During the Vietnam War, it became very clear that the U.S. military needed to revise its hand-to-hand training. This was particularly apparent amongst SOF units, especially Army Special Forces, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs), Navy SEALs, and Recon Marines since these units were often sent in small teams deep into enemy territory for extended periods of time.
These types of missions required not just CQB, but silent, quick killing techniques, typically with the knife, garrote, or bare hands. But, again, training remained the “flavor of the month” and it was dependent upon traditional Asian martial arts systems and trial and error lessons learned through field operations. Illustrating that, SF veteran Joe Lenhart said in the 1960s, “In SF if you were around the Hawaiians, you had the opportunity to learn some good MA.”
Lenhart’s comment is a testament to three things: First, the need to tap martial arts talents within units and amongst the ranks, even in SF. Second, the underlying ignorance of, or unfamiliarity with, established Army hand-to-hand training and programming. And third, the richness of Hawaiian martial arts culture, which was due mostly to the Japanese diaspora in the 1920s that scattered Japanese across the U.S. West Coast, Hawaii, and South America.
Jerry Powell, another SF veteran, said, “In Training Group in 1963, and subsequently in the 5th Group, any hand-to-hand training that I saw was pretty much on my own time.” Tom Marzullo, a third SF veteran, said of his time in SF Training Group in 1969, “Hand-to-hand was absent during my SF time and I was deeply disappointed.” In wartime, in all militaries, even in SOF units, training is changed and bars are raised and lowered to meet the manpower needs of the engaged units.
Historically, hand-to-hand training has been one of those things that have always been reduced or cut in order to get more troops trained faster and off to the fight. Another factor of that time was culture and how boys were raised. According to Lenhart:
“Like many or even most [boys] my age [late 60s], we grew up wrestling and boxing with towels wrapped around our fists, had rival school “meetings” every now and then, and there was the county fair that… usually escalated into a scuffle or three. Thing is, back then, when it was over, it was over, at least for a while. Maybe a broken nose, shiner, busted lip, or jammed finger or so was about as bad as it got, except for a few bruised egos. But when the city boys got involved, there would be a couple switch blades and chains produced only to be met with pitchforks and corn cutters and a ball bat or two. Those engagements did not last very long.”
The point is that back in those days, few boys entered adulthood not having been in at least a few fights. American boys in the past fought and wrestled more growing up and thus were more acclimated to and prepared, especially mentally, for hand-to-hand combat. American culture has changed in that respect.
Now it is probably the reverse: Few boys enter adulthood having been in any fights. There are, of course, exceptions. There are still rough neighborhoods and cities. But today, even country kids are more likely to do their fighting in video games than at county fairs or Friday night football games. (Parenthetically, many SF NCOs worry that the same dynamic is eroding innate land navigation skills.)
Here, Bruce Lee and his Jeet Kune Do system deserve mention. He had a major impact on U.S. and international martial arts throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and therefore on military combatives. Lee believed that martial arts had become rigid and unrealistic. He taught that real combat is unpredictable and chaotic and that the fighter or warrior must prepare for that.
Editor’s Note: This article, which was originally published in 2015, is part of a series. You can read part I here, part II here, and part III here.
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