I love reading and writing about little known heroes who creatively did their job, and whose work had great impact. Rex Applegate is one of the unsung American heroes of World War II. He developed what would become the standard “close quarter combat” system for all our spies and special forces during that era.
In the beginning stages of WW2 President Roosevelt saw it was necessary to get our nation on a war footing. Before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Congress instituted the first peacetime draft in 1940. In 1941 FDR and Congress created the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS); a precursor to the modern CIA. Well, these spies who would be parachuted into enemy territory had to learn extremely effective hand to hand combat, knife fighting, and accurate pistol shooting.
Enter Colonel Rex Applegate. The Colonel had already studied for years a rugged and effective system created by William E. Fairbairn, a British officer who had learned to fight with the British military police in Shanghai, China. Fairbairn called his system “Defendu” a remarkable set of skills drawn heavily from Japanese jiu jitsu, western boxing and wrestling, and just good old fashioned dirty tricks. Applegate actually worked with Fairbairn during WW2 to improve the system. The great thing about Fairbairn and Applegate’s systems is that, unlike most traditional Asian martial arts (Karate, Kung Fu, etc), one does not need to put on a gi (traditional costume for many Asian martial arts) and practice rather arcane or obsolete techniques for years until you are proficient.
The spies needed to know deadly stuff to protect themselves and/or assassinate, and they needed it now. Applegate taught them personally and turned out a whole army of OSS agents who worked very effectively behind German, Italian, and Japanese lines in World War II. Applegate’s knowledge and skills were so impressive that he was FDR’s personal bodyguard for a while.
If you want to know what his philosophy of fighting was, all of his books on hand to hand combat, knife fighting, and pistol shooting are still in print. In fact, his 1943 Army manual, “Kill or Get Killed” is a classic among martial artists, law enforcement, and the military today. In 1976, he revised the book and it became the official handbook of close quarter combat for the US Marine Corps.
Rex Applegate. He never killed a single Nazi during the war. But he sure taught a whole bunch of our spies how to do it.
Thank you Rex.