It is September 8, 1989, and Barry Allen Sadler, singer, songwriter, author and former Green Beret lies close to death in a Guatemala City hospital. On his way home in a cab from a day of drinking and carousing he was shot. A victim of robbery, assassination, or general bad luck is uncertain. What is certain, somewhere along the Antigua Highway a jacketed round entered his skull just above his ear and plowed through his brain destroying one third of it. The cabby says Sadler’s .380 Pietro Berretta pistol was out and went off. So does the young senorita riding with Barry who vamoosed shortly after the incident. She was lucky because the cabby spent a year in jail for just being there. This is the beginning of the end of Barry Sadler’s tumultuous life.
A woman, a gun and a far off exotic locale reads like dime store, pulp fiction, but it was Barry Sadler’s life. Catapulted to insta-stardom in 1966 with his rendering of The Ballad of the Green Berets, Barry became the poster child for the Vietnam conflict, America’s longest and most socially disastrous war. A decorated combat veteran, he penned this song and others about the Special Forces that went on to sell over 11 million records with The Ballad remaining at # 1 for five straight weeks in 1966. It still ranks #21 for that 1960-1969 rock era and was the #1 single for ‘66, eclipsing Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots are Made for Walking. In the late Seventies and throughout the Eighties he sold over two million books led by the Casca the Eternal Mercenary series, the tale of the Roman legionnaire who speared Christ on the cross and then was damned to live until judgment day as a soldier. This is played out in twenty-two volumes spanning through history. This rare double is the envy of anyone who has ever dared to make a living picking up a guitar or a pen.
Since 1966 twenty-two years scream by, Barry Sadler lies in Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City unrecognizable from the swelling wound that has caved in his head. Dramatically, less than seventy-two hours after the shooting, Barry is whisked away via air ambulance chartered by Soldier of Fortune Editor Bobby Brown. He is transported to a Veterans Administration hospital in Nashville where he is expected to die. Fourteen months later he does just that, but not before a custody battle and a kidnapping of his comatose body occur, a bizarre end for a man graced with many talents, but never the master of any. Like his mythical character Casca, Barry was consumed by demons he was constantly trying to exorcise.
Barry was born in Carlsbad, New Mexico on November 1, 1940, the second son to John Sadler and Bebe Littlefield both originally from Phoenix, Arizona. His parents divorced shortly thereafter. His father remarried soon but died from a rare form of cancer involving his nervous system. He was thirty-six years old. Bebe then took Robert, Barry’s older brother, age twelve and Barry, age seven on an odyssey throughout the Southwest where she managed restaurants, bars and gambling casinos. They lived in Ruidoso, Hobbs, Santa Fe and Las Vegas, New Mexico; in El Paso, Midland and Lubbock,Texas; in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona; in Los Angeles and San Francisco and finally in Denver and Leadville, Colorado.
Barry credits a summer spent at age twelve in a logging camp in Mora, New Mexico for his introduction to music, mostly Western and Mexican songs, sung by the loggers and heard on the radio. He had no formal training but learned to make noise on a flute, harmonica, and the drums before settling on the guitar as his instrument of choice. He learned to shoot and camp in the outdoors. Barry claims to have shot grouse on the wing with a .22 caliber pistol and said he was a better shot with a pistol at fifty yards than most men with a rifle. Barry was unaware how impactful these skills would be on his life. Barry quit high school in Leadville, CO after the tenth grade and went hitchhiking across the country. He returned and joined the Air Force on June 2, 1958. He was seventeen and needed his mother’s authorization to enlist. Trained as a radar specialist, he shipped out to Japan before his eighteenth birthday. After a year in Japan Barry returned to the U.S.
Unable to find work, Barry hit the road with a friend named Walter Lane. Together in a ‘53 Chevy with his drums and Barry’s guitar, they tried to make a living playing in bars, honky-tonks and shopping centers. They met a black piano player named Elmo who gave Barry his first music lesson, teaching him three chords, A, E and B-7 with the instruction, "Everytime I nod my head, you change chords and play as fast as you can." They traveled through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon finally landing in California where they loaded fruit into boxcars for $1.10 an hour and played music at night. Barry said, "I was getting nowhere."
Barry went back to the only success he’d ever experienced and fatefully enlisted into the Army, volunteering for the airborne paratrooper service. He shunned the Air Force knowing he would have to go back to radar. Barry thrived in the military environs, reveling in the mental and physical competition. He earned his silver wings from jump school at Fort Benning, GA and said, " I began to think about writing a song involving the airborne. I had no idea what it would be, but I wanted it to include the line, silver wings upon their chests." Barry soon shipped out to Vietnam
Barry had made a name for himself by singing in the clubs and in the field during his tour of duty. But then fate came knocking at Barry's door. Covered in red clay and muck, Barry was ordered to Saigon. An Army Public Information Officer was looking for him. He had two projects for Barry; one, to film and tape Barry singing The Ballad and two, write a song honoring Major General Delk N. Oden the Flying General, who was in charge of the Army Support Command in Vietnam. He did both, filming the singing of The Ballad of the Green Berets in front of a bunker for an ABC film crew.
During May of ‘65 Barry was leading a patrol in the tall grass of the Central Highlands southeast of Pleiku and ran his knee into a VC punji stick. Thousands of these razor sharp bamboo sticks were everywhere. They were covered with excrement. Because he was on an anti-biotic for dysentery the wound seemed slight, so he stuck in a cotton swab, put on an adhesive bandage and finished the patrol. A major infection set in requiring surgeons to enlarge the wound to drain it, while pumping Barry full of penicillin. His leg hung in the balance. Resting in the hospital Barry heard Robert F. Kennedy on the radio dedicating the new JFK Center for Special Warfare at Fort Bragg. So moved by the speech, he promised himself if the penicillin worked, he would give away the rights to his song just so America could hear it and know about the sacrifices going on in Vietnam.
On December 18, 1965 RCA provided a fifteen piece orchestra and a male chorus the rest is history. Barry on an hours sleep finished recording a 12 song album by 11 P.M. that evening. The Ballad was released as a single on January 11, 1966 and the album on January 20th. "They took off like wildfire," said Barry.
The Ballad sold two million copies in five weeks. The media was all over Barry. Stories appeared in Life, Time, Newsweek, Variety, Billboard and Cash Box magazines while Barry appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jimmy Dean Show, NBC’s Home Front and Martha Raye’s ABC-TV Hollywood Palace program. On Martha Raye’s show Barry received two industry gold records marking the record sales of one million copies for both the single and the album. Barry never achieved that kind of success again and by the time the Seventies rolled around he was broke and moving the family to Nashville, TN in hopes of reviving his singing career. Instead he came upon the idea of Casca, the Eternal Mercenary and became a bestselling author, selling well over 2 million books in his brief writing career which was cut short by an assassins bullet in Guatemala where Barry was living and writing. There is still alot of mystery around Barry's shooting which is officially still unsolved. An upcoming book and film are in development which will clear up this mystery.