MOJO Time Machine: Green Beret Tops US Chart

On 5 February, 1966 Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s The Ballad Of the Green Beret became the biggest single of the year.


by Fred Dellar |
Published on

5 February, 1966

Tom T. Hall, one of Nashville’s most hailed songwriters, once fashioned Me And Audie Murphy, a song that name-checked America’s most decorated soldier. Murphy, who during the Second World War received every combat award the US Army had in its locker, went on to enjoy a 21-year acting career in films and television, becoming the accepted face of America’s armed forces. But on February 5, 1966, Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s hawkish patriotic single, The Ballad Of The Green Berets/ Letter From Vietnam, entered the US chart, and Uncle Sam had a new military hero. Filled with lines like, “Put silver wings on my son’s chest/Make him one of America’s best,” Sadler’s debut on record was to become the biggest single of the year.

New Mexico-born, Sadler had been a high school dropout who drifted around, sometimes playing with a honky-tonk combo. “I was going nowhere,” he later admitted. At 17, he enlisted in the US Air Force, eventually moving on to join the elite Army Special Forces arm known as the Green Berets. A tour of duty in Vietnam ended when his leg was injured in a poisoned punji stake booby trap.

Returning home, he became a ’Nam poster boy after posing for the cover of the paperback edition of Robin Moore’s 1965 bestseller The Green Berets. Sadler claimed that he was “half-bombed” at the time. “That’s the reason I have that steely-eyed glassy look in my eyes in that picture.”

It was Moore who alerted RCA to the fact that Sadler was a more than capable singer-songwriter. The author took the song – which Sadler claimed to have penned in a Mexican brothel – then gave it a rewrite before taking the resulting demo to the record company. RCA flipped.

Just prior to Christmas 1965, Sadler was rushed into a studio to cut a version of The Ballad Of The Green Berets with a 15-piece orchestra and chorus, headed by arranger-conductor Sid Bass. They also recorded songs for an album, including Trooper’s Lament, Badge Of Courage, Saigon and Salute To The Nurses.

Discussions with the Pentagon...

There was a snag. “We found out that it was against army regulations to use a photograph of a military man in uniform on a record cover without permission from the government,” recalled RCA’s then A&R man Don Burkheimer. Discussions with the Pentagon were hurriedly held, and Burkheimer was able to give the go-ahead to the cover’s printers.

The February 5 edition of trade magazine Billboard declared, “in less than two weeks S-Sgt Barry Sadler has established a hit-selling beachhead, RCA reporting that it’s already sold 200,000 copies,” adding that other TV spots would follow an appearance on Ed Sullivan.

One day after Sadler was on Jimmy Dean’s ABC-TV show on February 11, RIAA confirmed that both the album and the single had shipped gold. The latter, which stayed at Number 1 for five weeks, was officially declared the best-selling single in the States on March 5.

“I’m a Green Beret – If I’d shot him, he’d be dead.”

But while follow-up single The A-Team was a moderate hit, the Purple Heart-winner was unable to replicate his initial success. Apart from his involvement in a series of paperback books regarding mythical mercenary Casca – aka the Roman soldier who stabbed Christ with the Spear of Destiny on Golgotha and was doomed to wage endless war until the Second Coming – little was heard of Sadler until December 1, 1978 when, following a dispute concerning a girlfriend, the ex-Beret killed country music songwriter Lee Emerson Bellamy with a single gunshot to the head. Convicted of voluntary manslaughter, Sadler was sentenced to four to five years in jail, a term that was reduced following an appeal.

Later, Sadler was involved in another shooting, this time in Memphis. His victim, a one-time business partner of Sadler’s, survived. The former staff sergeant pleaded innocence, protesting: “I’m a Green Beret – If I’d shot him, he’d be dead.”

Violence continued to be a theme in Sadler’s life, and in September 1988, while in Guatemala training Contra rebels, he himself was shot in the head during an apparent robbery attempt. Sadler remained in a coma for several months, after which he was released from hospital with considerable brain damage. In November 1989, he succumbed to complications and died at the age of 49.

Though he had enjoyed fleeting fame, it was John Wayne who really cashed in, purchasing the rights to Robin Moore’s The Green Berets book and turning it into a successful gung-ho, pro-war movie. And Sadler? As one acquaintance observed: “He just didn’t take off like Audie Murphy.”

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