Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler was a decorated Vietnam war hero and recording artist who co-penned a song called “The Ballad of the Green Berets” with Robin Moore at what one could argue was the height of anti-war sentiment.
He first performed it in Vietnam where he would often entertain his fellow soldiers by singing and playing the guitar. One day, a TV news crew showed up, and the entire nation got to hear and see the song being performed. Record execs soon were on the phone courting Sadler. In 1966, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” was released by RCA records. It became an instant sensation, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks and eventually selling over nine million copies. It ended the year as the #1 single of 1966, and ended the decade as the #21 record of the 1960s. It even went #28 in the U.K. Not bad for a patriotic song that was a throwback to the gung-ho songs of World War II. Its popularity unearthed the fact that there was a counter-counterculture out there that wasn’t entirely anti-war.
Perhaps its massive success drew upon the American desire to want to believe in an optimistic outcome in Vietnam. In any case, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” was in sharp contrast with the protest songs of the period. Sadler wrote it at the behest of Robin Moore, who had written a book called The Green Berets. Moore also contributed a fraction of the lyrics. Two years later, a film of the same name would be released featuring no one less than John Wayne himself, putting an even more optimistic spin on an unpopular war, and using Sadler’s composition as its main theme.
He went on to record an entire album of Vietnam-inspired songs, reputedly on one hour of sleep, wrapping up the session at around eleven oclock. Of these, only “The A-Team” managed to chart, climbing as high as #28.
After a brief and uneventful foray into a country-music recording career, the restless Sadler pursued another one of his interests, writing books. The main character, Casca, was based on the rapscallion who stabbed Christ while He was on the cross, and is therefore doomed to wander eternity as a soldier. Although the series enjoyed a twenty-five volume run, Sadler actually only wrote the first few, and the rest were assigned to ghost writers and still attributed to him. He was still publishing the Casca books after having emigrated to Guatemala City in the mid-’80s.
The reason for his relocation is unknown, but it followed a tragic incident in which he shot a man to death, allegedly a stalker who was brandishing what looked to maybe be a gun, but turned out to be a set of car keys. Sadler pled guilty to the charge of second degree manslaughter, serving a month in a halfway house. Unfortunately, it would not be the last time he would be involved with deadly gunplay. This time, he would be on the wrong end of the gun. Although the details are hazy, the consensus seems to be that Barry Sadler was shot in a taxi cab in Guatemala City. The reasons for the shooting, and the identity of the shooter, are still unknown. Theories abound, of course. One even puts the gun in his own hand. Guatemalan laws were so tough that the cabbie had to serve a year in prison just for being there. Sadler was air-lifted out of Guatemala by his friend Bobby Brown, the editor of Soldier of Fortune magazine, and taken to a VA hospital. The wounds to his head had rendered him nearly unrecognizable. The prognosis was not good, either. He was basically kept alive for a little over a year and spent much of that time in a coma. In a bizarre twist, at one time his comatose body was stolen. Although it is unclear exactly where he died, reports vary from the VA hospital to a Guatemalan Hospital (unlikely, as he had been transported to the States) to his mother’s house, but there is little doubt that Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler passed away on 8th September 1989.
Barry Sadler recordings
The Ballad of the Green Berets (Robin Moore/Barry Sadler)
Letter from Vietnam (Barry Sadler)
- British and American Hit Singles 1946-1997 by Chris Davies (Batsford)