Grandmaster Joon Pyo Choi Biography: In the Navy, part 11

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     The college I attended trained its students to enter the Navy or the Merchant Marines. Even though I was on that course, I wanted to fulfill my military duty. So in 1967, I joined the Navy. Korea was very poor at the time, and we had just ended a horrific civil war. Military duty was brutal. The Korean military still used the Japanese techniques for training the recruits. Often, they would be killed during the training, it was so harsh. Technically, the south was still at war with the north. Entering the armed forces meant you were most likely going to war.

     We were also a strong ally of the United States at that time, which was at war in Vietnam. Korea sent soldiers to help fight in Vietnam and that duty was much coveted. In the Korean army we were paid one or two dollars. If we went to Vietnam, we were paid 1000 dollars a month. This was less than the United States soldiers, but to us it was a fortune. Plus, we had access to all the refuse of the United States' military. Shell casings were copper! The junk left over from a war was incredibly valuable to Korea as it tried to rebuild its infrastructure. Going to Vietnam was dangerous, but resulted in huge amounts of wealth.

     I joined the Navy in 1967 and attended basic training for two months. Before that started however there was three days of waiting. They took away our clothes, shaved our heads, and gave us a uniform.

     There were 340 of us cadets waiting for training for three days, so the drill sergeants had to do something to keep us busy. They had us play a game called the game of fights.

     First they called, "Anyone who knows Taekwondo, raise your hand!" About ten of us did. Then they called, "Anyone who knows boxing, raise your hand!" About ten more raised their hands. Then they called for the Judoka, and the street fighters, and the Ssireum wrestlers. They found everyone who could fight in some way or form, and set up a huge round-robin tournament during those three days.

     My first fight was against a sergeant. He was six foot four inches tall and a third degree black belt from another school. We started fighting and I couldn't kick at all! My new uniform was too tight in the legs and crotch. I took them right off and fought in my underwear.

     I was a fourth degree at the time, the highest rank in the group of cadets. Of course, I had much experience in street fighting. Not many people could match my fighting style, and neither could my first opponent. He was tall and powerful, and we had a few exchanges, kicks and punches in the middle of the gym. Then I saw my opening, and as he came in, I landed a hook kick on the jaw. I knocked him out and he fell to the floor. I didn't go after him, and when he stood up, I asked if he wanted to try again. He said, no and bowed out. That was my first win.

     This was the hardest fight until the end. After that, the fights were easy, with me winning after just a few punches and kicks. But the last fighter was a boxer, Kim Chun Se. He was an amateur champion and had enlisted to represent the Navy in boxing.

     So it was a top boxer in the nation against a top taekwondo artist in the final match. Boxers have very fast hands, and he was no exception. He tagged me once and I saw stars. After that, I stayed away from those hands! His hands were fast, but my feet were fast too, and they had longer range.

     He just wasn't used to the kicks. The style at that time included lots of jump kicks, lots of flying kicks. He had no defense. I'd wait for his punch, and counter with a back kick to the solar plexus. It knocked the wind right out of him and he couldn't continue. I won that fight too.

# # #

     Even before we entered basic training, I was well-known by the instructors and all the cadets. I was small, just 161 centimeters. The size restriction to join the Marines or Navy was 162 centimeters, but my strength and fame made them wave that restriction. I was made cadet captain right away.

     My experience with fighting, with weapons, with philosophy, and even with hypnotism all helped me to become the leader of the troop. Most of the cadets were younger than me. Only a few had ever attended college. The drill sergeants were my age, and because of my skill and because I was the cadet captain, they called me brother. Even so military training was tough.

     There was never enough food. And there was never enough time to eat it. We have perhaps a minute to eat all our food. We had to eat it and get out fast. Some of the cadets could not do it. They had no discipline, and they would pull food from the trashcan. When they were caught, they were hit with a baseball bat.

     To become one of the cadet captains, I had to survive 10 or 20 hits with the bat. The boxer, Kim Chun Se, was another group leader. We were the only two able to withstand the baseball bat hits. Everyone else screamed and submitted. We were able to withstand it. For those hitting us, it was not fun, because we did not show fear. We gave no response. But this was how we gained respect and how my reputation grew with the cadets and even the drill sergeants.

     Our training was the last that was so severe. During our basic training, a cadet was hit on the back of the head with a bat. He died that night. The response from the generals was swift. The camp commander was fired and the military training was changed. They didn't use bats after that.

     Being a cadet leader meant I was responsible for myself and the cadets under me. Once, I and my group were responsible for cleaning an area of a creek that was about sixty yards long. We did, but just as we finished the new commander's dog took a poo in the middle of our area. We missed it, but I was responsible. So I picked it up with my hands. The commander ordered me to run back and forth a hundred times with the dog poo in my hands.

     That was military training.

# # #

     There were four cadet captains, each in charge of 100 cadets. The boxer Kim Chun Se was leader of Unit #1 and I was leader of Unit #4. We had competed from the start and had mutual respect. Our companies were competing all the time.

     For me, the competition wasn't as important as the respect of the cadets and the sergeants. We already knew that Kim Chun Se and myself were good fighters and strong leaders. One thing I could do that he could not was to help the sick or injured soldiers. If a cadet went to the sergeant with an injury, they were cut down a grade. But I could use acupuncture to heal them and avoid the cut. I also used my hypnotism skills to reduce the cadets' stress and allow them to sleep well. This increased my reputation immensely and my respect among the cadets and sergeants grew.

     Even though they stopped using the baseball bats to hit us, that was not the end of our injuries. Once near the end of training, we were running. One of the drill sergeants struck one of the cadets who was too slow with his M1 carbine. It was a heavy weapon. It hit his spine and caused him to go into a coma.

     Korea was going through tough times, so many of the commanders and sergeants thought it was necessary to be this brutal. The country had just ended one war and now we were going to war in Vietnam. Our soldiers had to be the toughest.

     But after that, the generals realized they could not use the Japanese methods of training anymore. We were the last troops to use those harsh methods. Things were better for the next class.

# # #

     After my training I had to pick my specialty. I had many options, primarily because of the skills I had shown during cadet training. The drill sergeants and commanders asked me to stay and help train the next group of cadets. That wasn't very interesting to me. Nor was the request to become a Navy Military Policeman. Two other choices were very interesting. The first was for Navy Intelligence. The second was to join the Navy Seals. I had trained some of their soldiers in my Taekwondo class and they knew my skills.

     The two Navy Seals who trained with me were sergeants and they were ten years older, in their 30s while I was in my 20s. But when we were training in Taekwondo, none of that mattered. We trained hard and fought hard, but I was the leader on the mat, and they knew it.

     All Navy Seals are tough, whether American or Korea. But the Korean Navy Seals are the toughest in the world. When the American Navy Seals come to train with them, they shake their hands in respect and say, "You are too brutal." That is how it is now. Back then, they were even tougher.

     With that training, we developed a mutual respect. I was invited on one occasion to their camp to drink with them. I drank too much and did the things people do when they drink too much. I accidently insulted them, threw bottles at them, and was very abrasive to them. Luckily, my training partners stopped the Seals from killing me. "No, no, this guy is a special guy. Don't worry about him." Otherwise, I would have been in big trouble. The next day I returned with a headache and gave an official apology. They all understood since they had done the same thing!

     My last two choices were to go to Vietnam and be an instructor in Taekwondo or to return to the University and train the ROTC students at a local college as well as my own. Going to Vietnam would have provided me much money and relative safety. The instructors did not have to fight in the jungle. Because of the high pay, I wanted to go to Vietnam, but my parents urged me not. While I waited to make a decision, someone else took the spot in Vietnam and I lost out.

     So I decided to return to Pusan University where I continued training the students. I also trained the Huang Marine University ROTC students as well. There was rivalry between those two schools, just like the University of Michigan and Ohio State.

     So after my time in basic training, I returned to school with even more students that I taught at two universities.

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