So, there he was, this young Special Forces soldier out of Fort Bragg singing “The Ballad of the Green Berets” on "The Ed Sullivan Show" live on national television.
He was Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, an Army combat medic with the 7th Special Forces Group and a Vietnam veteran who had been wounded in May 1965 when walking into a Viet Cong enemy pungi stick while on patrol with primitive Montagnards southeast of Pleiku in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
But on Jan. 30, 1966, and six months after recovering from the booby trap wound to the left knee, Sadler was debuting what would become the No. 1 Billboard recording for five weeks nationwide and sharing the "Ed Sullivan Show" stage with Dinah Shore, the Four Tops and Jose Feliciano.
“Fighting soldiers from the sky,” the soldier would sing in the haunting ballad with conviction. “Fearless men who jump and die. Men who mean just what they say; the brave men of the Green Beret. Silver wings upon their chest. These are men. America’s best.”
He was handsome, stoic and self-assured singing the ballad.
You could feel his heart in the lyrics.
Sadler’s ballad was a big deal for American soldiers nationwide and those serving in Vietnam, and particularly for those stationed with Sadler’s 7th Special Forces Group on the neighboring military post soon to be known as Fort Liberty. An arrangement of the ballad was part of the 1968 motion picture "The Green Berets" starring John Wayne, David Janssen and Jim Hutton.
A self-taught guitar player as a teenager, Sadler’s ballad first was performed in Vietnam long before the RCA song would gain fame, according to a news release from the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in downtown Fayetteville, where an exhibition about Sadler and the late soldier’s 1949 Gretsch acoustic guitar are on display. Sadler played “The Ballad of the Green Berets” on the guitar during the 1985 Static Line Awards Banquet, according to the release, and the guitar was auctioned off at the end of the banquet.
“All of the Green Berets who were here today were huddled around it,” Renee Lane, the ASOM Foundation executive director, was saying after a Tuesday ceremony honoring Korean War servicemen and servicewomen. “And we have had so many comments on our social media. It’s really informative for a lot of people in this community.”
Carol Ivey and Linda Jones are front-desk volunteers at the museum.
“A lot of older people were in today,” Ivey says.
The exhibition, according to ASOM, will be open through June 6.
Difficult years after military service
Sadler left the Army in 1967, did some television acting and spent much of his time in Nashville, Tennessee, where wrote pulp fiction novels, according to published accounts on the internet. And it was in Nashville that on Dec. 1, 1978, Sadler shot to death a country music songwriter after Lee Emerson Bellamy became jealous and harassed Sadler and a girlfriend for months before the fatal shooting in a Nashville bar parking lot.
Sadler called the shooting self-defense, according to multiple sources on the internet, and later pleaded guilty. On June 1, 1979, he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to four to five years in prison. Appealing the sentence, he ultimately served only 21 days based on time served in a Tennessee workhouse.
Sadler found himself in Guatemala City in the mid-1980s, according to the online sources, and he continued to publish his novels while helping out with vaccinations in surrounding villages. It was there that Sadler met his fate when shot in the head while in a taxi. Some online sources say the shooting was a robbery attempt; others say Sadler was the victim of an assassination for training Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries and arming Contras.
The shooting, according to published accounts, left Sadler a quadriplegic with brain damage. He died of cardiac arrest at age 49 on Nov. 5, 1989, in the Alvin C. York Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Staff Sgt. Barry A. Sadler is buried at Nashville National Cemetery in Madison, Tennessee.
On Jan. 30, 1966, Barry Sadler performed his "Ballad of the Green Berets” on "The Ed Sullivan Show" stage in what would become a patriotic anthem for most every Special Forces soldier, and a ballad often played at their funerals and memorial services.
“Back at home, a young wife waits,” Barry Sadler would write and sing the lyrics with help from Robin Moore. “Her Green Beret has met his fate. He has died for those oppressed, leaving her his last request. Put silver wings on my son’s chest. Make him one of America's best. He'll be a man they'll test one day. Have him win the Green Beret.”
He was a singer and a songwriter.
But Barry Sadler was an American soldier first.
And proud this American soldier was to wear the Green Beret of the 7th Special Forces Group in his military time.
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-624-1961.
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