Barry Allen Sadler was born on November 1, 1940, in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the second son of John Sadler and Bebe Littlefield. Both his parents hailed from Phoenix, Arizona, and shortly after Barry’s birth they divorced, his father remarrying a short time afterwards. However tragedy struck John at the age of 36, when he died of a rare form of cancer that affected the nervous system. Thereafter both Barry and his older brother Robert were brought up by their mother and moved around the South West of the US, a journey that included New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Colorado. Bebe worked as a manager in various bars, restaurants and gambling casinos.
At the age of 12 Barry went on summer camp and had his first taste of music, mainly of the Western and Mexican style, and learned to play the flute and harmonica before turning his hand to the guitar. He also learned to camp outdoors and shoot, becoming so proficient with the pistol that he was considered a better shot with that weapon than many others with a rifle! While in the tenth grade he quit Leadville High School in Colorado and hitch hiked around the country. Then in June 1958 he decided to sign up with the air force – his mother had to give authority as he was not yet 18 – and trained as a radar specialist before being shipped out to Japan. Within a year he was back in the US.
Finding a job hard to come by he teamed up with a drummer friend, Walter Lane, and they toured bars, honky-tonks and shopping centres, and when they met a black pianist named Elmo, he was taught his first three chords. Together they toured Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Washington State and Oregon before finally ending up in California. They played music at night and worked by day loading fruit into box cars for $1.10 per hour. “I was going nowhere,” Sadler said. Finally he turned back to the armed forces, enlisting into the Army and trained to become a member of the Green Beret Special Forces, where he specialised as a medic and also joined the paratroopers. After getting his silver wings at Fort Benning jump school he was sent to Vietnam. It was at this time he was composing his famous Ballad of the Green Berets. During his tour of duty he sang in the clubs,
and one day got a call out of the blue to report to Saigon and perform his song and also write another to honour the then CinC of the US Army Support Command, Major General Delk N. Oden. This he did.
Then in May 1965 he was a victim of a trap laid by the Vietcong, a punji stick piercing his knee while on patrol in the Central Highlands to the South East of Pleiku. The excrement-covered stick caused an infection and Sadler was close to losing the leg. While he lay in hospital he vowed to give away the rights of his song in order for America to hear it. After his recovery record company RCA provided a male chorus and a fifteen-piece orchestra, and on December 18, 1965, he recorded a twelve track album, finishing at 11pm that evening. Ballad was released on January 11, 1966 and the album nine days later. Sadler later recalled, “they took off like wildfire.”
Ballad sold 2 million copies in the first 5 weeks after release, eventually selling 11 million. It topped the US charts for 5 weeks and eventually ended up 21st best selling single of the 1960s. Sadler appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and featured in Life, Time, Newsweek, Variety, Billboard and Cash Box magazines. However, he never reached such heights of success again and by the time the 70s came round he was broke and in an attempt to revive his career took his family with him to Nashville. Although musically he never found any more success, he did hit upon the idea of Casca: The Eternal Mercenary and as a writer he enjoyed a revival of his fortunes, eventually selling 2 million copies in 22 books.
On September 8, 1988, he was a passenger in a taxi in Guatemala, returning home after a day of drinking and carousing. He was travelling along the Antigua Highway when a bullet struck him in the head. The other passenger in the taxi, a woman, claimed Sadler’s own handgun was in his hand when he had been hit. The driver had run off by the time the police arrived, but the woman was arrested. Barry Sadler was taken to Guatemela City hospital and then after 72 hours was flown to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Murfreesboro, where he lay for months until his death. Even while in a coma he was the subject of a custody battle and on one occasion his body was kidnapped!
The circumstances around his death remain to this day a mystery, but there has been talk in the past of a book and a film being made which may help clear this up. Barry Sadler will be remembered for his song The Ballad of the Green Berets and his 22 novels about Casca. In some ways, Casca was Barry Sadler, an all-action soldier, and surely Sadler wrote one or two Casca novels about his personal experiences in Vietnam.