Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler had been wounded in Vietnam while serving with the Green Berets, an elite special-forces unit. While recovering, he was filmed by a TV crew singing a song he had written to entertain his fellow soldiers in the hospital. “The Ballad of the Green Berets” was picked up by a record label and became a radio hit. The song and the album rushed out along with it were both #1 during the same five-week stretch in the spring of 1966. Ballads of the Green Berets featured Vietnam- and military-themed songs (“Badge of Courage,” “Saigon,” “Salute to the Nurses”) along with Sadler’s big single.
How did this happen, exactly? In 1966, the Vietnam War was not as unpopular as it would become. It was what Americans did, after all, or so we liked to think—fight to liberate the oppressed. We’d fought in Korea to roll back Communism; we’d fought World War II to take Europe and Asia back from the Axis. A relatively small antiwar movement bloomed with the American escalation in 1965 and some high-profile rallies were held, but general support for the war measured by opinion polling remained high, even among young people, through most of 1966. It would be 1967 before the war reached a critical mass of unpopularity.
“Ballad of the Green Berets” is not a pro-Vietnam song; it celebrates personal bravery, physical courage, and patriotic service. The list of songs that accompanied it in the top 10 during the spring of 1966 is impressive. It includes “Nowhere Man,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Homeward Bound,” “California Dreamin’,” and “Soul and Inspiration.” Hard to imagine the same kid buying all six of them, although some certainly did.[youtube id=”34CXcgJURbg” width=”600″ height=”350″]
After his big hit, Sadler toured with the USO for a while, and he later pursued a career as a country singer in Nashville. Beginning in the late 70s, he wrote a series of military adventure novels. According to his biography at Allmusic.com, he helped train the Nicaraguan contras in Central America during the 80s. A mysterious shooting incident in 1988 left him bedridden for the rest of his life, and he died in 1989 at age 49.