Morihei Ueshiba In New Hampshire?

Ben H. Swett
Colonel, USAF (Retired)

One day while I was a B-47 navigator with the 509th Bombardment Wing, Strategic Air Command, at Pease Air Force Base, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I saw a one-page notice that a SAC Judo Tournament would be held at the base gymnasium that night. It would feature expert demonstrations of Judo, Karate and Aikido. I thought that sounded interesting, and asked my pilot and copilot if they wanted to go. They said they had other things to do that night, so I went alone.

I sat about halfway up the bleachers, aligned with the middle of the roped-off area around the mat. There were quite a few people standing around the other side of the roped-off area, but the bleachers were almost empty.

Five men walked briskly onto the mat: four big Americans and one little old oriental gentleman, mostly bald, with a pointy white beard. I guessed he was about seventy years old. They all bowed to each other. Then the Americans took positions around the old man, facing him like the four points of a compass, about six feet away from him. I thought, "What's this? Four on one?"

Someone said "Hai!" and all four Americans tried to grab the old man -- but he wasn't there. He stepped quickly back and to one side between two of them, pulled them against each other, thus using them to block the other two, and then put all four of them on the mat, one after the other, very quickly. I was amazed.

Each of the Americans got up quickly, went back after the old man, and promptly got put on the mat again. And again. And again. I had never seen or heard of anything like this. I walked down the bleachers and moved as close to the roped-off area as I could, in order to see better.

I couldn't see better, because one or more of the Americans was often between me and the old man, but I was too fascinated to go back up on the bleachers. From what I could see, the old man's moves were very quick but gentle. No kicks or punches, and no throws over his head. He pulled or pushed an opponent off balance and gently put him down on the mat. Sometimes he moved one opponent so as to tangle another opponent's feet and put them both on the mat at once.

Here is another example: as an American came toward him, the old man stepped to the left and pivoted all the way around to the right while pulling his opponent past him by one arm. Then just as his opponent's right foot had to move forward to regain balance, the old man's left foot flicked out and blocked it -- and down his opponent went. Quickly. Gently. Smoothly. Fascinating.

The demonstration didn't last very long -- maybe five minutes. When it was over, they all bowed to each other and left the mat.

I asked someone who was standing next to me, "Who and what was that?" He said, "[something] Sensei. Master of Aikido. He is great! I'm so glad we got to see him."

Then the competition began, between Americans, one-on-one. I watched several of the matches, but I didn't see any other demonstrations by experts, so I left.

Many years later, I mentioned this event to a friend who was studying Aikido and described what I saw. She said, "It sounds like you saw Morihei Ueshiba himself, but he was never in the United States. He only visited Hawaii."

Recently (2008) I met the same friend and this subject came up again. She said she would check it out again. Later she said she found the same answer: Ueshiba was never in the continental United States, so I must have seen some other old man.

I searched the Internet and found pictures of Morihei Ueshiba, including videos, and now I am sure he was the old man I saw at Pease Air Force Base. I also searched for and found pictures of several other Aikido instructors from that time period. None of them except Ueshiba had a pointy white beard.

So ... did Morihei Ueshiba visit New Hampshire, or was it some other old man? As the King of Siam said, "'Tis a puzzlement" but I know what I saw and where I saw it. I'm just not sure when I saw it.

It could not have been earlier than 20 January - 1 February 1958, because that was the first time my aircrew was on alert at Pease. We were there again 11 - 23 June 1958, and the 509th Bomb Wing moved to Pease from New Mexico in August 1958.

SAC-wide Judo competitions were held each year during this period. Each of them was a series of tournaments that involved most of the SAC bases.

Ueshiba was invited to Hawaii by the Hawaii Aikikai and arrived on 27 February 1961. He gave many speeches and demonstrations, and stayed until mid-April 1961. On-line records say this was his first and only trip to the United States.

I think he came to Pease Air Force Base for a Judo tournament in 1958 or 1959 or 1960 from Japan, or in March-April 1961 from Hawaii. In any case, General LeMay or General Power could have brought him over and back in a USAF aircraft. They originated and supported the SAC Judo program and had aircraft available. In 1958 or 1959 or 1960 the visit may have been kept quiet to avoid difficulties about his lack of a passport or visa. In 1961 the visit may have been put together quickly when either of those two general officers heard that Ueshiba was visiting Hawaii.


General Curtis E. LeMay was the Vice Chief of Staff, United States Air Force, 1957-1961
General Tomas S. Power was the Commander of Strategic Air Command, 1957-1964