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Grandmaster Leo M. Giron
Last of the Bladed Warriors
Grand Master Emeritus Leo Giron was born in Bayambang, in the province of Pangasinan, Phillipines. He was a World War II veteran and was awarded the Bronze Star medal amongst many other citations. As the head advisor and also the founder of Bahala Na Martial Arts Association, he was world renown as the Father of Larga Mano in America. Until the last day of his life, Grand Master Giron was active and teaching along with Grand Master Antonio E. Somera at the home base school in Stockton, California. His knowledge of jungle warfare was an invaluable asset to those that trained with him. His appearance was that of a humble man with the character of a distinguished college professor. Grandmaster Giron talked, looked and carried himself with an uncommon class and style. There was something distinctive about him. Maybe it was something you only get when you fight against men whom would like to take you life away.
Q: When were you inducted into the Army?
A: I was inducted on October 9, 1942 this was in Los Angeles California because prier to this I was farming in Imperial Valley California. I was first stationed at Camp San Luis Obispo, and then in the winter of the same year I was transferred to Fort Ord.
Q: How were you selected to be in the 978th signal service company?
A: Well, everyone was brought into a big room it was the recreation room on base this is where were was given an aptitude test. Many did not pass and they were sent back to their regimens 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 including speaking English. I was one of the few that made it.
Q: What was your training experience like in the Army?
A: 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.
Q: What type of self-defense training did you receive from the Army?
A: 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 influence teachers Flaviano Vergara. Flaviano is the man that 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 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.
Q: How were you first experiences with the art of Escrima?
A: It was very interesting because as kids every time we – my friends and me - heard the ‘click, click, click’ of knives, we would be playing under the mango trees and the trail would be guarded. I sneaked away to watch. Later, we paid so many bundles of straw and rice for our lesson. My family didn’t know. I was carrying a bundle or rice when my father asked me about it and I told him I was going to take it to my uncle; we were going to make cakes!
In one of my first training session my instructor told me: “take you bolo and let’s do some training. Don’t worry about hurting me because I’ve been fighting for a long time. Cut me anytime you can. If you touch me you’ll get a month’s pay.” That was the way you learned in those days. I learnt a lot about how to use the environment for survival purposes. This is a very important aspect, especially when you’re fighting in the jungle. You need to know how to maximize every tree, every bush, the smallest help may be what you need to save your life.
Q: Would you please tell us about all your instructors and the system they taught you?
A: I had five teachers and I will give them to you in order and what style they passed onto me.
1. Benito Junio from the barrio of Inerangan town of Bayombang province of Pangasinan, Luzon Philippines. In 1920 I started my education in arnis escrima. Benito Junio was famous for his larga mano (long hand-stick) and fondo fuerte (fighting in a solid position) styles.
2. Fructuso Junio from the barrio of Telbang town of Bayombang provice of Pangasinan, Luzon Philippines. From 1921-1926 I continued my training with Fructuso uncle to Bentio. Fructuso Junio was well-known for his Macabebe or two-stick fighting. Fructuso was the first to share with Giron the importance of distinguishing between the old (cada-anan) and new (cabaroan) styles of Luzon.
3. Flavian Vergara from Santa Curz in Llocos Sur Luzon, Philippines. Vergara was the top student of Dalmacio Bergonia who defeated the great champion Santiago Toledo. Vergara and I started our training in the prune orchards of Meridian, Calif., from 1929-1932. Vergara and Giron would meet again directly after the outbreak of World War II. Our lives would cross for the last time in October 1942 when I was shipped out to Fort Ord, Calif. Every spare minute Vergara and I would train until I was shipped out in January, 1943. Vergara was a master in the Bergonia style and very proficient in the estilo elastico (rubber band style). I always thought that Vergara had superhuman abilities. Vergara influenced me a lot and his understanding of the relationships between the cada-anan (old) and cabaroan (new) styles of arnis escrima.
4. Beningo Ramos from Kongkong Bayongbang. During World War II Ramos was a sergeant in the Filipino army assigned to me. Pryor to the outbreak of World War II Ramos was an improbable arnis escrima teacher and was respected as one of the best estilo matador (killer-style) teachers in Luzon. Ramos was an expert in larga mano, miscla contras, tero pisada, tero grave and elastico styles. Ramos was so confident of his skills that he and I would play with live bolos. Ramos bet me that if I could hit him he would give me one month’s pay. I never collected a cent from Ramos.
5. Julian Bundoc from the barrio of Carangay town of Bayombang provice of Pangasianan, Luzon Philippines. Julian was cousin to Benito Junio. Julian Bundoc and I would play more of the combative larga mano and work on conditioning the body. Julian Bundoc was also a master of hilot or massage. We trained in Stockton from 1956-1961. One of my teachers named Flaviano Vergara had the most influence on me and helped me greatly in developing my system.
Q: How many systems or methods comprise your own personal method and what are their characteristics?
A: I’m well-known around the world for my larga mano style of escrima. But this is just a small piece of the entire Giron arnis escrima system. The Giron system has 20 styles and techniques that are just as effective and just as complete.
Q: When did you decided to go overseas?
A: On December 10, 1943 two of us were shipped to New Guinea but this was a mistake by the Army we were suppose to go to Australia. So on January 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 Queens land. 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 in climbing the high mountains of the Philippines and surviving in the jungles. At one time for a weeks period we were given only 3 days of sea rash sons and the other 4 days we were to survive on our own. At this point I was Staff Sergeant.
Q: Did you ever meet General Douglas Macarthur?
A: Yes, several times but on August 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”.
Q: How did you landed in the Philippines?
A: August 12, 1944 we boarded one of the smallest submarines in the United States Navy armada. The US Sting Ray, we were loaded and armed with carbines, sub machine 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. There was one time when we were fired upon and had to out maneuver several torpedoes at full speed. This occurred near the Halmahera Island on the Celebes Sea. One other time when we were attack was in Caonayan Bay just before disembarking the submarine. The attack was in the sub marine 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 on August 28, 1944.
Q: What was the most memorable encounter you had with the enemy?
A: 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 size of enemy charged against our position. We would form in wedge or triangle formation, two on the side and one as 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 by adrenaline must have gone up, one bayonet and samurai sword came simultaneously. The samurai sword was in front of me while the bayonet was 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 when I came down to cut his left hip. The samurai was coming back with a backhand blow. I met his tricep with the bolo chopping 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. The boys told me, blood sir I felt the twitch on the meaty part of my left palm when I parried the bayonet. I didn’t know I was cut. There were many more encounters. But our job was not to be detected by the enemy; our mission was to send back vital information of the enemy to head quarters.
Q: When did you start teaching the art of arnis escrima?
A: In October 1968 I decided to open a club in Tracy, California, 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’s.
Q: Why did you name your Martial Art Association “Bahala Na”?
A: 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 of 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”.
Q: What makes a good student?
A: A person with good passive resistance. You must have patience and not be to egger to win and be the champion. What he should be interested in is to learn how to defend himself and his family against aggression and 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.
Q: Do you feel that your experience during World War II in the jungles of the Philippines help you to become a better teacher.
A: 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, its not about how hard you hit or who is faster, its about sharing the art of our forefathers, because if you analyze it we are only the caretakers of the art for future generations.
Q: Why do you still teach escrima?
A: 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 and being that it falls in the field of sports it is good to have and know something that not to 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.
Q: In the past there has been many masters that have had fought in death matches, Have you ever fought in any death matches?
A: No, I have never fought in a death match. From what I understand, in order 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 it was during World War II. This is were 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 it’s over all length was 36 inches long. No referee, no rules the only rule was to survive.
Q: What’s your advice to the martial art practitioners?
A: It seems to be an unstoppable growing mentality of the ‘fighting’ in the martial arts community. I fought for my life in a real war, and that’s not pleasant. Practitioners should focus on the general benefits of martial arts from self-defense to a way of life instead of trying to be a ‘deadly fighting machine’. We should strive to be better human being. That’s the final goal of any martial art, to preserve life, not to destroy it.
GME Leo M. Giron >