In the Zone: War Vets Take Opponents to the Mat

By Williams, Kari | VFW Magazine, May 2017 | Go to article overview

In the Zone: War Vets Take Opponents to the Mat


Williams, Kari, VFW Magazine


From headlocks and elbow drops to serving overseas, wrestling and the military have had a long-lasting bond.

Its use as a military tactic dates back to the Roman-Persian War.

In the United States, grappling days began with George Washington, according to journalist Roger Moore's book Glory Beyond the Sport: Wrestling and the Military. Twelve other presidents also took to the mat, including Andrew Jackson, Chester Arthur and Zachary Taylor. But if not for Theodore Roosevelt, whose workout regimen during his days as New York governor included wrestling, the sport would not exist at military academies.

However, military connections to wrestling don't stop there. More recently, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has delivered Tribute to the Troops shows since 2003.

And more personally, veterans have laced up not only their combat boots, but also their wrestling boots for decades. We feature some of those who have stepped onto the mat or into the ring, making names for themselves at the amateur and professional levels, from as early as World War I to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in this two-part series.

WORLD WAR I: EARL CADDOCK

Billed from the southwestern Iowa town of Walnut, Caddock rose through the amateur ranks - earning his first "national champion" title at the Amateur Athletic Union freestyle championships in 1914 - and was undefeated at the end of 1915. But war put his wrestling career on hold. He was inducted into the Army Dec. 11, 1917, at 29 years old while living in Anita, Iowa, with his wife.

Caddock's induction into the Army occurred at Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa, with Headquarters Troop, 88th Infantry Division. Prior to enlisting, he joined a civilian training camp in May 1917.

While in training at Camp Dodge, Caddock, a private, "gained some time offto wrestle several times, as the Army recognized the public relations value of having the world heavyweight champion in its ranks," according to Caddock: Walnut's Wrestling Wonder, written by Mike Chapman.

Caddock's bonus application from the state of Iowa confirms Chapman's account, noting that Caddock received "civilian pay" while in the service because he "had a few matches while at Camp Dodge."

The 88th Infantry Division, which initially consisted of draftees from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and the Dakotas, arrived in Europe in time to participate in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

In September 1918, the 88th Infantry Division moved to support the 29th American Division, a tactic that "contributed, not indirectly, to the winning of the important Meuse-Argonne Offensive," according to The 88th Division in the World War of 1914-1918.

After deploying to France, the 88th Infantry Division "continued to train troops that again were reassigned to other divisions or miscellaneous organizations, a total of nearly 50,000 men in total," according to Jerry Schmidt, a research volunteer with the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

Prior to his unit's August 1918 departure for France, Caddock scored victories over professional wrestlers Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Wladek Zbyszko. Once in the trenches, Caddock "suffered some degree of lung damage in a mustard gas attack, though the precise extent of the injury is not known," Chapman wrote.

"But his patriotic action attracted considerable attention back in the United States, similar to what occurred nine decades later when National Football League star Pat Tillman gave up a lucrative career in sports to serve in Afghanistan, eventually losing his life," Chapman wrote.

With World War I brewing, any Olympic aspirations Caddock had "were obliterated with the cancellation of the 1916 Games," according to Caddock: Walnut's Wrestling Wonder.

Shortly thereafter, Caddock transitioned to the professional ranks - but that world was a far cry from the presentday multimillion-dollar conglomerate of WWE. Matches could last up to three hours, "with considerable time spent on the mat working for a joint-lock submission or a pin hold," Chapman wrote. …

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