Like many of us who grew up in 1960’s, this song played a big part in understanding the role of the Army, in general, and the Green Berets, in particular,
during this difficult time. I can remember singing it with my fellow third graders at the Cove Montserrat School in Beverly, MA during the Memorial Day commemoration. I remember finding it very moving.
“The Ballad of the Green Berets” is a patriotic song in the ballad style about the Green Berets, an elite force in the U.S. Army. It is one of the very few songs of the 1960s to cast the military in a positive light and in 1966 it became a major hit, reaching No. 1 for five weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and four weeks on Cashbox. Ultimately, the song was named Billboard’s #1 single for the year 1966. It was also a crossover smash, reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart and No. 2 on Billboard’s Country survey. It has sold over nine million copies on singles and albums.
The song was written by Robin Moore and Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, while the latter was recuperating from a leg wound suffered as a medic in the Vietnam War. Moore also wrote a book, The Green Berets, about the force. The tune itself is borrowed from the traditional American folk song “The Butcher Boy”.
“Back at home a young wife waits
Her Green Beret has met his fate
He has died for those oppressed
Leaving her this 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”
The lyrics were written in honor of Green Beret US Army Specialist 5 James Gabriel, Jr., the first native Hawaiian to die in Vietnam, who was killed by Viet Cong gunfire while on a training mission on April 8, 1962. One verse mentioned Gabriel by name, but it wasn’t included in the recorded version.
Sadler introduced the song on television on January 30, 1966 on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“Green Berets” is currently used as one of the four primary marching tunes of the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band
The song is heard in a choral rendition by Ken Darby in the 1968 John Wayne film, The Green Berets, based on Moore’s book. The score of the movie was never released as an album until Film Score Monthly released it in 2005. A film tie-in featuring artwork from the film and a cover version by Ennio Morricone was released in Europe, though the other tracks on the album were soundtracks from A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.
The song appears in the films More American Graffiti and Canadian Bacon. It can be heard in the gun show scene from the 2002 film Showtime, and in the film Jesus, in a scene that features a hitch-hiking Jack Black.
Though its usage here is not a parody, in an episode of Cheers, Cliff aborts his plans to immigrate to Canada with his love interest when Sam, Woody, and Frasier appeal to his patriotic side by singing this song.
A vinyl copy of “The Ballad of the Green Berets” makes a brief appearance in “The Simpsons” episode “Homer’s Phobia”, from the show’s eighth season. Guest star and filmmaker John Waters is seen, near the five-minute mark, flipping through Homer and Marge’s record collection; Sadler’s hit is amongst them.
In the film Caddyshack, Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray, mumbles the song under his breath while he is connecting the wires to the plunger as he prepares for his final battle with his gopher nemesis.