The Ballad of the Green Berets

Special operations units of the military were formed in the years following World War II as the U.S. government discerned a need for specific areas of training should unforeseen opponents become serious threats. The different branches established their own divisions, such as the Tactical Air Command, Navy SEALS, Marine Corps Reconnaissance and others. The U.S. Army Special Forces began in 1952, headquartered in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, offering complex, detailed training in many areas of warfare; early in its existence, green berets (similar to what European soldiers had worn in earlier wars) became the official headgear, an easily recognizable image. In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy, a strong supporter of the unit, called it "a symbol of courage" and before long the Special Forces were commonly referred to as the Green Berets.

Barry Allen Sadler was destined to become one of the most famous of all military men, though not necessarily because of the armed service he performed. Born in Carlsbad, New Mexico, his parents divorced while he and his brother were very young, then his father died of a rare form of cancer. His mother worked in restaurants, bars and casinos while Barry often got into trouble, though he didn't break any serious laws. They lived at various times in nearly every state from California to Texas, then settled in Leadville, Colorado, where he attended high school through tenth grade, dropped out, hitchhiked around the country and enlisted in the Air Force in the summer of 1958, a short time before his 18th birthday. Training as a radar technician, he did a tour of Japan and was discharged three years later. Barry spent much of his time playing guitar, singing and writing songs, mostly about life in the military.

Craving more action than civilian life offered, he joined the Army in the summer of 1962 and set his sights on Special Forces duty. By the end of the following year, he'd completed training at Fort Bragg as a Green Beret medic; after further training he was promoted to Staff Sergeant and sent to Vietnam in late 1964 as the conflict was escalating. While recuperating from being wounded after inadvertently stepping on a Viet Cong "punji stick," he worked on a song he titled "The Green Beret," based on his experiences with the detachment. A performance of the song for top-ranking officers was filmed and shown on U.S. news programs. Soon afterwards, he returned to North Carolina; in the summer of '65 he met 40-year-old author Robin Moore, whose novel The Green Berets (based on actual Special Forces procedures in South Vietnam he'd witnessed with the permission of the U.S. government) had been published earlier that year. Moore offered some ideas for the song's lyrics and convinced him to change the title to "The Ballad of the Green Berets." Plural. Like the book's title.

RCA Victor Records saw potential in the song, particularly as a tie-in to the book, and signed Barry to a contract. In December '65, twelve songs were recorded with producer Andy Tiswell and arranger Sid Bass; the album Ballads of the Green Berets and its single were released the following month. Political protest songs by the likes of Joan Baez ("We Shall Overcome"), Bob Dylan ("The Times They Are A-Changin'"), Barry McGuire ("Eve of Destruction") and many others were at the forefront of a growing trend. But Sadler's music was strictly patriotic ('Silver wings upon their chest...these are men, America's best...') and at odds with current trends. RCA execs were certain there was a market for this point of view and gave the song a big promotional push.

On January 30, he performed the song on The Ed Sullivan Show as the single began climbing the charts; less than two weeks later on The Jimmy Dean Show, he sang the song and was interviewed by Dean. The military "Ballad" rose quickly, reaching number one at the beginning of March and remaining there for five weeks (it even got to number two on the country chart) while the longplay perched atop the album sales chart for a complete takeover (the latest singles by The Rolling Stones and The Beatles had to settle for numbers two and three the final week in March). The Hollywood Palace had Sadler as a guest on April 6. His image graced the cover of the paperback edition of Moore's book, which became a number one seller as well.

Cover versions of the song appeared shortly after its release. An instrumental by British musician Alan Moorhouse was on Pye in the U.K. and Cadet in the U.S. The Lancastrians (a Brit group, also on Pye) recorded the song, while Swedish singer Anita Lindblom covered it for the Scandinavian market. Later that summer, Johnny Paycheck put his own stamp on a country version. There were others, including knockoffs like Craig Arthur's "The Son of a Green Beret," sung from a small child's perspective. Sadler went on an extensive concert tour (maybe you caught him at your local county fair) and RCA wasted no time in getting a second album out; by mid-May its title track, "The 'A' Team," hit the top 30. In the fall, a non-LP single, "One Day Nearer Home," confronted a soldier's loneliness and unspecified desire to return from duty. "I Won't Be Home This Christmas," essentially a letter sent from a war-torn jungle, came near the end of '66 without Sadler's rank shown on the label. "The Ballad of the Green Berets," the best selling single of the entire year, earned him more than 500 thousand dollars in artist and songwriting royalties.

What a busy year it had been. He wrote an autobiography, I'm a Lucky One (with the help of credited writer Tom Mahoney), published by Macmillan in January '67. A third album, Back Home, had been issued by the time he was honorably discharged from the Army in May. Plans were to make more records and act in movies, but extending the music career became harder after RCA Victor failed to renew his contract. Success had gone to Barry's head and it's been said his macho demeanor alienated a lot of music industry people.

Meanwhile, Robin Moore sold his story to John Wayne's Batjac Productions, though very little of the book's content was used in the summer 1968 Warner Bros.-Seven Arts film The Green Berets starring Wayne (portraying the fictional Colonel Mike Kirby) and recent ex-Fugitive David Janssen. The movie's theme song was, not surprisingly, a vocal chorus version of "The Ballad of the Green Berets" arranged by Ken Darby, who'd won his third Oscar for the music score of Camelot just a couple of months earlier. Critics lambasted the film as having little entertainment value or basis in reality for pro- or anti-war viewers. But it was popular, ultimately earning more than 20 million dollars at the box office.

Barry's own plans to become an actor resulted in a low budget 1968 crime film, Dayton's Devils ("A melting pot of losers!"), and a handful of television roles including four episodes of western drama Death Valley Days and a Thanksgiving-themed installment of The High Chaparral. Hollywood stopped calling in early '69, yet he always presented himself as some kind of real-life action hero. With all his royalty money gone, he lived in Tucson for a few years with wife Lavona Sadler and their two children. A move to Nashville offered an opportunity, based not on his intimidating personality but the success of his signature song, to make more records for small labels. The 1975 single "Bless Them All" recycled the patriotic military theme of earlier efforts. "Whiskey," a 1978 novelty set in the Louisiana swamp, is his last known recording.

Later that year, country singer-songwriter Lee Emerson (who'd gotten his start in the mid-'50s on Columbia Records and recorded some duets with Marty Robbins) was shot and killed by Sadler in an argument over a woman they had both been involved with. Sadler pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and served only a few weeks (of a maximum five year sentence) in a Davidson County jail. In 1979 he wrote Casca, the first of a series of war-related novels set in ancient and modern times. He kept the series going for many years by hiring ghost writers to do most of the work; 22 were published under Sadler's name (before being credited to individual authors) and the books gradually built a large fan base, gaining in popularity following his death, which occurred after he'd lived in Guatemala for several years.

In 1988 he was shot in the head in a Guatemala City taxi; there were no witnesses and the incident remains a mystery. In return for a feature story that (among other things) claimed he consorted with Nicaraguan Contra rebels, Soldier of Fortune magazine had him airlifted out of the country and returned to the States, where he was placed in a Nashville-area hospital. He died on November 9, 1989 at age 49, survived by two sons (both became military specialists) and his wife, who never divorced him in spite of his many transgressions. Throughout the years, the Army Special Forces have played his hit recording at many of their events. Patriotic songs, often by country singers, have become a staple of American music; Barry Sadler's mid-'60s phenomenon "The Ballad of the Green Berets" is the most famous of them all.

- Michael Jack Kirby


The Ballad of the Green Berets The 'A' Team