‘Silver Wings Upon Their Chest . . .’

Fifty years ago this week, the top spot in the Billboard Hot 100 belonged, for the fourth week in a row, to a jingoistic march celebrating some of America’s soldiers. The record? “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by SSgt. Barry Sadler.

Sadler’s record was a phenomenon, one of those records that both reflects and creates a pop cultural moment. At the time, the war in Vietnam was escalating rapidly: In 1964, according to the website American War Library, there had been 23,300 U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam; by 1966, that number had risen to 385,300. (It would peak in 1968 at 536,100.) Here at home, we were told we were fighting the Communists there so we would not have to fight them here. And because the government told us so, we thought we were winning.

And the Green Berets – or U.S. Army Special Forces – were among the heroes of the moment, a status propelled in good part by the book The Green Berets by Robin Moore. The book detailed Moore’s experiences training with the Special Forces and then being deployed with them to Vietnam. Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that “Moore’s account included several controversial facts about Special Forces missions that were classified at the time, prompting Moore to publish his book as ‘fiction’.” (The book spawned an equally jingoistic 1968 movie of the same title starring John Wayne.)

Sadler, who was in fact a staff sergeant in the Special Forces, had written the song while recovering from wounds sustained in Vietnam, and Moore encouraged him to record it. (Sadler’s picture – the same one that was used on the sleeve for the 45 and the LP jacket of his album – was also used on the cover of the paperback edition of Moore’s book.) The single, on RCA Victor, topped both the Hot 100 and the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart for five weeks.

It was, as I said above, one of those records that both created and celebrated a moment, feeding the country’s need for heroes and goodness in a post-Kennedy world. And, I remember, we ate it up. I was in seventh grade, I knew a bit about the war in Vietnam, and I thought the record was neat. How much did I grasp about the war? Well, more than my classmates, certainly, and probably as much as many adults. I was already – as I have noted here many times – a news junkie. I believed what I read in the papers and heard on TV about Vietnam, as did, I think, my parents and all the other adults in my life. It would take a few years before we would realize that our government would lie to us.

I haven’t heard “The Ballad of the Green Berets” in years. It’s on the digital shelves, but I don’t recall it ever popping up during a random shuffle. Nevertheless, as I write about it this morning, I can hear it in my head, and I would guess that I could type in almost all the words without straining. It was everywhere fifty years ago.

As to Sadler, a follow-up single, “The ‘A’ Team,” made it to No. 28 in May 1966. After that, Wikipedia says, he wrote some novels about the military. In 1978, he killed a man in a dispute over a woman and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter; he appealed, arguing self-defense, and his sentence was reduced to twenty-one days. He moved to Guatemala, where in 1988 he was shot in the head during a robbery attempt. Despite treatment in the U.S. – provided by friends from the magazine Soldier of Fortune – Sadler never really recovered, and he died at the age of 49 on November 5, 1989. (All that from Wikipedia.)

Here’s his hit. And yes, I could have written the words from memory before listening to it. (And I noticed at some points the same awkward phrasing and timing that caught my attention, even as I liked the record, fifty years ago.)

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