Pioneers of Isshinryu

Isshinryu In America

After the war was over, sometime in the late 1940’s, the US Military stationed personnel on Okinawa. Just as the Japanese had done during the war, our military sought out Master Shimabuku to ask him to teach martial arts to the servicemen who were stationed on the island.

Master Shimabuku agreed to instruct the Americans, which is how we were first introduced to Isshin-Ryu. (His students trained hours upon hours all day long for many months. At that time, Master Shimabuku was teaching in his backyard, and it wasn’t until he opened his first dojo in Agena Village in 1956 that students, regardless of nationality, had a “formal” place to train. Even so, his dojo at that time had no roof and students trained in the weather, rain or shine.) Although he taught many American military personnel over the years, most chose not to continue training upon returning home. However, there were four returning servicemen, in particular, who chose to not only continue their training, but who are responsible for the introduction and development of Isshin-Ryu Karate in the United States.

Don Nagle, Steve Armstrong, Harold Mitchum and Harold Long were Master Shimabuku’s best and most serious American students. Taking what they learned from Master Shimabuku on the island, these men returned home to establish dojos in their respective parts of the country, and ultimately, Isshin-Ryu associations of worldwide prominence. Eventually, each man would establish a lineage that not only embodied the philosophies and teachings of Master Shimabuku, but also reflected the core values most important to each of them.

Harold Mitchum

Harold Mitchum was born in South Carolina on December 17, 1933. He passed away in June, 2016. He was first stationed on Okinawa in March, 1958.  A career in the U.S. Marine Corps spanned over 22 years. Sensei Mitchum deployed once to Korea, twice to Vietnam, was stationed in South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Georgia, and Okinawa Japan. He enjoyed physical fitness, playing the guitar, fishing, and sharing his vast knowledge of Okinawan IsshinRyu Karate. He retired from the Marines in 1973 as a First Sergeant.

Harold Mitchum Sensei was appointed the first President of the American Okinawan Karate Association by Soke Shimabuku. The official appointment letter from Master Tatsuo Shimabuku was dated June 10th, 1961, following an important meeting that was held on Okinawa to determine who would best be suited for promoting Isshin-ryu karate in the United States.  However, in a document drafted by Ralph Bove, who was serving as the Judo and Karate coordinator for the USMC, Sensei Harold Mitchum was listed as the President of the American Okinawan Karate Association on a document dated April 12th, 1961.

The United Isshin-ryu Karate Association (now the WUIKA) was formed in September of 1975 with Sensei Mitchum’s guidance.  His focus was to standardize kata performance, promotion criteria, and provide assistance to all Isshin-Ryu dojos through training clinics.

Sensei Mitchum was promoted to 9th Dan,Hanshion June 5, 1988 by the late Masufumi Suzuki, who was at that time, and until his passing was the head of the All Japan Budo Federation and the Seibukan Academy in Kyoto, Japan.  Mr. Suzuki knew Master Shimabuku quite well and stated that he had heard Master Shimabuku speak very highly of Mitchum.

On March 20, 2004, the board of directors of the International Isshin Ryu Karate Association presented Mitchum with a 10th Dan certificate. He was inducted into the Isshin Ryu Hall of fame in 1983.

This story shows the relationship between Master Shimabuku and Sensei Mitchum: When Mitchum and Steve Armstrong gave Shimabuku a red belt to wear, Shimabuku removed the red and white belt he had on and gave it to Harold Mitchum. 

Steve Armstrong

On September 22, 1931, Steve Armstrong was born in the small ranching town of Guymon, Oklahoma. He soon moved to Texas, where he became decent amateur boxer. Perhaps his boxing career kindled his interest in karate.

Later, Armstrong began studying karate in Japan with the Marine Corps. Armstrong traveled to China in 1949 and studied karate in the Orient for a year and a half and earned a black belt there. Next, he was stationed in Japan at the Yokohama Marine Barracks and earned a black belt in a different style of karate before being sent to fight in the Korean War in 1950 (Wansu Kata of Isshinryu Karate).

Returning from Korea, Armstrong was assigned to President Truman’s Honor Guard. After that he attended the University of Texas before reenlisting in the Marines. This time, he was sent to Okinawa where he met Master Shimabuku (“Steve Armstrong: Isshinryu”).

He had earned a black belt in both Shorin Ryu and in Goju Ryu karate before he met Tatsuo Shimabuku in 1956. In front of Shimabuku, Armstrong confidently stated that he was a Ni Dan, but after Shimabuku watched a short demonstration by Armstrong, he said, “Nidan, you, ha, ha. You white belt” (Isshinryu TextBook). This comment was not well received by Armstrong, and a Kumite match was set up between Okinawan student, Kikuama, and Armstrong. Armstrong at 6’3” towered over the much smaller Kikuama, who was just 5’ tall (Isshinryu TextBook). As the story goes, later, Armstrong woke up in a hospital with several broken bones, but the fight impressed Shimabuku who agreed to teach Armstrong. Of course, he began this training as a white belt. Several months later, Armstrong was promoted to black belt and became Shimabuku’s number two student. He said in this dojo he “started learning Karate and what it is all about.” (Steve Armstrong: Isshinryu). He studied with Shimabuku in 1956 and again in 1959 and 1960 after returning to Okinawa from other assignments.

In a meeting in Agena, Okinawa in 1960, the Okinawan-American Karate Association was formed. Harold Mitchum was named president, and Armstrong was installed as one of the officers. The organization’s name was later changed to the American-Okinawa Karate Association.

When his tour of duty was up in Okinawa, he returned home. He took one of the original Isshin-Ryu patches designed by Arseno James Advincula with him and had patches made using that design. “But instead of having the patch made in the shape of a vertical fist, it was changed to an oval because it was easier made commercially. The (real) gold thread was changed to an orange color” (Secrets of Isshinryu Karate). This is the patch that the majority of the Isshin-Ryu karate-ka wear on their gi jackets today.

In 1960 he opened the Isshin-Ryu Karate School in his garage. Over the years he moved his school to downtown Tacoma, Washington, to the YMCA, to Washington Street, and then to its permanent home at 54th and South Tacoma Way. He also expanded his school to several satellite locations. (Steve Armstrong: Isshinryu).

Master Shimabuku traveled to the U.S. in 1966. He flew from Okinawa with Armstrong to Armstrong’s home in Tacoma, Washington. The Master continued his journey in the U.S. by flying to Knoxville, TN to visit Harold Long, and then to New Jersey to meet with Don Nagle. Then he returned to the Tacoma Dojo. While he was in Washington, Armstrong filmed his master performing all fourteen katas in the Isshin-Ryu system. This is very significant because few styles have a record of the founder doing their katas.

Armstrong continued to teach at his dojo and trained many fine black belts. It was also rumored that Armstrong served on the black belt testing committee for Elvis Presley (“Forms of Isshinryu”). During these years, Armstrong was promoted to 10th Dan.

In the fall of 1977, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and the subsequent surgery left him physically and mentally diminished. Although he did make a partial recovery, he was never the same. In 1985, he received a great honor by being inducted into the Isshin-Ryu Hall of Fame. Shortly before his death, he closed his dojo. On November 15, 2006, he died at the Washington Veteran’s Hospital (“Forms of Isshinryu”). Steve Armstrong is to be remembered as one of the four original pioneers of Isshin-Ryu Karate who were responsible for starting the spread of Isshin-Ryu across the United States.

Don Nagle

On April 5, 1938 Don Nagle was born in Jersey City, New Jersey; he was a part of a large family which included eight siblings. His first exposure to the martial arts was when he studied Goju-Ryu Karate in a dojo in lower Manhattan when he was16 (Nagle). When he turned 17, he joined the Marine Corps and did his training at Paris Island, South Carolina and then at Camp Lejeune. After Marine training, Nagle was stationed on Okinawa and attached to the 3rd Marine Division (Military Wikia).

Nagle was asked in a personal interview why he sought out Master Shimabuku. Nagle said he did not. Nagle explained that he saw a person dressed in karate pants and asked him if he knew a good karate dojo (Nagle). The person gave him directions to the Chun Village. Nagle followed the directions, first taking a bus and then wading through a rice paddy to reach the dojo. Nagle remembers his first sight of Master Shimabuku; he was sitting among two students (Nagle). In 1955 he began studying Isshin-Ryu Karate with Master Tatsuo Shimabuku. Nagle trained at the Chun Village Dojo in Shimabuku’s yard. The cost of training was $5.00 dollars a month which sounds ridiculously cheap until you realize that Nagle was only paid $83.20 a month by the Marines (Nagle).

Under Master Shimabuku’s tutelage, Nagle won the All Okinawan Championship. This was quite an accomplishment, since Nagle was only a White Belt at the time. He first defeated the Green Belt Champion and then the Black Belt (Nagle). After Nagle’s victory at the Championship Tournament, Shimabuku promoted Nagle to the rank of Sho-Dan and awarded him his personal Obi. Nagle did not understand that this was a great honor. Back then, he was not interested in the traditions; he just wanted to learn karate, but later he followed this tradition by awarding a promising student with his personal obi (Nagle). It was at this championship that Nagle was given the nickname, “The Laughing Red Devil” because he was a furious fighter who had very noticeable red sunburned skin due to the hot Okinawan climate (Military Wikia). Before Nagle left Okinawa in 1957, he was promoted to fourth Dan (Isshinryu). He returned to Camp Lejeune where he served for a short while on the All Marine Judo Team (Military Wikia).

After that, he was stationed at Camp LeJeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. He did not intend to continue teaching karate (Nagle). He was walking down the street and walked into a Judo Dojo. There he met Ernie Cates who was a 6th degree Black Belt in Judo and an 8-time future all Marine Judo Champion. They became partners at the dojo at 220 N. Bridge St. in Jacksonville, North Carolina. This dojo is very significant to Isshin-Ryu history because it was the first Isshin-Ryu Dojo in the United States (Isshinryu).

Nagle was discharged from the Marines in 1959 and returned to his home to Jersey City where he taught Isshin-Ryu at the YMCA, which did not charge him a fee to use their facilities. At the YMCA he had 50 or 60 students. He used the same training methods that he learned from Shimabuku (Nagle). Nagle remembers the dojo as being a hard school were you either blocked well or you got hit (Nagle).

Later he opened his own dojo at 524 Mercer Street and then moved to Bayonne, New Jersey where he went into partnership with Joel Buchholtz. Ultimately, he moved the dojo back to Jersey City. Nagle also played a part in the formation of the first Isshin-Ryu Karate association in the U.S. as the IKA (Isshando Karate Association) was created in 1958 (Military Wikia). When Shimabuku made his first trip to the United States in 1964, Nagle traveled to Pittsburgh to train with his old instructor. Two years after that in December, Shimabuku visited Nagle in New Jersey. Upon getting off the plane, Shimabuku looked at Nagle and said, “No change” asking Nagle if he was still teaching the Isshin-Ryu that Shimabuku taught him. Nagle assured his master that he was. During this trip Shimabuku tested Nagle and promoted him to 8th degree Black Belt (Nagle).

For many years, Nagle served as a New Jersey police detective and hand-to-hand combat trainer. He was awarded the police department Medal of Honor for his efforts to rid New Jersey of the Black Panther gang (Military Wikia). By 1979 Nagle had gained such fame in the karate world that he was asked to promote the first karate action figures, Karate Men, at the annual New York City toy show (Military Wikia).

The I.I.K.A. promoted Nagle to 9th degree black belt in 1984. He was awarded the rank of 10th degree in 1987. He founded the United Isshinryu Association in 1991 and reformed the American Okinawan Karate Association. Mr. Nagle knew many famous martial artists such as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and others. He trained many notable black belts such as Ed McGrath. Gary Alexander, Joel Buchholtz, and Nick Adler (Military Wikia). In his 20’s he was known as the “Deadliest Marine” and for many years he was the undefeated North American Champion (Nagle).

Don Nagle retired from teaching karate in the early 1990’s and appointed his senior student, Ed McGrath as his successor. McGrath became famous, in his own right, for being in a 1970’s TV commercial, but only his hands were filmed in the Hai Karate After Shave ad (Military Wikia).

Don Nagle died from cardiac arrest on August 23,1999 one day after he underwent heart surgery. He was 61 years old. Don Nagle should be remembered as a true pioneer of Isshin-Ryu Karate as he was the first marine to study with Master Simabuku, the first one to open an Isshin-Ryu Dojo in the U.S., and thus the first one to start the spread of Isshin-Ryu across the United States.