VFW Magazine — May 2017
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Veterans Take To The Mat
Kari Williams

IN THE ZONE: WAR VETS TAKE OPPONENTS TO THE MAT

From World War I to present-day conflicts, service members made their marks in careers beyond the military. Here we explore those who did so in the grappling world.

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 off to 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.

Regardless, Caddock’s success followed him to the professional realm, as he was “in constant demand,” according to Chapman, and traveled the nation, gracing the front pages of sports sections along the way. His induction into the Army also prompted front-page coverage.

When Caddock was discharged May 28, 1919, he competed — unwillingly — in the Allied Expeditionary Games after WWI’s Nov. 11, 1918, armistice, according to Chapman. Caddock returned to the ring after serving his country, facing Nebraska’s Joe Stecher, Gus Kervaris and others. But he opted out of the wrestling game in 1922, despite “the lure of big money.”

“The long trips and constant traveling were wearing hard on Earl, who was now 33 years of age,” Chapman wrote. “Not only had he suffered some degree of lung damage, but he was more interested in being home in Walnut than traveling the country to wrestle.”

But personal reasons weren’t the champion’s only motive to leave the sport — the wrestling world was in a state of change, transitioning from a “shoot” — a true contest — to a “work” — a bout in which the winner is predetermined.

Caddock’s career ended with a record of 82-7-2, and it was only after his return from war that he succumbed to opponents. By the time of his honorable discharge at Mitchell Field, Long Island, New York, in 1919, Caddock had become a first sergeant.

WORLD WAR II: STAN “KRUSHER” KOWALSKI

In the ring, Stan “Krusher” Kowalski was the bad guy — a heel. But outside the squared circle, the World War II Navy veteran — known in the wrestling world as the Big K — made helping homeless veterans his priority.

Kowalski joined VFW in 1961 while still actively wrestling, and served as Minnesota state commander in 2008. When he returned from the war, Kowalski said, he was fortunate to have “everything good going for me” in terms of family, finances and employment.

“There were other guys that wanted to be [in that position] and I could see some future in them, but they didn’t have anybody to help them or anything,” Kowalski said. “So I decided to help them. And I got interested in the VFW and the American Legion and all the other veterans groups. And I just stayed with it because it was something I could do and help without actually exposing myself to publicity. I didn’t do it for publicity. I did it just to help.”

That work culminated in Kowalski receiving the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame/Dan Gable Museum and The Great Council of Maine Improved Order of Red Men Degree of Pocahontas’ inaugural Patriot’s Award at the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame awards banquet in July 2016.

Kowalski, a gunner’s mate on the USS Bashaw, USS Barb and USS Plaice, joined the Navy in 1942, served in the Pacific and was discharged in 1946. While in the Pacific, Kowalski said he served two runs on the Bashaw and three on the Barb. He also served two cruises on the Plaice.

The Bashaw participated in six patrols between March 10, 1944, and April 29, 1945, sinking three Japanese merchant vessels. The Barb operated from Oct. 20, 1942, to Aug. 2, 1945, completing 12 war patrols; and the Plaice took part in six war patrols, one of which included departure from Pearl Harbor Nov. 9, 1944, for duty off the coast of Shikoku and Kyushu in Japan.

After being discharged from the Navy, Kowalski attended the University of Minnesota, where his professional wrestling career began. He wrestled while in the Navy, but strictly for a workout.

“I went to Minnesota, and I liked it,” Kowalski said. “And I went out for the team.”

The Big K was in the same class as American Wrestling Association promoter Verne Gagne. Kowalski donned the monikers Buddy Marco, Krusher Kowalski and “Krippler” Karl Kovacs and wrestled 6,600 matches in his 26-year career.

Kowalski also is known for his time tagging with the brawler Tiny Mills as Murder Incorporated in the 1950s.

“Tiny was strictly a brawler, he wasn’t a wrestler,” Kowalski said. “He’d just punch and kick and once in a while he’d know a hold or get into a hold, but he was great.”

Despite his in-ring portrayal as a heel, The Big K never turned away fans seeking autographs.

“People paid money, and I respected that,” Kowalski said. “Never put a fan down because they’re the ones that are making your living. So I always went that way.”

In the VFW, the Big K also played a role in increasing membership at Post 363 in Fridley, Minn., where he is a life member. As of February, the Post had 360 members. By getting veterans into the Post, he said he could then take care of them.

“Back when I got out was right after the war, so there was a lot of guys running around loose, and I got to be fairly well known in the night club area so I could get guys to talk to them,” said Kowalski, who helped those veterans land jobs.

Kowalski also can lay claim to VFW’s triple crown — He commanded at the Post, District and Department levels. But that was never something he set out to do.

It was the simple desire to help others that spurred his devotion to the cause of veteran homelessness.

VIETNAM: LARRY ESTEP

Larry Estep, a 2015 inductee into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s Oklahoma chapter, was drafted during the Vietnam War and wounded in action. Doctors did not expect him to return to his pre-war careers of teaching or coaching wrestling.

But Estep, who taught for one year at Guthrie Middle School in Guthrie, Okla., came back fighting, earning coaching accolades along the way.

A former wrestler himself, whose own wrestling honors include third place in the 1964 Oklahoma high school regionals and runner-up at the state tournament in the same year for Geary High School, Estep served as a Spec. 4 originally with E Co., 1st Bn., 11th Inf., 1st Bde., 5th Inf. Div. (Mech), and then with G Trp., 3rd Sqdn., 5th Cav (Division Recon). He spent six months in Vietnam around Quang Tri as a sniper and in reconnaissance.

On April 9, 1970, Estep was attacked by North Vietnamese while on a mission with his team.

“[They were] shooting rockets and mortars and one struck me in the head, and according to what they wrote to me, I stayed and kept fighting and then I was hit again,” Estep said. “And they removed me from the place where we were fighting.”

Estep was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for his actions while on a reconnaissance team with E Co., 1st Bn., 11th Inf., according to a letter from the Department of the Army.

“Pfc. Estep was wounded during the initial burst of enemy fire, but he immediately returned a volume of suppressive fire until [he] was again hit by rocketpropelled grenade fire.

“After he was removed from the line of fire, Pfc. Estep helped to maintain the morale of his comrades and enabled them to repulse the enemy attack,” the letter states.

Estep’s right side was partially paralyzed along with eye damage that affects him to this day. The wounds and subsequent brain damage resulted in aphasia, according to Estep. Aphasia limits memory, speech and the ability to write and read.

Estep was released from the Army in November 1970, and went to Oklahoma City to continue treatment and rehabilitation.

Estep and his wife, Sandra, lived in Goodwell, Okla., while Estep recovered. In Spring 1972, Charles Weber, who previously hired Estep at Guthrie, reached out to the Vietnam veteran about returning to work. Weber was instrumental in the Estep’s return to education and also urged him to institute the program. Weber, according to Estep, was the father of one of Estep’s best friends.

“I just wanted to get back into coaching and teaching,” Estep said. “That’s what I loved to do, and I just put it in my mind I was going to get it done.”

Initially, Estep was curious if he could handle coaching responsibilities after his wounds. Yet he went on to coach at the junior high and high school levels, leading the junior high team to Western Conference championships in 1981 and1989. He also earned Junior High Coach of the Year awards and was named the 1991 West All-State Coach.

“It meant a lot to me to get that started,” Estep said. “I was real proud.”

The All-State coach enjoyed the “kids’ winning seasons” and how they treated him.

“They treated me as a coach, you know, and they were real good to me… They never gave me any kind of trouble at all,” said Estep, who retired in 2006.

EMAIL kwilliams@vfw.org

WRESTLERS WHO SERVED IN KOREA

A handful of wrestlers, from those with an NCAA background to those more fond of the squared circle, also served during the Korean War.

Moose Cholak (given name Edward) was a 6-foot, 4-inch behemoth who served in the Navy, according to an obituary in the Chicago Tribune. However, his wrestling career didn’t begin until 1952, after returning stateside.

Cholak marched to the ring, “often with a real moose head propped on his shoulders,” according to the obituary, in a career that took him throughout the U.S. and Japan.

Al Greene, one half of the original Heavenly Bodies tag team, served during the Korean War, “as the Chinese crossed the Yalu into Korea,” according to wrestling historian Steve Johnson. Greene, whose real last name was Denney, teamed with Don Greene in the 1960s, making a name as a Tennessee tag team for more than a decade. When not teaming with his fictional brother, Al Greene also took on opponents in Japan, Florida and Puerto Rico, according to The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams, written by Johnson and Greg Oliver. Al Greene died in 2014.

On the other hand, Tony Gizoni secured NCAA Division I championships two years in a row while attending Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania. His collegiate career ended undefeated, 52-0. Gizoni was awarded a Bronze Star for his service during the Korean War. His wrestling acumen afforded him entry into the Pennsylvania Wrestling Coaches Associations Hall of Fame, the Helms Foundation Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame Washington-Greene.
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