ssgt barry sadler and the ballad of the green berets (plus a few dominoes)

Es­ti­mated reading time is 11 minutes.

ON JAN­UARY 29, 1966, one of the strangest hit records in pop­ular music made its debut on the Cash Box Top 100 chart. It was a simple, folk-like song that sounded like it should have been played over the closing credits of a movie, not played round-the-clock on Top 40 radio sta­tions across the country.

It wasn’t the strongest day for new sin­gles de­buting on that survey: the week’s highest-charting new entry was the Dave Clark 5’s At The Scene (#58). It was a solid, if un­ex­cep­tional, side by the group that had been the Bea­tles’ strongest com­pe­ti­tion on the Amer­ican charts during the British In­va­sion of 1964-1965. 1

The most re­mark­able new record on the chart was The Ballad Of The Green Berets and it praised the mem­bers of the US Army’s élite Spe­cial Forces.

The standout en­tries that week were the Four Sea­sons’ Working My Way Back To You (#64), Nancy Sina­tra’s These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (#74), and the Bobby Fuller Four’s I Fought The Law (#84). And each of these three sin­gles would go on the make the Top 10, some­thing the Dave Clark 5’s record would not do.

But the most re­mark­able new record on the chart was The Ballad Of The Green Berets was cred­ited to SSgt Barry Sadler, and it praised the mem­bers of the US Army’s élite Spe­cial Forces. This group of highly-trained men had been get­ting media at­ten­tion for their role in the ten-year-old-yet-still-undeclared war being waged in the jun­gles of Vietnam. 2

But it was: five weeks after en­tering at #99, The Ballad Of The Green Berets (backed with Letter From Vietnam and is­sued as RCA Victor 47-8739) was the #1 record on the na­tional pop charts! It quickly re­ceived an RIAA Gold Record Award for do­mestic sales of 1,000,000 copies. 3


BarrySadler TheBalladOfTheGreenBerets PS 1 600

BarrySadler TheBalladOfTheGreenBerets PS 2 600

The two im­ages above are the front and back covers of the pic­ture sleeve for the US single of The Ballad Of The Green Berets. The back cover makes it ob­vious that RCA Victor knew they were going to have a hit with this record as they al­ready had an LP recorded and ready for re­lease! Like the single, the album would top the best-sellers chart and sell mil­lions of copies.

One of these days

Nor­mally, the edgy Working My Way Back To You and the pulsing I Fought The Law sounded like they should be played over and over again. They were easily the best of the batch of the week’s en­tries, but nei­ther of them made it to the top.

But it was These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ that re­ceived the most at­ten­tion: it was an al­most ir­re­sistible blend of kink and camp. With Nan­cy’s mini-skirted, go-go-booted ap­pear­ance on tele­vi­sion and in mag­a­zines, it found its way to #1 on Feb­ruary 26.

But then Sgt. Sadler’s record took over the top spot and the re­frain “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you” was re­placed with “One hun­dred men will test today, but only three win the Green Beret.”

That The Ballad Of The Green Berets such a big hit is hard to ex­plain: there was no real his­tory of songs about the mil­i­tary making big splashes on the pop charts. There were hit records about the past, such as Johnny Hor­ton’s mas­sive hit The Battle Of New Or­leans which cel­e­brated a battle that had hap­pened al­most 150 years be­fore. 4

But a han­kering for songs about the his­tor­ical bat­tles was not what made The Ballad Of The Green Berets such a big hit.

An­other way of looking at Sadler’s hit is as a nov­elty record: while not a joke of any sort, it may have at­tracted so much at­ten­tion for its unique­ness. Amer­i­cans loved a good nov­elty record and had a his­tory of taking them to the top of the charts, from Gene Autry’s Rudolph The Red-Nosed Rein­deer (1949) to Bill Hayes’ The Ballad Of Davy Crockett (1955) to Bobby Pick­ett’s Mon­ster Mash (1962). 5

But a soft spot for nov­elty songs was not what made The Ballad Of The Green Berets such a big hit.


NancySinatra whiteBoots 1966 500

Had Barry Sadler’s record not made such a splash, we would have been forced to deal with Nancy Sinatra and These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ as the #1 record on the Cash Box Top 100 for four con­sec­u­tive weeks, in­stead of the sole week it had be­fore Sadler took over the top spot.

Lightning strikes

To il­lus­trate how out of place Sadler’s record was at the time, here is the Top 10 on Cash Box the week of March 5, 1966. This was the first of four weeks for The Ballad Of The Green Berets stay at the top:

1. Barry Sadler               The Ballad Of The Green Berets
2. Nancy Sinatra           These Boots Are Made For Walkin’
3. Lou Christie              Lightnin’ Strikes
4. Her­man’s Her­mits  Listen People
5. Mamas & Papas       Cal­i­fornia Dreamin’
6. Stevie Wonder         Up­tight (Every­thing’s Alright)
7. Rolling Stones          19th Ner­vous Breakdown
8. Bob Lind                   Elu­sive Butterfly
9. Bobby Fuller Four  I Fought The Law
10. Supremes               My World Is Empty Without You

Among the other records, The Ballad Of The Green Berets sticks out like the prover­bial sore thumb! Eight of the other records are con­sid­ered rock or soul clas­sics by most fans and his­to­rians. Four of the artists are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the four records by the non-Hall in­ductees should be in the Hall as classic hits. 6

And then there’s the Green Berets record.

One of the hall­marks of most novelty-type records is a lim­ited shelf-life: after they have had their fif­teen min­utes of fame, they are for­gotten. While Sadler’s record would be quickly forgotten—I don’t re­call ever hearing it played on any oldies sta­tion over the next few decades.


RollingStones FranklinCanyonCA 1966 600

This is one of sev­eral beau­tiful photos taken by Guy Web­ster at Franklin Canyon in Cal­i­fornia in 1965. Had Barry Sadler’s record not made such a splash, the Rolling Stones’ 19th Ner­vous Break­down would have made it to the top po­si­tion one week ear­lier than it did. It would have been #1 for two weeks, in­stead of the sole week it had after Sadler left the top spot. 

Dominoes falling one by one

A third way to look at this record’s suc­cess was to see it as a kind of sup­port by the white middle class for our mil­i­tary’s ef­forts to stop the fall of domi­noes in South­east Asia. A be­lief in the so-called “domino ef­fect” or “domino theory” led mil­lions of Amer­i­cans to fear an in­va­sion by a horde of sallow-skinned, commie-infected in­vaders taking over the San Fran­cisco Bay Area and the sweeping east in a re­verse Man­i­fest Des­tiny. 7

That this was an im­pos­sible sce­nario didn’t enter into many con­ver­sa­tions among be­lievers. But it prob­ably en­tered many minds sub­con­sciously, placing America in a state of cul­tural de­nial. As a way of dealing with the guilt so often a part of the de­nial process, we bought The Ballad Of The Green Berets.

It’s this per­spec­tive that is in­ter­esting to con­sider when looking at how and why this strange record topped the charts in early 1966: while a record ex­tolling the skills of sol­diers was al­ways pos­sible up to this point, that pos­si­bility be­came more and more im­prob­able as LBJ’s Vietnam War dragged on to be­come Nixon’s South­east Asian War.


RobinMoore GreenBerets pb2 600

Barry Sadler had as­sis­tance with the lyrics to The Ballad Of The Green Berets from Robin Moore, whose novel The Green Berets had been pub­lished in 1965. The orig­inal edi­tion from Crown Pub­lishers in­cluded a dust jacket whose art­work fea­tured a pair of green berets. With the suc­cess of Sadler’s record, the first pa­per­back edi­tion (Avon, 1966) fea­tured the same photo and de­sign as the pic­ture sleeve to Sadler’s record. The record helped sell the book, while the book helped sell the record!

Letter from Vietnam

Barry Sadler en­listed in 1958 and in 1965 he was stuck by a punji stick cov­ered in fecal matter. Sadler dressed his own wound and com­pleted the pa­trol, but de­vel­oped a se­rious in­fec­tion in his leg and was evac­u­ated. In 1967, he was hon­or­ably dis­charged. But be­fore that dis­charge, he be­came a pop star.

RCA Victor fol­lowed his hit single with an album with the same title: THE BALLAD OF THE GREEN BERETS (RCA Victor LPM/LSP-3547) re­ceived an RIAA Gold Record Award for sales of a mil­lion dol­lars at the whole­sale level on the same day that the single re­ceived a Gold Record for sales of a mil­lion copies. The album is re­puted to have sold more than 2,000,000 copies in the US.

Sadler’s follow-up single also ad­dressed Green Berets in Vietnam: The ‘A’ Team/ An Empty Glass (RCA Victor 47-8804) was also a hit later in the year, reaching the Top 20 on Cash Box.

It was Sadler’s last hit.

In his two-year ca­reer as a pop star, he re­leased a handful of sin­gles and three al­bums. He al­most cer­tainly sold more than 10,000,000 records in that time, al­most all of those sales from the first single and the first album. His recording ca­reer was short, suc­cessful, prof­itable, and dig­ni­fied. 8

So he moved on.


BarrySadler ImALuckyOne book 600

In 1967, Sadler and co-author Tom Ma­honey wrote and pub­lished his au­to­bi­og­raphy, I’m A Lucky One, ti­tled after a song on his first album: “I’m going home, my tour is done. I’m going home, I’m a lucky one. But I left friends be­hind me who won’t come home no more. Many friends re­main for­ever on that bloody shore.”

The eternal mercenary

During 1967-1968, Barry tried acting and found parts in a few tele­vi­sion west­erns (Death Valley Days and The High Chap­paral) and one low-budget movie, Day­ton’s Devils (1968). During the ’70s, he owned a bar, wrote some country songs, tried pro­ducing a movie, and in­vested a for­tune in au­thentic German Army WWII artifacts. 

In 1978, Barry was back in the news, this time shooting and killing an­other man. Lee Emerson Bel­lamy had been a country singer in the ’50s and then moved on to manage such promi­nent stars as Marty Rob­bins, Bobby Helms, Jimmy C. Newman, and George Jones. Bel­lamy had been ha­rassing his old girl­friend, who was cur­rently Sadler’s girlfriend.

It was ruled self-defense.

In 1979, he pub­lished his first novel, The Eternal Mer­ce­nary. It told the tale of Casca, re­put­edly the Roman sol­dier who stabbed the cru­ci­fied Jesus and was doomed by God to walk the Earth until the Second Coming of Jesus. The se­ries was pop­ular and Sadler wrote twenty more Casca novels!

In 1988, in a rather bizarre case in Guatemala City, Sadler was shot in the head. While wit­nesses say he shot him­self ac­ci­den­tally, friends and family in­sist it was done by rob­bers. He never fully re­cov­ered from his in­juries and died in No­vember 1989.

Former Staff Sergeant US Army Barry Sadler is a fas­ci­nating person. How Hol­ly­wood has missed making a movie about this man is puz­zling. 9


GreenBerets movie poster France 500 1

This is the French poster for the 1968 movie The Green Berets.

The Lord of the Beret trilogy

This is the second of three ar­ti­cles pur­port­edly re­lating to Barry Sadler and his 1966 hit single The Ballad Of The Green Berets. The three make the most sense if read in this order:

1.  SSgt Barry Sadler And The Ballad Of The Green Berets
2.  John Wayne And The Green Berets
3.  The Sen­sa­tional Movie Poster Art Of Frank McCarthy

For one year, Barry Sadler may have out­sold the Bea­tles, the Mon­kees, Herb Alpert, and The Mamas & The Papas! Share on X

GreenBerets BarrySadler 1971 1200

FEA­TURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is ti­tled “Close Up Of Barry Sadler Holding A Ma­chine Gun Tucson Ari­zona 1971” and was taken by David Lee Guss. When I first saw this, I as­sumed that Barry was in uni­form and toting an au­to­matic weapon for a role he was doing for a film I couldn’t find. Nope, ap­par­ently, he just liked going out into the desert in his German Army VW Am­phibian 4-wheeler with a machine-gun and play army.





1   Being a teenager during the British In­va­sion, the Dave Clark 5 and the Kinks were my fav­erave groups. At The Scene would also be their last big hit on this side of the At­lantic. Co­in­ci­den­tally, the Kinks would also have their last major hit of the decade in 1966 when Sunny Af­ter­noon reached #11 in Oc­tober and ap­pear to be washed up by ’67.

2   Like British Com­mandos during the Second World War, these sol­diers sported sporty green berets. Oddly, the beret is nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with two groups: the French, whom both Brits and con­ser­v­a­tive Amer­i­cans tend to look down upon be­cause they were un­able to halt Hitler’s Blitzkrieg without as­sis­tance during WWII, and jazz-loving, pot-smoking, coffee-drinking beat­niks. Somehow this es­caped the at­ten­tion of the Spe­cial Forces mem­bers and people in the main­stream media.

3   Sup­pos­edly, The Ballad Of The Green Berets sold 5,000,000 by year’s end, making it the biggest selling single of 1966. But as the highest award then avail­able was a Gold Record, those sales were never of­fi­cially au­dited and certified.

4   The Battle Of New Or­leans stayed at #1 on the Cash Box survey for nine con­sec­u­tive weeks, making it one of the biggest hits of the rock & rolling ’50s. Horton fol­lowed it with Sink the Bis­mark, about the 1941 sinking of Hitler’s biggest bat­tle­ship, which was a Top 10 hit in 1960.

5   I am using the word nov­elty here to mean “the quality or state of being new, dif­ferent, and in­ter­esting.” (Merriam-Webster)

6   Only the peren­ni­ally over­looked Her­man’s Her­mits and the lovely Listen People are not get­ting its just do as a fine beat ballad.

7   “The domino theory was a Cold War policy that sug­gested a com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment in one na­tion would quickly lead to com­mu­nist takeovers in neigh­boring states, each falling like a per­fectly aligned row of dominos. In South­east Asia, the U.S. gov­ern­ment used the now-discredited domino theory to jus­tify its in­volve­ment in the Vietnam War and its sup­port for a non-communist dic­tator in South Vietnam. In fact, the Amer­ican failure to pre­vent a com­mu­nist vic­tory in Vietnam had much less of an im­pact than had been as­sumed by pro­po­nents of the domino theory. With the ex­cep­tion of Laos and Cam­bodia, com­mu­nism failed to spread throughout South­east Asia.” (The His­tory website)

8   For one year, Barry Sadler out­sold every artist in the world ex­cept per­haps for the Bea­tles, the Mon­kees, Herb Alpert, and The Mamas & The Papas.

9   The in­for­ma­tion on Sadler on the In­ternet is very incomplete.



4 thoughts on “ssgt barry sadler and the ballad of the green berets (plus a few dominoes)”

    • G

      Thanks, Gary! I had for­gotten about that song. I added it to the footnote.

      I saw the movie back then (a Sat­urday mat­inée at a local the­ater or on television—my fa­ther never missed any­thing about WWII on TV) and I think I eyed the plastic model kit by Revell but don’t think I ever bought one and built it.



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