MSGT. H.G. Robby Robinson


A History of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and Its Combative Measures Program

The strategic Air Command or SAC (1946-1992) was the operational establishment of the United States Air Force in charge of America's bomber-based and ballistic missile-based strategic nuclear arsenal, as well as the infrastructure necessary to support their operations (such as tanker aircraft to fuel the bombers and, until 1959, fighter escorts).

On 21 March1946 the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) was divided into three separate commands: Tactical Air Command (TAC), Air Defense Command (ADC), and Strategic Air Command (SAC). SAC's original headquarters was Bolling Field, the headquarters of the disbanded Continental Air Force, in Washington, DC. Its first commander was General George C. Kenney.

General Curtis E. LeMay took over as commander of SAC in October 1948 and set about a dramatic rebuilding of the command's forces, as well as their mission. LeMay, who had masterminded the American attacks on the Japanese mainland during the war (including the firebombing of Tokyo and other cities), was a staunch believer in the power of strategic bombing: the destruction of an enemy's cities and industrial centers. LeMay believed that the existence of the atomic bomb made this type of warfare the only workable strategy, rendering battlefield conflicts essentially obsolete.

During World War II, US bomber groups in Europe suffered more combat casualties than did the US Marine Corps in the Pacific. Many of the lost airmen ended up in German POW camps, and as a result a generation of US Air Force officers were firm believers in tough, realistic escape and evasion training. So, when Lt. General Curtis LeMay took over the Strategic Air Command (SAC), he was determined that all of his flying personnel would have some working knowledge of hand-to-hand combat to aid in escape and evasion. He felt that Judo would be a foundation for this training and that Judo combined with other phases of a conditioning program would keep crew members physically and mentally alert, thus helping them to endure the pressure of long missions.

In 1950 General LeMay directed the setting up of a model physical conditioning unit at Offutt Air Force Base, Omaha, Nebraska, the home of SAC headquarters. So successful did it prove during its test run that by January, 1951, LeMay directed that similar units be set up at other bases as rapidly as possible.

Although the value of training in purely combative measures was recognized, the finding of qualified instructors proved an especially difficult problem. Gen. LeMay appointed Emilio ("Mel") Bruno, a former National AAU Wrestling Champion and 5th-degree in judo, to direct the command-wide judo and combative measures program for SAC in 1951. Bruno formulated a new approach to military combat training, integrating parts of aikido, judo, and karate into a systematic unarmed combat technique. To implement his idea, he suggested a pilot program to Gen. LeMay, who was also one of Bruno's judo students. To assist Bruno in the field, SAC was able to find qualified civilian judo instructors to staff only six SAC bases; the rest had physical conditioning units, but no judo instructors. As a solution, SAC decided to train its own instructors.

In 1952, Air Training Command (ATC) took over the Strategic Air Command program. In direct charge of the judo and conditioning program for SAC was Gen. Thomas Power, later honorary chairman of the National AAU Judo Committee. Because of the obvious deficiency of instructors, Power sent two classes of airmen (24 men) to the Kodokan Institute in Tokyo, the Mecca of judo, in 1952 for several weeks training. This was the first such training for any Armed Forces group.

In 1953 Emilio Bruno invited ten martial arts instructors of judo and karate to participate in a now famous four-month tour of every SAC base in the U.S. and Cuba. The tour was of course financially backed and supported by SAC. The touring group included seven judoka (Sumiyuki Kotani, Tadao Otaki, Kenji Tomiki, Kusuo Hosokawa, Tsuyoshi Sato, Takahiko Ishikawa and Kiyoshi Kobayashi) and three karate dignitaries (Hidetaka Nishiyama, Toshio Kamada, and Isao Obata, a Japan Karate Association [JKA] co-founder and senior disciple of Gichin Funakoshi). Mr. Kotani was the leader as well as organizer of the group.

The purpose of this tour was to train judo instructors and combat crews and to give exhibitions on and off base. Many civilian judo clubs had their first visit from high-ranking judo teachers as a result of this tour. One of the highlights of the tour was a demonstration at the White House on July 22.

With Gen. LeMay's endorsement and SAC's sponsorship, Bruno also initiated eight-week training programs for Air Force instructors at the Kodokan. A few hand-picked airmen, with previous experience in physical training or combative sports, were sent to the Kodokan for advanced combatives training by the world’s foremost experts. This course was a Japanese-designed mix of Judo, Karate, Aikido and Taiho Jutsu. Kodokan officials contacted the JKA to manage the karate instruction. The JKA responded by sending the famed delegation of Nishiyama, Obata, Okazaki, and Terada. Judo instruction was provided by Kodokan greats Kotani, Otaki, Takagake, Sato, Shinojima, and Yamaguchi. Aikido instruction was led by Tomiki, along with Yamada and Inuzuka, while the all important instruction in Taiho-Jutsu was given by Hosokawa and Kikuchi. The SAC airmen attended class at the dojo for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and at the end of the course had to compete against and be evaluated by ten Black Belts. Upon returning to the United States, these airmen became instructors at every SAC base where it was important to develop combatives courses for crewmen in training.

A poster for this 320-hour program listed the following “Combative Activity Training Values”:

Physical Coordination, Balance, Relaxation, Combative Skill and General Physical tuning up
Mental and Physical Alertness as required under combat conditions
Confidence, Self-Assurance, Courage, Aggressiveness and Self Control
Ability to Escape / Defend while in dangerous areas
Knowledge of Leverage as applied to situations requiring techniques of restraint

In 1955 seventy men from SAC and the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) journeyed to the Kodokan for instruction. In 1956 SAC and ARDC sent 280 Air Policemen to the Kodokan to participate in four week classes.

Curtis LeMay left SAC to become USAF Vice Chief of Staff in 1957, and was succeeded by General Thomas S. Power, who served as SAC commander until December 1964. He was followed by General John Dale Ryan (1964-1967).

From 1959 until 1966 the Air Force Combative Measures (Judo) Instructor Course was held at Stead Air Force Base in Reno, Nevada. The 155 hours course consisted of the following: 36 hours fundamental Judo, 12 hours Aikido, 12 hours Karate, 12 hours Air Police techniques; 12 hours air crew self-defense, 18 hours Judo tournament procedures, 5 hours Code of Conduct and 48 hours training methods. There was also a 20 hour combative measures course and a 12 hour combative survival course for air crew members.

By 1962 SAC had more than 160 Black Belt Combative Measures instructors and more than 20,000 crew personnel had been trained in combative measures. The US Air Force Survival School history acknowledges that the "Combative Measures course was extremely successful but, in an effort to reduce aircrew training time [during the Vietnam buildup] and to reduce spending, it was dropped from the [Survival School] course."

Today, while there are many Americans who learned the arts of judo, karate, aikido, and taiho-jutsu as part of this unique and arguably unparalleled program, there is, sadly, no institutional memory of the program within the active Air Force or its historical branch.

In 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, SAC's goal of Cold War victory was achieved and it was eliminated in a reorganization of the major Air Force commands. SAC, TAC (Tactical Air Command), and MAC (Military Airlift Command) were reorganized into two commands, AMC (Air Mobility Command) and ACC (Air Combat Command). These two commands were essentially given the same missions that MAC and TAC held respectively, with AMC inheriting SAC's tanker force and ACC inheriting SAC's strategic bombers. The nuclear component was combined with the Navy's nuclear component to form USSTRATCOM (United States Strategic Command) which is headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base (SAC's former headquarters).