In 1966, the average house cost $14,200 or less than a decent Harley today. The median income was $6900.00, the price of gas was 32 cents a gallon, the Dow Jones Average at years end was 785. Batman, the campy comic book come to life, debuted on Network television as did Star Trek… “Space the final frontier.”
Americans found out what a “Miranda Warning” meant and why it was important. And mass killings weren’t a 2010s only phenomenon. Richard Speck murdered eight nurses in Chicago and Charles Whitman, who perched himself in the bell tower of the University of Texas with a rifle (not an AR-15) shot and killed 14 people and injured 31.
In China, the Cultural Revolution starts and Mao Tse-Tung begins to purge intellectuals. Mini-skirts are in fashion. Ronald Reagan enters politics and becomes the Governor of California, and the Houston Astrodome opens, complete with a 710 diameter of the dome. And there are now 500,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam.
And finally, in January 1966 Barry Sadler, a Green Beret from the 7th SFG appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and sang his “Ballad of the Green Berets” to a national audience. Sadler later appeared on other television shows such as the Jimmy Dean Show and the Hollywood Palace. He and the unit by the same name became household words in the United States. By March 6, his song skyrocketed to #1 on the Billboard Top 100 hits of the USA. It would remain there at #1 for five weeks.
Sadler’s song was co-written by Robin Moore who wrote the book about Special Forces, “The Green Berets” which became a 1968 pro-US involvement in the war film by John Wayne. The song was a tribute to SP5 James Gabriel, a Special Forces soldier who was killed in Vietnam in 1962. The original song had a verse with a reference to Gabriel but it wasn’t included in the recorded version by Sadler.
Sadler was an SF soldier who suffered a severe punji stick wound to his leg, which cut short his tour in Vietnam in 1965 where he was a team medic. During his long rehabilitation from his injuries, Sadler submitted his song to RCA after he and Moore cut the song from a 12-verse long version to a length that was more palatable for pop radio at the time.
Within two weeks after its release by RCA, the song sold a million copies. It would become Billboard’s top song of 1966. In an era of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys et al, it is amazing that Sadler’s anti-war song was the top-selling song of the year. And make no mistake, while it is a VERY pro-Special Forces song, it speaks of the cost of war and how it never seems to end. Something we can all understand quite well 52 years later.
The album which sold two million copies, (the single sold nine million) had a total of 13 tracks on it.
- Ballad of the Green Berets
- I’m a Lucky One
- Letter From Vietnam
- Badge of Courage
- Salute to the Nurses
- I’m Watching the Raindrops Fall
- Garet Trooper
- The Soldier Has Come Home
- The Trooper’s Lament
- The A-Team
Sadler was sent by the Army on a publicity tour during 1966, and it turned him against the military, although he loved being a part of Special Forces. He left the military in 1967 and had a few walk-on roles in television westerns. He then tried Nashville but his career never took off.
Later he was writing a series of pulp fiction books about a Roman soldier, Casca Rufio Longinus, who is assigned to watch Christ die on the crucifix. Bored, he thrust his lance into Jesus’ side to shorten his time. Because of this, Chris sentences Casca to be a soldier who cannot die to wander the earth aimlessly until the Second Coming.
Sadler sadly died at the age of 49. He was shot in the head in a cab in Guatemala and died a year later. The circumstances have always been murky surrounding his shooting and have never fully been explored. His was a tragic life cut far too short.
But for a brief period in 1966, the Ballad of the Green Berets was the top song in the land.