and that the entire system is built around it, and Christopher J. Goedecke agrees. “But until recently you will find little published in support of this statement, which is odd for an attribute of isshin-ryu that has supposedly formed the style’s heart and soul,” he says. “This material has scarcely been talked about since the founder’s death over 30 years ago, even though it’s known that Shimabuku was taught ki principles through his shorin mentor, Chotoku Kyan.”
In an article by Lt. Col. Charles Murray, student of master Shinso Shimabuku, Tatsuo Shimabuku’s second son, Murray wrote, “Power training (chinkuchi) is virtually unknown, I feel, by our isshin-ryu sensei today.”
The recently emerging details on the subject are more likely the result of our information technology and the maturing of those martial artists fortunately exposed to such seed concepts. Christopher J. Goedecke believes the topic of an internal isshin-ryu is shrouded in ambiguity within isshin-ryu circles. “We are talking about a very rich, very definable facet of Okinawan martial arts,” he says. “The subject is far from scant or ambiguous.
“Unfortunately, most students rarely progress beyond intermediate skills in any martial art. Since few students earn black belts, it’s not hard to see how high-level concepts and kata nuances are missed. Kata interpretations are generally multitiered in advanced systems. First-level isshin-ryu applications often begin with simple, linear, mechanical, blunt-trauma techniques. In isshin kempo, this is followed by bone locks, joint manipulations and internal-energy transfers. Maneuvers like blocks, spears, punches, kicks and stances serve very different purposes at advanced levels.”
If you’re looking for an art form, Christopher J. Goedecke says, you’ll find it in Okinawan kata. “The essence of the Ryukyuan martial arts has been neatly packaged and passed along to us even though the original intent for many classical forms has been lost in ambiguity. As East Coast uechi-ryu karate master and author Ihor Rymaruk commented regarding our understanding of such esoteric forms as sanchin, ‘We may have to reinvent the wheel again.’ ”
Goedecke reminds his students that all the pieces needed for that reinvention exist in isshin kempo’s forms. “It’s all in the assembly,” he says.
And so the isshin kempo assembly line takes up the kata challenge to strike at the heart of its teachings.
(D.J. DeMarco is a third-generation isshin kempo instructor based in New Jersey.)
To Master the Supreme Philosophy of Enshin Karate, Look to Musashi's Book of Five Rings for Guidance!
In the martial arts, we voluntarily subject ourselves to conflict in a training environment so we can transcend conflict in the real world. After all, we wouldn't knowingly train in a style that makes us weaker or worsens our position. The irony of all this is that we don't want to fight our opponent. We prefer to work with what an opponent gives us to turn the tide in our favor, to resolve the situation effectively and efficiently.The Japanese have a word for this: sabaki. It means to work with energy efficiently. When we train with the sabaki mindset, we receive our opponent's attack, almost as a gift. Doing so requires less physical effort and frees up our mental operating system so it can determine the most efficient solution to the conflict.In this essay, I will present a brief history of sabaki, as well as break down the sabaki method using Miyamoto Musashi's five elements
Brief History<p>Musashi was a samurai who lived during the 17th century. In feudal Japan, he was regarded as a kensei, or sword saint. Toward the end of his life, he wrote The Book of Five Rings, a classic on strategy and philosophy. It delineates the elements of air, water, fire, earth and the void. The timeless beauty of this text lies in the way it can help us understand those elements in a way that improves our skill in combat, as well as our ability to comprehend human nature.</p><p>For most of us nowadays, the martial arts are not needed for survival on a daily basis. We have laws and firearms to protect us. This fact makes the mindset and spirit of the martial arts even more important because they are what help us combat stress, handle people with opposing views and endure conditions that otherwise might threaten our well-being.</p><p>In the 1970s, my father Joko Ninomiya had a huge impact on the world of full contact — specifically, on kyokushin, the style of karate developed by Mas Oyama. In Japan, my father is known as the prince of karate and a modern-day Miyamoto Musashi. Why? Because when he fought, he used angles, leverage, positioning, timing and sensitivity to overcome bigger opponents. He didn't rely on brute strength; he relied on sabaki.</p><p>In 1988 he created his own style of full contact called enshin karate. The name means "heart of the circle." Enshin signifies not only the spiraling nature of sabaki techniques but also the authentic connection between ourselves and others, as well as the community at large.</p>
Book of Air: Discernment<p>When we work with energy, a fundamental idea is that we can consciously give direction only to something we're aware of. To effect change, it's essential to be aware of that thing. Take, for example, a tire that's slowly leaking. It requires us to discern that something is wrong and then devise a strategy to change or repair the tire before it bursts on the highway.</p><p>In the martial arts, we don't just get hit out of nowhere; something happens, and we pick up on it. My father likes to say, "Your hands are like antennae." Our mental space must be bigger than our opponent's, and our hands should project that power with sensitivity. In sabaki, we want to be in an ideal position in which we know everything about our opponent and his movement potential is limited.</p><p>Air is also responsible for our ability to develop and use strategy in combat. If we cannot follow directions pertaining to strategy, usually we are very earthy. This is because the element that's in opposition to air is earth. If we are earthy, we're grounded. That can make us more susceptible to sustaining continuous damage. On the flip side, if we have too much of the air element, we're more susceptible to getting swept.</p><p>Another important role of air is its influence on our mental space. Ideally, we won't get hit, but if we do and our mental space collapses, we become more vulnerable.<br></p><p> <strong>How to enhance the air element:</strong> Eat foods that are less dense. Take a course in public speaking to learn how the mind is used to project what you feel. Simulate defending against multiple attackers. Keep a structured journal.<br></p>
Book of Water: Attachment<p>Water relates to feeling, fluidity, timing and rhythm. As my father always says, "Put your mind into what you're doing." When we put our mind into our opponent, we can feel his rhythms and interrupt them. In sabaki, we use the concept of kyushu to connect with the force of our opponent. Kyushu means "to absorb and cushion an incoming attack." It's the tool that bridges awareness and lets us feel what's actually happening, which is superior to being forced to simply react. Kyushu and the water element in general represent a movement that's in opposition to the fire element. It expands out and away from us.</p><p>Kyushu, on a more social level, refers to putting ourselves in another person's shoes. Many courses on conflict resolution involve being the person we have a problem with, all in an effort to make us realize the trigger is a barrier we set up to isolate and protect ourselves. The name of my father's karate is enshin, which refers to the heart of the circle. It's not only the physical heart that circulates blood in our bodies but also the energy that allows us to feel and have empathy. This empathy is an attachment and harmonization to another person's feeling or intention.</p><p>Musashi wrote a poem titled Senki (War Spirit) that explains the water element: "The moon, in a cold stream like a mirror." The mind is calm and unaffected like the cold stream that keeps moving while reflecting the emotions (the moon) of the opponent. So even though we're separate from our opponent, we're calm and can feel everything he's thinking.</p><p>When we use kyushu to respond to an attack, we absorb it through a solid structure that has elasticity embedded within it like a trampoline. This trampoline-like strength relies on opening and closing the joints and the fascia, the web of connective tissue that has a strength and sensitivity greater than muscle. While a muscle requires oxygen, the fascia is avascular, which means it doesn't have blood vessels because it doesn't need oxygen. This frees up the oxygen in our bodies so it can be used by the brain and vital organs. When our operating system has freed up some of its resources, we can feel what's happening more accurately.</p><p>To do kyushu with proficiency requires a mind shift from that of fight or flight, which is encoded in our DNA, to that of releasing muscular tension and using the body's natural intelligence of the fascia and bone alignment. Something interesting to note in the kihon (basics) of enshin karate: The blocks are technically not blocks according to that word's conventions, which conjure an immovable and hard structure. The blocks of traditional karate are rigid and linear, with a start and a stop. The blocks of enshin use spirals, which are the language of how energy is transferred along fascia. A spiral has no start or stop, which results in a continuous stream of connected power.</p><p>Once kyushu has been established with an incoming attack, we can move toward a position that's more advantageous. In this position, our movement potential is amplified, and our opponent's movement potential is limited. As soon as position has been established, another critical concept enters the picture: kuzushi. Often referenced in the grappling arts of judo and jujitsu, kuzushi means "to borrow the opponent's balance." When we have to stabilize our balance, it's very hard to simultaneously defend against a strike. Using kuzushi, however, we can choose how to respond — with a strike or a takedown. The sabaki method uses both options.</p><p> <strong>How to enhance the water element: </strong>Take up yin yoga, a gentle form of yoga that uses relaxation to create space. Practice giving and receiving. Play and interact with music, song and dance. Hit a heavy bag while moving in and out in sync with the bag's swinging. Volunteer to do something that resonates with your higher purpose, such as teaching a skill or donating money without expecting anything in return.<br></p>
Book of Fire: Will<p>The fire element is expansive in nature and deals with any percussive strike. On a personal level, it calls on the will to materialize an action. Someone who has a strong fire element has a strong will. When things get tough, we can harness this element to dig deeper — this is called fighting spirit. The person with the fiery personality is often the life of the party. Fire is spiritual, rules philosophy and connects to intuition.</p><p>Fire is the only element that doesn't exist in nature without the application of an external force. It requires a balance of other elements to ignite it. When fire is in excess, we can be irritable, moving and attacking with a lack of focus and purpose. When it's in harmony, we can maternalize our reason for fighting (water), discern when to do it (wind) and be grounded enough to not get carried away throwing wild punches (earth).</p><p>A pivotal point in Musashi's career occurred when he learned that the reckless actions and duels in which he'd participated had no direction or purpose in life. Legend says that a Zen priest named Takuan Soho taught him to cherish his life first so he would know what's worth fighting for. When we care enough about something, he learned, we will fight for it.</p><p>In Musashi's fire book, he spoke about how different movements and strikes embody different kiai. Essentially, he said the kiai should match the action. He also highlighted the gaze, which should be focused and composed.</p><p>In sabaki, once we discern an attack or detect an opening, we use the water element to connect to the opponent. Then we can choose to strike depending on the circumstances. In kihon, we use correct form to learn how the bones and connective tissue transmit striking power. The traditional stance known as sanchin dachi, a pigeon-toed position that relies on the stability of the triangle to connect the hands to the feet, is hard-wired energetically. When the stance is freed up in free fighting, we learn how to connect all the moving parts.<br></p><p><strong>How to enhance the fire element: </strong>Learn to strike and kiai properly. Develop single-pointed focus in standing meditation with your eyes open to prolong the time you can act before reaching the threshold at which you want to quit. Engage in resistance training with light weights and explosiveness. Do high-intensity interval training that focuses on body mechanics and breathing.</p>
Book of Earth: Persistence<p>In a nutshell, the earth element teaches that how we do one thing is how we do everything. On a deeper level, this means connecting to the rituals that underlie our daily habits. It's really the earthly persistence of how the other three elements interact to embody a skill while maintaining integrity on all levels.</p><p>Many skilled martial artists can tell just by sight if they come across someone who trains in the arts — and often they will know which art the person practices. This level of embodiment in a person and the ability to detect it cannot be forged overnight. It takes years of doing the one thing until it becomes part of you.</p><p>In a practical sense, the earth element keeps us grounded and gives us the ability to use the techniques we've practiced without having to think. One of my father's favorite quotes, one that he often renders in Chinese calligraphy, is "A drop of water repeated over time makes a hole in stone." This is the secret to success that we must remember: Just keep training.While the rootedness of earth can make it challenging to throw or sweep someone who has too much of the earth element, it's often easier to strike such a person and then use kuzushi to borrow his or her balance before throwing or sweeping.</p><p>While this element may seem like the most mundane, it also is a reflection of the divine. This means that the rituals and care we see in the dojo remind us not to take our practice for granted. If we follow an empty ritual or do something only because it seems fun, in the future, we may become bored and never grow deep roots. The source of the bow in Japanese culture represents grounded humility. Reference the rice plant: As it matures, its head drops toward the ground so others can eat it and grow strong. The reverence that arises from an authentic bow instills a sense that there's always more to learn. As the Japanese say, "With true strength comes humility."</p><p><strong>How to enhance the earth element: </strong>Learn to stand on a stability ball. This is one of the most direct ways to develop a real root, as opposed to a physical root. (A real root is an energetic connection that runs deep into the ground and takes advantage of intention. A physical root involves widening one's stance and dropping one's center of mass.) Develop a daily schedule and create a routine to document your progress. Eat foods that are denser in nature.<br></p>
Book of the Void: Emptiness<p><br>This is the most mysterious element in that it represents the mind itself. In the martial arts, mushin refers to the state of "no mind" — in other words, a mind that's empty. The mind has two parts: the active mind, which has one pointed focus, and the passive mind, which is voluminous and wide.</p><p><strong>How to enhance the void element:</strong> In the spirit of Musashi, train your mind to be like a sword: extremely sharp yet so polished that you can lose yourself in its reflective nature. Meditate in your quest to attain mushin, striving to have your active mind focus on emptiness and your passive mind gently observe. Such a goal can be difficult to attain on your own. It's best achieved through participation in retreats that teach meditation. </p><p><em>Mike Ninomiya is a four-time Sabaki Challenge world champion. He has an eighth-degree black belt in enshin karate, a black belt in judo and a brown belt in jujitsu. In addition to martial arts, he teaches meditation, energy work and yin yoga. For information about his retreats that use The Book of Five Rings, visit <a href="http://mikeninomiya.com" target="_blank">mikeninomiya.com</a>. For information about enshin karate, visit <a href="http://enshinacademy.com" target="_blank">enshinacademy.com</a>.</em><br></p>
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"Unlike karate training outside a combat zone," Cpt. Yoon explained, "it is important here that the troops be able to turn their techniques into devastating, bone-crushing blows. There is no place for mild strikes in combat when a VC is trying to push a bayonet into your stomach."
For that reason, the compound is peppered with makiwara punching boards, and the Korean Tigers spend much time conditioning the weapons of taekwondo. Also, throughout Vietnam there are plenty of sandbags, which are used to protect all kinds of constructions. They make excellent striking bags for a karateman.
The next unit in the schedule is to display free fighting. The commander again explains that this form of fighting is used to test the Tigers' skills against one another rather than to demonstrate the actual methods of close-quarters combat, as a fight on the battlefield is nearly always over in an instant.
The sparring matches are exhibitions of technique and control. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between these and matches held in tournaments is the consistent power the soldiers put behind their blows and their concentration on hard taekwondo techniques rather than elusive ones.
At last, a final group prepares to show what happens when an unarmed Tiger meets a VC with a knife or a bayonet fixed to his AK-47 rifle. Two pairs of soldiers stride to the center of the hard-dirt arena, face the commander and render a snappy salute. Then they fall into a four-man square and await orders.
Sgt. Lee barks a command, and the best of the best explode into action. One gladiator leaps for a knife that has been thrown into the arena. He jams it, hard, at another, who violently kicks the striking hand and jumps shoulder height, scissoring the attacker's neck and tumbling him forward onto the unyielding ground with a crash. The knife spins away.
Meanwhile, another black belt catches a rifle with a fixed bayonet that is thrown to him from the sidelines. With a guttural shout, he lunges for his opponent. The defender spins to the left, brings his knee sharply inward against the weapon and rolls the attacker onto his own shoulder while tearing at his windpipe. It's over in seconds.
The couples repeat the performance again and again, smashing full tilt against each other. Every time, the attacker thrusts hard with his weapon. It's just less than miraculous that the practice doesn't turn into a blood bath.
Initiated as the Capital Infantry Division, the Tiger Division was activated on June 20, 1949, in Seoul with the mission of providing security for the capital. It was charged with additional security of the 38th parallel in Ongjin in September of the same year. When the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, the division began to prove itself in heavy fighting during battles at Ahn-kang and Kyung-joo along the defense line of the Nakdong River in the southeastern part of the country.
Following the successful Inchon landing by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, the division penetrated deep into the North across the 38th parallel, overrunning enemy strongholds and advancing close to the Korea-Manchuria border. As their ability became recognized, the division was committed repeatedly and saw the armistice signed while fighting at the front in the spring of 1952. They captured more than 9,920 enemy, killed more than 91,000 and seized more than 31,000 weapons. As a result of their valor, the division was awarded five ROK Presidential Citations and a U.S. Presidential Citation, an ROK National Assembly award and 42 other plaudits.
After the armistice, the division had already been dubbed with the Tiger laurel and was deployed along the front line of the central part of the Korea DMZ. They remained under continued training and constant combat readiness.
Upon approval of the National Assembly, the division was directed to combat in the Republic of Vietnam on August 20, 1965. Three separate elements arrived at Qui Nhon on November 1 after four weeks of preliminary training. That month, it received its tactical area of responsibility, which consisted of 1,400 square kilometers in Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam. The division's general mission objectives are to protect travel routes, military installations and facilities within its TAOR and to assist the Republic of Vietnam in its pacification plan by eliminating Viet Cong in the area and helping the people rebuild their destroyed homes.
Since 1965, the Tiger Division has stabilized security within their area to an impressive degree. The TAOR itself has expanded from 1,400 to 3,800 square kilometers. As of mid-June, the Tigers had killed more than 9,000 enemy, captured nearly 3,000 and counted 4,500 defectors, as well as seizing nearly 4,000 weapons.
All this leaves little room for doubt about whom historians will count as the true elite of Vietnam combat. In the ranks of the VC and the NVA, mention of these ferocious Koreans brings shudders to the comrades. Even as he fights those from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Tigerman knows that he has full command of his body and his mind. When he's faced with hand-to-hand combat, he need not rely only on the ferocity of his rifle to equalize the score. He can hammer out punches with machine-gun rapidity or swing a full-flogging kick with sufficient force to gain the advantage. When a man is trained in karate, or to be more specific, taekwondo, he's ahead of the game and the Viet Cong, that crap-shooting armada of insurgent forces, and the crack North Vietnamese troops who come to do battle. They know full well that the Tigers with their taekwondo as well as armaments are tough to beat.
The roots of taekwondo are in Korea, and for the ROK GIs who enter the Tiger ranks, the intensive routine of training in the martial art is strictly par for the course. No doubt every Tigerman hopes to use his martial arts training sometime in a tournament as well as he does in combat. That's the dream of every GI in the ROK division.
The Tigers, under Maj. Gen. Lew Pyong Hyon and with taekwondo's Capt. Yoon, have been making headlines throughout the world. They are the only troops, it's been said, who fight fire with fire, who use guerrilla techniques and ambush techniques in much the same manner as the Viet Cong. In a war such as this — where the boundary lines are questionable, where there is no front line and where your neighbor can turn into your enemy — such techniques are indispensable. Thanks to the hand-to-hand techniques and the combat-karate emphasis of this militia, the odds are clearly shaping up in the Tiger Division's ledger. Thanks to taekwondo, the Tigers are smashing the enemy with no holds barred and, if anyone doubts it, plenty of contact!
text by Jack E. Swift
(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)
Scene: A group of soldiers is gathered for a bull session. The subject under discussion is the Tiger Division of the Korean army. The soldiers are engrossed. One, a lean, tanned GI, pushes back his beret, squints into the darkness and looks out to see a mountain of burning embers.
"We were on recon operations in southern Binh Dinh Province," he explains. "One night, we caught the sounds of a skirmish. My squad leader held up his hand and when he smiled, we knew we were in for some action. As we approached the area, we were a little surprised that there was no small-arms fire, but we could hear a lot of guys yelling.
"When we got there, it was an unbelievable sight. Here were those Korean troops in close-quarters combat with what must have been superior forces, as there were [Viet Cong soldiers] all over the place. I've never seen so many broken necks and caved-in ribs in my life. We helped clean up what was left."
So goes the legend, and just in case you're casting a cynical eye as to the Tiger Division's aptitude in the use of martial arts, the record speaks for itself. If there was ever a primer on combat karate, these troops would write it. In two grueling periods daily, every troop in the Tiger Division trains in the taekwondo method, the official karate of Korea.
At one time, there were many factions, but in the past year or so, they've all been absorbed by the International Taekwon-Do Federation, with its headquarters in Seoul. In fact, with the Koreans, and even in many areas in Vietnam, taekwondo is synonymous with karate. Numerous Vietnamese do not even understand the word "karate" — but mention taekwondo and their faces light up with recognition.
Way of Life
At Qui Nhon, division headquarters, visitors are surprised to see sparkling white uniforms — and a sea of black belts — virtually in the middle of a combat zone. While on actual operations away from their base, the Tigers work out in field gear, but at the training center, everyone wears a gi and keeps it as immaculate as any other military uniform.
On the left side of the gi, each person wears the proud division emblem of a roaring tiger. On the other side, if he's an instructor, the soldier wears a black insignia of a fist with white dots above indicating how many degrees of black-belt rank he holds.
Commander of the massive taekwondo corps of the Tiger Division is Capt. Yoon Dong Ho, himself a third dan. But the rugged, intelligent captain is no armchair commander. He's on hand daily at the dirt arena, watching the troops go through their paces and often teaching a special class of officers.
Capt. Yoon is responsible for the official taekwondo training of more than 15,000 Tiger troops in Vietnam. Although popular belief holds otherwise, there are actually more than 200 black-belt holders in the Tiger ranks. Of them, three are fourth dan, 29 are third dan, 57 are second dan and 115 are first dan. There are roughly 600 red belts and 2,300 blue belts, as well as 9,000 troops holding degrees of white belt. Approximately 2,900 men recently began their training in Vietnam. Many of these, of course, already hold rank they won in Korea.
Each element of the Tiger infantry arriving in Vietnam goes through intensive schooling at Qui Nhon. The 26th of these classes began in July, to run just over a month. The sessions lead off with classical techniques under the direct supervision of Sgt. Jun Jae Gun, head taekwondo instructor for the Meng Ho in Vietnam. Sgt. Jun, one of the division's tough trio of fourth degrees, displays a certificate signed by Gen. Choi Hong Hi, International Taekwon-Do Federation president.
When a trooper is promoted in Vietnam, however, he's awarded a military certificate of training by his supplement company commander, who acts as a representative of Lt. Col. Jai Chun Ko, division field commander. All promotions are recognized by the federation. In cases of promotion to the higher grades, however, special recognition is often meted out. For example, Sgt. Kim Duk Ki was recently awarded his third dan by Lt. Gen. Chae Myung Shin, field headquarters commander for all ROK Forces in Vietnam.
"The major objective of our formal taekwondo classes," asserted Cpt. Yoon, "is to take the minds of our troops and replace civilian thinking with military spirit and fierceness. 'Tiger' is the nickname the division has been tagged with because of the fierce nature we have demonstrated in combat. We intend to live up to it."
Cpt. Yoon reinforced that statement with an impromptu demonstration of his own favorite techniques. Choosing a brawny trooper with a bayonet, the captain rushed him, parrying the weapon with an onslaught of power strikes with the elbow, palm, heel and fist. He ended with a forearm strike to the windpipe, which he explained is effective when one wants to silence the enemy quickly.
Key elements in hand-to-hand combat, the commander explained, are attacking the weapon directly or the hand that holds it while simultaneously attacking the most vulnerable spot within reach, then pressing the assault to keep the enemy off-balance while finishing him.
Stressing physical fitness in preparation for the application of these techniques, Cpt. Yoon said his troops rely heavily on powerful, smashing blows against the smaller Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communists. He explained that the enemies are often undernourished because of their long treks from the North and therefore may fall easily under a strong attack.
"One particular situation where we encounter hand-to-hand fighting," Cpt. Yoon said, "is when the VC hide in bunkers and Tiger patrols do not have heavy weapons available to blow [the bunkers] apart. In such a case, the troops simply go in after them. The VC stand little chance against my men in close-quarters fighting."
In addition to the training of their own infantry, Tiger taekwondo instructors teach U.S. and Republic of Vietnam soldiers, as well as other Allied Forces infantry soldiers. Presently, some 1,250 Vietnamese and 150 U.S. soldiers are being taught by the Tigers at Qui Nhon alone. At other installations throughout South Vietnam, the Koreans teach their art to Allied Forces and Vietnamese civilians of both sexes and all ages.
There are scores of Korean black belts who are not members of the Tiger Division but who teach taekwondo to the local troopers and civilians. Many of these men belong to the larger White Horse Division. Especially in populated places such as the Tan Son Nhut Air Base–Saigon area, taekwondo has become as popular as baseball is to Americans. Today, self-defense is serious business to the Vietnamese, as no one knows when a VC terrorist squad will break into his home.
The Tiger Lair
Several miles away from the main training area on the Qui Nhon Air Base where the new arrivals hold classes, the Tiger instructors have their own compound, carved out of the verdant Vietnam countryside. Bordered on two sides by mountains and banked by the South China Sea, the encampment nestles into a serene and clean-smelling natural cradle, somehow out of place amidst the turmoil of war. The site has never been successfully attacked, and no one remembers the last time even a single mortar landed within the perimeter.
The perimeter itself is defined by roll upon roll of barbed wire, machine-gun posts and sandbag-reinforced bunkers. When not actually leading class, the instructors perform most of their military duties wearing their gi, often barebacked in the all-pervading heat. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to see a fierce fighting man carting pails of water for the makeshift shower or spreading rolls of concertina wire — until you recall how budo masters of ancient times made their charges perform menial tasks before they would be accepted. Perhaps this accounts in part for their dedication and the respectful attitude the troops invariably display.
Cpt. Yoon decides to review the instructors' training methods, so he has the select corps organize into a squadron to demonstrate their prowess. Sgt. Lee Jin Ho, whose official title is post instructor, leads the formation. They fall swiftly into ranks. The commander steps forward and receives the squadron's salute, then turns the command over to Sgt. Ho.
At a signal, the Tigers break ranks and rush into new formations with precision reminiscent of the Roman legions. The first squad is directed to show taekwondo forms. They snap through the kata in coordinated pairs, demonstrating the adroitness that can only come from military discipline. The forms are technically the same as classical Korean karate but are executed with the confident power of soldiers who have seen what their stuff can do to a man.
The next group forms behind a line of boards, bricks and tiles. Stacks of four and five bricks, up to 15 tiles and four 1-inch boards lie before them. The unit is called to attention, salutes again and assumes a ready posture. Sgt. Lee barks a command, and a dozen heads, hands and fists smash into the solid objects. Not a single one remains unbroken.
text by Jack E. Swift
(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)