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War’s Song

By Marc Leepson
5/30/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

How Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” became the No. 1 single of 1966.

A little more than 50 years ago, on May 7, 1967, a 26-year-old Green Beret staff sergeant let his term of enlistment expire and took his honorable discharge at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He had served five years, including a tour of duty during 1964-65 as an A Team medic in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. He left the service, he said, to pursue a career in music and movies.

Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler had a good start on the music part. His song, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” came out of nowhere in January 1966 to become the No. 1 single of the year, selling some 9 million copies. The album sold 2 million. Sadler earned $500,000 in royalties in the first six months after the song hit. In the process Sadler—who dropped out of high school to join the Air Force in 1958, served four years and then joined the Army—went viral decades before anyone knew the word “internet.”

The soft-spoken, handsome, clean-cut Special Forces trooper became a media darling in 1966 and 1967. Newspaper articles proudly pointed out that the polite young sergeant who wrote and sang the country’s No. 1 song was a wounded Vietnam War veteran. He sang “The Ballad” on The Ed Sullivan Show and at scores of other TV, radio and in-person events. Life magazine lauded him in a big photo spread.

How did this unknown, unheralded, untrained musician come up with a song that struck a monumental chord in the national consciousness in 1966?

Sadler, born on Nov. 1, 1940, in Carlsbad, New Mexico, had played the flute, harmonica, drums and guitar as a boy—although he never took a lesson and could not read music. He picked up the guitar again in the Air Force and became part of a short-lived trio after his discharge. Sadler enlisted in the Army in August 1962 and completed jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia, in January 1963. Receiving his jump wings was such a big deal that he “began to think about writing a song involving the airborne,” Sadler wrote in his 1967 autobiography, I’m A Lucky One. “I had no idea what it would be, but I wanted it to include the line ‘silver wings upon their chests.’”

When he took Special Forces medic training at San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston in March 1963, Sadler had a guitar with him and began writing the song. Over the years, he gave several versions of the writing process. Sometimes Sadler said he wrote the song while drinking and carousing in a Mexican brothel just over the border; other times he said it came to him while drinking tequila in a San Antonio bar. “Few people realize,” he told Soldier of Fortune magazine in 1988, “that ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets’ was written in a whorehouse in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, while I was on leave from SF medical training in Fort Sam Houston, Texas.”

He wrote in his autobiography that one night while he was drinking tequila in “a San Antonio night spot,” a fellow trainee asked: “Why don’t you write a song about us?” So Sadler picked up his guitar, according to the autobiography, “and in a quarter of an hour or so came up with the original version of ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets.’ I started the chorus with the line about which I had been thinking, ‘Silver wings upon their chests.’” Then he continued with “These are men, America’s best. One hundred men will test today, but only three win the green beret.’”

Sometimes Sadler said he began working on the song during off hours in the barracks at Fort Sam Houston. “I’d been sitting on the steps of my barracks” in 1963, he told a reporter, “when one of my friends said, ‘Sadler, why don’t you write a song about the Special Forces?’ I felt that it was a good idea and that we needed a song. It was probably about an hour later that I had the rough form of the song done.”

Sadler “wrote songs for friends in the barracks—just for fun,” he told another reporter around that same time. “The guys would throw bottles at me, and that’s fun.”

The true version

Which version is true? It helps to keep in mind that Sadler “liked to put people on,” journalist and author Robert M. Powers, who wrote three magazine articles about Sadler in the early 1970s, said in an interview. “He’d tell them what he thought they wanted to hear. He had a habit of stretching the truth. He told a good story.”

In the Life magazine interview, Sadler told Powers he did just that. “I said I composed the ‘Ballad’ outside a Nuevo Laredo whorehouse,” he told his friend. “But that’s not exactly the truth. Hell, I didn’t want to come off as some Boy Scout who accidentally wrote a song. I was a veteran airborne medic and I wanted people to know it. Actually, I revised the song in several places, including Vietnam.”

At Green Berets HQ After landing in Vietnam on Dec. 29, 1964, Sadler, third from the right in the second row, served with a headquarters unit on South Vietnam’s coast and was then sent to the Central Highlands. (University of Texas at El Paso Library, Special Collections Department)

In interviews with five former Green Beret medics Sadler trained with, all agreed that he did, in fact, revise the song many times. They say Sadler spent hours and hours working on the song inside the barracks at Fort Sam Houston and later at Fort Bragg, on the barracks’ front steps and even in the latrine. As Sadler refined the words, he constantly asked the other trainees for suggestions.

“He’d sit in the barracks and play his guitar,” fellow trainee Larry Emons said. “I always kid people, saying I helped write that song, because he’d do verses and ask us what we thought. We’d say, ‘That sounds good,’ or ‘no, the other one was better.’ He worked on it quite a while.”

Sadler went through the song “many times trying to get the words together,” another training buddy said. “He’d grab his guitar and he’d sit out on the back steps, or even the front steps. I remember him even discussing ‘back at home a young wife waits.’ Once in a while he would say, ‘What do you think, guys?’”

Sadler wrote the “The Ballad,” medic school friend Steve Bruno said, “in bits and pieces. It was a collaboration. It wasn’t him alone. I don’t want to take anything away from the man, but we were all putting words in. Everybody added their two cents. But he did the actual putting it together and singing it.”

Getting it published

“With no previous experience in the music business, I recognized the financial potential and public relations value of a ballad by an unknown soldier. I coordinated, through military chain of command, Army acceptance of the ballad. [I] researched public reaction to the ballad, polished the initial product and marketed the song and the writer, Sadler, to a contract with a music publisher and R.C.A. Victor. This eventually proved to be a several million-dollar business venture.”

That’s how Gerald Gitell, a 23-year-old second lieutenant who headed the 3rd Special Forces Group’s Public Information Office at Fort Bragg, explained in his post-military resume the unlikely story of how he came to help Sadler sign a songwriter’s contract in the summer of 1964. And how he would come to share in the seven-figure royalties from sales of “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”

Gitell had a willing accomplice in his PR-savvy commanding officer, Gen. William P. Yarborough, commander of the Special Warfare Center. Yarborough had recently picked a song called “The Green Beret March” as the official Special Forces march. Gitell walked into the general’s office one day and made a case that Sadler’s “Ballad” should be the official Special Forces song. Yarborough immediately agreed. The young lieutenant scrounged up recording equipment on the base, found a room at the Special Warfare Center suitable for recording and had Sadler make a rough demo, titled “The Ballad of the Green Beret.”

Gitell then wrote letters to record companies and music publishers pitching the song. And he talked the Special Forces brass into approving a road trip so he and Sadler could go to New York and Boston to promote it. Nothing came of that excursion, but Gitell had better luck after he mailed copies of two demo tapes to Chester Gierlach, a longtime songwriter and record producer in New York, on June 17, 1964. One tape had Sadler singing “The Ballad;” the other contained his song, “Trooper’s Fall,” about an airborne ranger whose parachute fails to open.

Gierlach was intrigued. “I wasn’t impressed with the quality of his voice on the demonstration tape, but I wanted to hear more songs,” he told a reporter after “The Ballad” became a big hit. On July 15, 1964, Sadler and Gitell signed a Uniform Popular Songwriters Contract with Gierlach’s company, Music Music Music.

“I was greatly encouraged,” Sadler wrote. He also was so grateful to Gitell for his help that Sadler gave him 25 percent of the royalties of “The Ballad.”

Robin Moore’s contribution

There wasn’t exactly a big demand for “The Ballad” in the summer of 1964. There would be no recording contract until December 1965 after Sadler had served a five-month tour of duty in the Vietnam War. It was cut short after a punji stick wound in his knee became infected and he was medevaced to the Philippines and then home.

Gierlach happened to be a friend of Robin Moore, author of the best-selling novel, The Green Berets, published in May 1965, around the time Sadler was wounded. According to Sadler, in the fall of 1965 Moore suggested to Gierlach that he change the title of the song to “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (making the last word plural) to tie the song to Moore’s book in the public’s mind. Gierlach did so.

Not long afterward, Gierlach had a little-known North Carolina singing group, The Hunters, cut a demo, which he sold at cost to Moore’s paperback publisher, Avon Books. Avon sent the demo to booksellers as part of its promotion for the paperback edition. That’s how Sadler’s picture made its way onto the cover of the soon-to-be-huge-selling paperback, published in November 1965 while the hardcover book was still on the best-seller list.

Moore also had a hand in writing the song. “I was asked to help Barry with the lyrics,” he said in March of 1966 when “The Ballad” was the best-selling song in the country, “and I was glad to do it. He’s a fine boy. You know, when he returned to the states, he didn’t have his guitar with him. It was wounded in Vietnam. So, I loaned him $140 for a new one.”

Getting that pawnshop guitar in Sadler’s hands was not all that Moore did. In return for half an interest in the song, Moore “wrote a new third verse, added his name, and agreed to do all he could to sell it,” Sadler said.

Gierlach saw a big marketing opportunity with Moore’s contribution. “We put the author of the book, Robin Moore, on the ballad,” Gierlach said. “He did, in fact, contribute a couple of verses. Our feeling was that with this kind of limelight coming up, the publicity involved would benefit everyone.”

Gierlach also helped Sadler get an appearance on The Barry Gray Show, a late-night New York City radio talk show, in late July 1965. Then in early August came a two-hour sit-down with another of Gierlach’s friends, the popular syndicated columnist Bob Considine, also a pal of Moore’s. Considine’s “On the Line” commentary appeared in newspapers across the country. He wrote two columns on Sadler, ending one with a big plug for the song. The “sergeant,” he wrote, “has put his convalescent time to good use. ‘They say Vietnam’s a war without a song,’ he said with a grin that wiped years off his seamed face. ‘Now it’s got one: ‘The Ballad of the Green Beret.’ I wrote it for the git-tar.”

Sadler signed a contract with the William Morris Agency, the top entertainment talent agency in the nation, with help from Moore who put in a good word for him. But William Morris never got Sadler a recording contract. Moore’s own entertainment connections, however, paid off in November 1965 after he told his friend Clancy Isaac, a colorful, savvy marketing man (and World War II veteran), about Sadler’s song. Isaac put in a call to RCA Victor Records, setting up a meeting with the company’s license manager who agreed to listen to the demos. After Isaac heard them, he told the RCA higher-ups “that this was the right tune, right place, and right man with the right song,” as Sadler put it in his book.

“I took it to RCA Victor, and everyone flipped over his voice,” Gierlach said. “It was the fastest signing of talent you ever saw.”

The following day, Nov. 24, 1965, Gierlach called Sadler at Fort Bragg, telling him the good news: RCA wanted to sign him to a recording contract and cut an album as soon as possible.

Sadler got a short leave, flew to New York and signed with RCA on Dec. 2. The 25-year-old staff sergeant who could not read a note of music received a decent $500 advance. He went right to work with Andy Wiswell, a Grammy-winning music producer who had worked with Judy Garland, Perry Como and Harry Belafonte, among others. Sadler also signed a management contract that day with Victor Catala, a friend of Wiswell’s. He then flew back to North Carolina, where he wrote five more songs.

A dozen songs in one day

Sadler returned to New York early on Saturday morning, Dec. 18, ready to record 16 songs. RCA only wanted a dozen for the album. Around 8 a.m., he walked into Studio A at the RCA Building on East 24th Street, wearing his uniform. Veteran songwriter arranger and conductor Sid Bass—who had worked with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Paul Anka and Connie Francis, among many others—had a 15-piece orchestra and a male chorus ready to go. Sadler doffed his jacket, loosened his tie and in the next 2½ hours recorded four songs—“Lullaby,” “Letter from Vietnam,” “I’m Watching the Raindrops Fall” and “Badge of Courage.” Then everyone broke for lunch.

After lunch, he recorded “The Ballad.” There “was a stir among the musicians and also among the RCA executives outside the glass” as he launched into it, Sadler said in his book.

Then came “Bamiba,” “Saigon” and “Salute to the Nurses” before everyone knocked off for dinner at 6 p.m. After eating at a nearby Italian restaurant, the group reconvened in the studio and recorded the other songs that would go on the album: “I’m a Lucky One,” “The Soldier Has Come Home,” “Trooper’s Lament” and “Garet Trooper.”

The long day ended at 11 that night.

“During that nine-hour recording session,” a friend of Gierlach wrote, “Gierlach himself lost five pounds. He estimates Sadler did about that.”

Fleeting fame

RCA released the single on Jan. 11, 1966. The album, titled Ballads of the Green Berets, hit record stores on Jan. 20. Sadler’s song caused a national sensation within weeks. But the fame was fleeting. The Army took its hot commodity off regular duties and sent him around the country making countless public appearances as a human recruiting poster. Sadler hated it. He got out of the Army as soon he could and moved to Tucson, Arizona, with his wife and two young sons. But Sadler never had anything even approaching another hit. His attempt at an acting career went nowhere. What’s more, within six years he had blown all of his share of the song’s royalty money.

In 1973, the family moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where Sadler tried to jump-start his musical career. He couldn’t. Sadler’s second act, as the author of a slew of pulp fiction novels, began in 1979. The books sold well, but heavy drinking led to severe marital troubles—not to mention being arrested for murder after he shot and killed Lee Bellamy, a country music singer and songwriter, in a confrontation connected to Sadler’s relationship with Bellamy’s former girlfriend. Sadler hired the top criminal defense lawyer in Nashville, Joe Binkley Jr., who arranged a plea bargain. Sadler pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and initially received a four- to five-year sentence, which the judge reduced to 30 days in a minimum-security workhouse. 

In January 1984, Sadler went into a kind of exile, moving to a small ranch outside Guatemala City. Rumors flew that he was running a mercenary operation, training anti-communist Nicaraguan guerrilla fighters (the Contras) and conducting international arms deals. But he was mainly churning out potboilers, quickly spending the advances, drinking and carousing.

On Sept. 7, 1988, Sadler took a bullet to the head in a taxi cab in Guatemala City after a day and night of drinking. Details of the shooting are murky. The authorities said he shot himself in a drunken accident. Others claimed it was a robbery or an attempted assassination by communist guerrillas or personal enemies. 

Friends flew him to the United States on a rented Lear jet. He survived a seven-hour brain operation at the Nashville Veterans Administration hospital and spent the next 16 months as a brain-damaged paraplegic in three VA hospitals. Barry Sadler died at the Alvin York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on Nov. 5, 1989, four days after his 49th birthday.

Alive today

“The Ballad of the Green Berets” is very much alive today, more than 50 years after its sensational birth. It’s the theme song for the U.S. Army Special Forces, is played for Special Forces trainees at Fort Bragg and is heard at every Special Forces reunion and at more than one Green Beret’s funeral. “The Ballad” also was the only notable and popular pro-military song to come out of the entire Vietnam War. It made Sadler one of the most famous Americans who served in that controversial war. And yet “The Ballad of the Green Berets” all but destroyed the man who created it.

“In many ways the success of that song was the worst thing that ever happened to him,” said Jim Morris, a writer and a former Green Beret who edited Sadler’s last two books.

“I wish,” Sadler told Powers, his journalist friend, in 1971, “that I’d never, ever written that stupid song.” 

Marc Leepson, who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army in 1967-68, is a journalist and historian. This article is adapted from his new book, Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. His website is www.marcleepson.com.

First published in Vietnam Magazine’s August 2017 issue.

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