Grandmaster Leo Giron Last of the Bladed Warriors
By Antonio E. Somera
During the outbreak of World War II many Filipinos volunteered for service. The outpouring was so creditable that orders were issued to activate the First Filipino Infantry Regiment in Salinas, Calif., effective July 13, 1942 and the Second Filipino Infantry Regiment Nov. 21, 1942. The First and Second Filipino Infantry was once one division with the strength of 12,000 men, three regiments, plus other special companies. In addition, out of these 12,000 men, about 1,000 were selected for special missions. This force of fighting Filipinos was known as the First Reconnaissance Battalion and was activated Nov. 20, 1944. This included the 978th signal service company, which was identified with the Allied Intelligence Bureau.These men and officers were called Commandos and "Bahala Na" ("come what may") was their slogan. As part of General Douglas MacArthur’s secret force, they were dropped behind enemy lines and became the eyes and ears of General MacArthur.
One of the most noted of these servicemen was Sergeant Leo M. Giron of the 978th signal service company. Sergeant Giron served over one year behind enemy lines in the jungles of Northern Luzon, Philippines. He was a member of a group of secret commandos that were part of General Douglas MacArthur’s secret army. Grandmaster Giron is head advisor and world-renowned founder of the Bahala Na Martial Arts Association. At the tender age of 90 he still resides in Stockton, Calif., and attends class on a regular bases.
His knowledge of jungle warfare is an invaluable asset to those who train with him. He is a rare combination of humble martial artist and distinguished college professor. Here is his story:
FILIPINO MARTIAL ARTS: When were you inducted into the Army?
LEO GIRON: I was inducted on Oct. 9, 1942. This was in Los Angeles, Calif., because prior to this I was farming in Imperial Valley, Calif. I was first stationed at Camp San Luis Obispo, and then in the winter of the same year I was transferred to Fort Ord.
FMA: How were you selected to be in the 978th signal service company?
LG: Well, everyone was brought into a big room. It was the recreation room on base. This is where we were given an aptitude test. Many did not pass and they were sent back to their regiment. But others made it and were given additional education on Morse code. The Army was looking for specific types of men. They were looking for men with schooling and how well they could communicate. That included speaking English. I was one of the few that made it.
FMA: What was your training experience like in the Army?
LG: During boot camp we also went to school. We were learning communications like Morse code, wig-wag (flag signals), cyma four, cryptography and paraphrasing. I was trained to communicate. At the time I did not know what the Army was planning for me to do. We were never told why we were training; you just did what the Army told you to do.
FMA: What type of self-defense training did you receive from the Army?
LG: We learned all the basic training needed for soldiering. Nothing special, just how to shoot a carbine, how to use a .45 and some basic hand-to-hand combat. I was fortunate to learn escrima as a child and later after coming to America with one of my most influential teachers, Flaviano Vergara. Flaviano taught me the most about escrima and how to defend myself. In fact, I met Flaviano a second time in Fort Ord during which time we would play on weekdays after dinner and on the weekends while everyone went into town. Flaviano and I would do nothing but drill and drill using estilo de fondo and larga mano. Sometimes a soldier would come by and ask what were we doing. Some would tell us that they would never come close to a Samurai sword. They claimed they would give the Samurai a load of their M-1.
FMA: When did you go overseas?
LG: On Dec. 10, 1943 two of us were shipped to New Guinea, but this was a mistake by the Army. We were supposed to go to Australia. So on Jan. 10, 1944 I was sent to Australia to a place called Camp X. It was close to the little town of Beau Desert about 60 miles from the seaport of Brisbane in Queensland. It was there that I furthered my training in Morse code, cryptography, visual communications, etc. I also embarked on my final training in jungle warfare in a place called Canungra. Thirteen weeks of hard training contributed to my ability to climb the high mountains of the Philippines and survive in the jungles. One time for a week we were given only three days of C-rations and the other four days we were to survive on our own. At this point I was staff sergeant.
FMA: Did you ever meet General Douglas MacArthur?
LG: Yes, several times, but on Aug. 10, 1944 I was ordered to a briefing at the General’s Headquarters. General MacArthur crossed his arms and said to us, "Boys, I selected you to do a job that a general can’t do. You have the training to do a job that no one else can do. You are going home to our country, the Philippines — yours and my homeland. You’ll serve as my eyes, my ears, and my fingers, and you’ll keep me informed of what the enemy is doing. You will tell me how to win the war by furnishing me with this information, which I could not obtain in any other way. Good luck, and there will be shinning bars waiting for you in Manila."
FMA: How did you land in the Philippines?
LG: On Aug. 12, 1944 we boarded one of the smallest submarines in the United States Navy armada. It was called the U.S. Sting Ray. We were loaded and armed with carbines, submachine guns, side arms, bolo knives, trench knives, brass knuckles, ammunition and a few other special packages. While on our way to the Philippines we slept on our own cargo boxes. Myself and one other soldier slept under the torpedo racks. One time we were fired upon and had to outmaneuver several torpedoes at full speed. This occurred near the Halmahera Island on the Celebes Sea. We also were attacked in Caonayan Bay just before disembarking the submarine. The attack was on the submarine when a plane had dropped depth charges on us. They came close enough to rattle the sub and burst some pipes, but luckily this was the extent of the damage. We landed on the beach Aug. 28, 1944.
FMA: What was the most memorable encounter you had with the enemy?
LG: Well it is hard to try and choose one particular encounter because they were all very horrifying. One Bonsai attack comes to mind, in early June 1945 on a rainy day. A large number of enemy soldiers charged our position. We formed a wedge or triangle formation, two on the side and one as a point man. I was point man. Just like any Bonsai charge the enemy was always noisy. Yelling and shouting, they are not afraid to die. The Filipino guerrillas, on the other hand, chew their tobacco, grit their teeth and wing their bolos, chop here, jab there, long bolos, short daggers, pointed bamboo, pulverized chili peppers with sand deposited in bamboo tubes to spray so the enemy cannot see. By now my adrenaline must have gone up. One bayonet and samurai sword came simultaneously. The samurai sword was in front of me while the bayonet was a little to the left. With my left hand I parried the bayonet. I blocked the sword coming down on me. The bayonet man went by and his body came in line with my bolo. That’s when I came down to cut his left hip. The Samurai was coming back with a backhand blow. I met his triceps with the bolo and chopped it to the ground. After the encounter I wiped my face with my left hand to clear my eyes from the rain and found bloodstains on my face. There were many more encounters. But our job was not to be detected by the enemy; our mission was to send back vital information on the enemy to headquarters.
FMA: When did you start teaching the art of arnis escrima?
LG: In October, 1968 I decided to open a club in Tracy, Calif., where I was residing at the time. I was motivated after I heard on the news that a man in Chicago killed eight nursing students and some of the nurses were Filipina.
FMA: Why did you name your Martial Art Association "Bahala Na"?
LG: It was the slogan of my outfit during World War II. I am proud of the men I fought with during World War II and in the spirit of my comrades. I hold the memories of all those I fought with in very high regard and close to my heart. I also can associate the combative spirit we had during the time of World War II and because of this I feel I have the right to use the slogan of "Bahala Na". By the way it means "Come what may."
FMA: What makes a good student?
LG: A person with good passive resistance. You must have patience and not be too eager to win and be the champion. What he should be interested in is learning how to defend himself and his family against aggression. The end result will be that you will survive — this makes you victorious. You do not need to say I am going to win and defeat my opponent. The attitude is that I am going to survive and not get hurt. That’s what will count; the other man will eventually fall into a loophole were he will fall by himself and eventually he will defeat himself.
FMA: Do you feel that your experience during World War II in the jungles of the Philippines helped you become a better teacher?
LG: I know the respect of the bolo knife. Wartime is different. There is no regard for life. It’s different teaching; you must have structure and good communications with your students. I like to teach more about the application and fundamentals. It’s not about how hard you hit or who is faster; it’s about sharing the art of our forefathers, because if you analyze it we are only the caretakers of the art for future generations.
FMA: Why do you still teach escrima?
LG: Well, first it’s a hobby. I have the chance to stretch my legs, work my arms and exercise my body. I feel it is a gift to be able to learn a combative art like escrima. Being that it falls in the field of sports, it is good to have and know something that not too many people know. I feel proud that I have something to share with the children, my friends and those that want to learn an art that is a little different than other martial arts. I feel that the Filipino art is a superior art in comparison to other arts, so I stand firm in saying that I am proud that I have learned and still know the art of escrima.
FMA: Have you ever fought in any death matches?
LG: No, I have never fought in a death match. From what I understand, to participate in a death match you will need to have a referee and a second or back-up person in your corner — something similar to a boxing match. The only type of death match I had was during World War II. This is where I fought in the jungles for over a year, not knowing if we would survive. Our weapons of choice were the bolo knife or talonason, a long knife whose overall length is 36 inches long. No referee, no rules; the only rule was to survive.
Grandmaster Leo Giron was awarded the Bronze Star for his heroic efforts. The letter accompanying the Bronze Star reads: "By direction of the President of the United States of America, under the provisions of Executive order 9419, 4 February 1944 (Sec. II, Bulletin 3, WD, 1944), a Bronze Star Medal is awarded by the Commander-in-Chief, United States Army Forces, Pacific, to the following-named officer and enlisted men for heroic achievement in connection with military operations against the enemy in Luzon, Philippine Islands, during the period indicated, with citation for each as shown herein below: Technical Sergeant Leovigildo M. Giron, 39536996, Signal Corps, United States Army. 27 August 1944 to 11 June 1945. Address: Bayambang, Pangasinan, Philippine Islands. "Volunteering for a secret and dangerous military intelligence mission, he was landed by submarine in Luzon, Philippine Islands, where he assisted in successfully extending lines of communication, securing vital weather data and obtaining military information which proved of the greatest assistance to impending military operations. By his loyalty, daring, and skillful performance of duty under most hazardous condition, he readied a campaign for the recapture of the Philippine Islands." — By command of General MacArthur: — R.K. Sutherland, Lieutenant General, United States Army, Chief of Staff. — Official: B.M. Fitch Brigadier General, U.S. Army, Adjutant General
Grandmaster Leo M. Giron, head advisor and founder of Bahala Na Martial Arts Association, is known as the "Father of Larga Mano" in America. There have only been 79 graduates from the Bahala Na Martial Arts Association over the past 32 years. Some of his most famous graduates are Dan Inosanto, Richard Bustillo, Ted Lucay Lucay, Jerry Poteet and Dentoy Rivellar. He remains active and teaches along with grandmaster Antonio E. Somera in Stockton, Calif.
Antonio E. Somera studies the Filipino martial arts with grandmaster Leo Giron. For more information on classroom or private classes, seminars, certified affiliate programs, Stockton training camps or books, contact grandmaster Antonio E. Somera, P.O. Box 8584, Stockton, CA 95208; www.gironarnisescrima.com
reprinted with permission from CFW Enterprises