His crew cut stuck out among the long-haired likes of the Beatles and the Stones and so did his song, but Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler had the biggest hit single of 1966 with ”The Ballad of the Green Berets.” ”Silver wings upon their chests,” Sadler bellowed to a martial drumbeat in praise of his fellow members of the elite Army corps. ”These are men, America’s best.”
The nation had not yet wearied of the Vietnam War, but the radio waves were already ruled by antiwar rock music. Sadler’s ode to the Special Forces became an anthem for those whom Nixon later dubbed the Silent Majority. They quick-stepped into record stores, sending ”Ballad” up the charts the week of Feb. 19, 1966. It hit No. 1 in March and stayed there for five weeks, eventually selling 7 million copies.
Sadler reaped $500,000 from his hit, but his success was not easily won — nor lasting. The child of gamblers, he dropped out of school at 15. After a stint in the Air Force and a brief, failed musical career, in 1962 he reenlisted in the Army as a Green Beret and became a medic. Three years later, he was wounded in Vietnam when a punji stick pierced his leg, was awarded the Purple Heart, and was sent home.
While recuperating, he cowrote ”Ballad” with Robin Moore, author of the best-selling 1965 novel The Green Berets, which had pictured Sadler on the cover. (In 1968 it was turned into John Wayne’s critically reviled box office smash The Green Berets, for which the song served as the theme.) The song was intended for military ears only, but RCA released it, and Sadler was soon traveling the country as a musical propaganda poster.
His next two albums, both military-themed, fizzled, but he found his niche writing novels about combat (including the Casca series), which sold more than 2 million copies.
”No one hates war like a soldier,” Sadler said in 1966, yet violence followed him. In 1978 he killed his mistress’ ex-boyfriend but served just 21 days in a Nashville halfway house. A decade later he was reportedly training Nicaraguan contras in Guatemala when he was shot by an unknown assailant. He died of his wounds more than a year later. ”I am not a mercenary,” Sadler claimed in a 1986 interview at his Guatemalan villa. ”I’m just a victim of my own mythology.”
Time Capsule: February 19, 1966
Moviegoers spied the 007 spoof Our Man Flint with James Coburn while Bonanza ruled the TV range. Truman Capote’s chilling In Cold Blood was the No. 1 nonfiction best-seller.