On an unrelated thread, Philip Portelli wrote:


"To the Commander: I would be very interested to hear your views on M*A*S*H, McHale's Navy, and particularly Hogan's Heroes, given your service. I know that they were comedies but I would like to hear your views, if or when you want. Heck comment on CPO Sharkey for that matter!"


I'll try.


First, let me state that, with regard to military series, both dramatic and comedic, television imposes certain necessary restraints to accuracy.  I understand this.  J.A.G. demonstrated a few of these necessary bars to accuracy.  For ten years, the two stars served in the same billets at J.A.G. headquarters (except for occasional story arcs which temporarily shifted them around).  Normal tours in the military are eighteen months to three years, at the most, and usually are two years.  So, no way that would have happened in real life.  But I understand that a popular show just can't go retooling itself with new formats and new cast members every couple of years.  So I can accept that as a necessary fictional device.


Also, the two stars would not have reported to the Judge Advocate General of the Navy directly, as they did in the show.  There would be a Chief of Staff and other ACOS's in the hierarchy.  But then you're talking about the expense of additional cast members, so I can accept that as a necessary fictional device, as well.


Those kinds of things I grudgingly give a pass to.  Other things I do not.  Things which do not affect the budget, such as improper military protocol or errors in the uniform.  These things don't cost a cent to fix, and J.A.G. had the least excuse of all shows for such mistakes creeping in.  J.A.G. had a retired rear admiral on the payroll as an advisor.  He must have been asleep through many of the episodes, though, for all the uniform mistakes---and obvious ones to anybody in the Navy---to have gotten by.


And, sure, many military-related series, especially sitcoms, didn’t hire a military expert as an advisor.  But you can sure bet the shows received mail from vets who watched the show and called them on errors.  So when I see mistakes of this sort appear, my estimation of the show immediately drops.


Now, to military sitcoms.


I understand, in order to evoke humour, certain aspects of military life have to exaggerated or lampooned.  But the key here---from my standpoint as a military man---is to not go beyond my willing suspension of disbelief.  Granted, the bar is higher for me than it is for someone who has never served.  And there are lots more of career civilian television watchers than there are career military television watchers.  So, if a producer wants to play the numbers game, he can go as extreme as he wants.


On the other hand, television history has had several military-oriented sitcoms that were successful and never strayed across my line of believability.


Let’s start with the two military sitcoms that are remarkable in the fact that neither one of them ever---ever---committed an error in protocol, uniform wear, or general military practice.


The first was Hennesey (CBS, 1959-62), starring Jackie Cooper.  This show was so remarkable that it is tied, with Father Knows Best, as my favourite sitcom ever.  It tells of a newly minted Navy physician, Lieutenant Charles “Chick” Hennesey, stationed at the Naval Dispensary in San Diego.


It’s a show that takes it’s humour from the characters’ reactions to simple, yet logical twists and developments in Navy life.  While Hennesey and his nurse, Martha Hale, pretty much play it straight (though they are not beyond a witty line or two), there are some characters who are “characters”---Hennesey’s commanding officer, Captain (later, Rear Admiral) Shafer, and Chief Corpsman Bronsky.  Yet, they never get so broad as to be unbelievable and underlie their minor eccentricities with remarkable humanity.  It’s a show loaded with sentimental moments, but never saccharine ones, mostly because Hennesey is just a decent, likeable man, usually right but not always.


As I said, Hennesey never committed a single error in military protocol, not even a situation that bordered on being impossible to really happen.  I credit this to the fact that Jackie Cooper, who also produced the show, hired a great number of military veterans as staff and he himself was a Navy veteran.  The show was also distinctive in utilising techniques infrequently seen on television then, especially in sitcoms.  It relied strongly on overlapping dialogue.  And for most episodes, it eschewed an opening credit sequence.  The show would begin with a cold open and a minute or so into it, the dialogue track go silent and the theme would play, while the credits got “painted” over the scene, which would still be going on.  Even without the benefit of dialogue, the viewer could still follow the gist of the scene. 


Many episodes were done without a laugh track.  Particularly one tour-de-force episode which has only two cast members---Cooper, as Hennesey, and guest star Don Rickles as a chief petty officer.  The TV Guide entry for this episode probably read:  “Hennesey gives a C.P.O. a reënlistment physical.”  Because that’s all it was.  But the dialogue keeps you so riveted that you don’t realise that nothing else takes place.


As in many other Hennesey episodes, something pointed out early on comes back as the clincher in the end.  And for this episode, throw away any previous conceptions of Don Rickles.  He performs with nuance and subtlety.  And in the last shot, which shows him walking toward the camera, away from the examining room, he looks and moves like every thirty-year C.P.O. I ever met.


Personal Sidebar:  I was a tadpole when Hennesey aired and it was the first exposure to the Navy that I ever had, and from it, I got the idea that maybe the Navy wouldn’t be such a bad place to spend my life.


Fast-forward to 1999.  It was Christmas Eve, and I was in my stateroom, lying on my rack, on board the flagship Blue Ridge, in Yokosuka, Japan.  I had just been assigned to the staff of Commander, SEVENTH Fleet, and the Good Mrs. Benson, having a good job that neither of us wanted her to sacrifice, was back home in the States.  The ship was quiet, practically deserted, except for duty personnel, everybody else home with his wife and family.  And I started thinking about all the events that led me to that particular point, at that particular time.


I followed that thread all the way back to Hennesey, which I hadn’t thought about in years.   It was about mid-night, Christmas now, when I got an idea.  I was going to write Jackie Cooper a letter, telling him how his show had been my first inspiration to join the Navy and how much satisfaction my Naval career had brought me.


Right then, I went down to my office and wrote.  Getting his mailing address wasn’t difficult---Cooper was still famous enough and, hey, I worked for an admiral.  And I mailed it.


About three weeks later, there was something on my desk from mail call.  It was a letter from Jackie Cooper, written in his own hand.  He said that my letter was one of the nicest Christmas presents he had ever received.  He was glad that Hennesey had been such an inspiration to me.  And, to me, the most important thing he wrote was that “of all the things I’ve done as a producer, director, or actor, Hennesey is the thing of which I am proudest.”


(The same night I also wrote and sent a letter to his Hennesey co-star, Abby Dalton, that produced some interesting results.  But that’s another story, for another post.)




The other error-free military sitcom came much later in television’s history, but has many of the same qualities as Hennesey.  That was Major Dad (also CBS, 1989-93).  As Hennesey was for Jackie Cooper, Major Dad was obviously a labour of love for Gerald McRaney.  While the central premise was different---die-hard Marine Corps officer meets and marries a liberal-minded lady journalist with three daughters---it shared Hennesey’s impeccability in showing both the light side and the serious side of military life, including the grimness of combat, without diluting either.  Like Hennesey, some of the regular characters were slightly eccentric but never beyond feasibility and were always underlaid with professionalism and competence. 


Major Dad wasn’t a “quiet” sitcom, like Hennesey.  It played comedy a bit more broadly and cranked in the generational humour with the three daughters.  And it vested Major MacGillis with a Marine Warrior image that the plots both validated and poked fun at.  It also plumbed the sentimentality well a bit more deeply, along with adding the cuteness factor of pint-sized youngest daughter, Casey.


It’s telling that the then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Al Gray, appeared in a guest spot on the show.  The Marine Corps usually doesn’t go in for that kind of thing, unless they respect a show.


Since I’ve rambled on here, Philip, let’s make this “part one”, and I’ll get to some of the military sitcoms you specifically mentioned on the next go ‘round.

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I recall there was an older nurse on Trapper John, MD that served in Korea with him. She did mention Hawkeye and the excessive amounts of drinking they did!


Philip Portelli said:

I recall there was an older nurse on Trapper John, MD that served in Korea with him. She did mention Hawkeye and the excessive amounts of drinking they did!

You're thinking of head nurse Clara "Starch" Willoughby, played by Mary McCarty.  According to the premise of the show, she had served with Trapper John in Korea, as a nurse in the 4077.


In the pilot of Trapper John, M.D. there were references aplenty to M*A*S*H---photographs on the wall of Dr. McIntyre's office, him muttering the names "Hawkeye" and "Radar" while dreaming of Korea, other mentions of familiar M*A*S*H trappings, like choppers. 


Those all dropped off sharply with the second episode, but there was still an occasional mention of Hawkeye or the Swamp or other M*A*S*H-related items in conversations between Dr. McIntyre and Nurse Willoughby.


Mary McCarty died right after that first, 1979-80 season of Trapper John, M.D.  For the second season and the rest of the show's run, she was replaced by head nurse Ernestine Shoop, portrayed by Madge Sinclair.  Nurse Shoop did not have the history with McIntyre that Willoughby had had, nor did any other regular character on the show.  Thus, from that point on, the references to M*A*S*H ended.


Hope this helps.

Commander Benson said:

Next time, I’ll talk about the shows I put at the bottom of the barrel.  Offerings like Sergeant Bilko, Gomer Pyle, and Hogan’s Heroes.

There's going to be an entry for CPO Sharkey, Operation Petticoat and Private Benjamin, yes?
Don't poke the tiger, CK!
I have a few brief comments on C.P.O. Sharkey.  I never saw either Operation Petticoat and only an episode or two of Private Benjamin.  I wasn't terribly impressed with the latter.

As long as we're going on and on about all things M*A*S*H, we should mention another proposed spinoff, W*A*L*T*E*R, following the adventures of Walter "Radar" O'Reilly after the war as a rookie police officer in St. Louis.


This followed a couple of guest appearances by the character in AfterM*A*S*H that bridged the gap between his last appearance on the mothership, in which he was sent home to the family farm in Iowa, and his life stateside. The network passed on it as a series.


Here's more than you could possibly want to know about it, at Television ObscuritiesW*A*L*T*E*R

...Leave us not forget MAD's immortal parody of " Hogan's Heroes " - specifically , its last page !
If it hadn’t’ve been for the one-two punch of the death of Henry Blake and the departure of Trapper John (in the last episode of season three and the first episode of season four, respectively) I don’t think M*A*S*H would have lasted as long as it did, frankly. Usually, the departure of not one but two mainstays of the cast would be the kiss of death for a tv series, but it this case it had the opposite effect of reinforcing the idea that anything can happen and in war no one is safe.

I cannot dispute the “canonization of Hawkeye Pierce” as the Commander puts it. Alan Alda was very much a man of the ‘80s in what was ostensibly a show set in the ‘50s. The only thing more anachronistic was the hair do Margaret sported in the later seasons. But it was neither Alda’s portrayal of Hawkeye nor even Loretta Switt’s coiffure which drove me from the series latter seasons; it was those “artsy” episodes CK described above. Not that any one was bad, per se (although I look back on the dream episode as being the shark-jumper for me), but that the show had strayed too far from its roots. I’m looking forward to seeing those episodes again in the near future and re-evaluating them.

Television being the animal it is today, I don’t think anything but a live sporting event could ever beat the ratings of the final episode of M*A*S*H; a live event is the only thing these days that could glue that many people across the country to their sets at the same time.

Does anyone remember a half hour spin-off featuring the nurses of the M*A*S*H 8055?

MASH always seemed too grown up and laden with death and dying when I was a kid.    And on too late, too, probably on a school night.  We had something called the Watershed in UK/Irish television.


I hated war movies and wasn't interested in watching it.  I think I saw part of the episode mentioned above where we see their dreams.  Was there one where Hawkeye was on a boat with no arms and floating all around him on the water were ...spare arms?  If I didn't want to see it before that, I definitely didn't want to watch it after that rather horrific visual.  (I guess I was something of a shrinking violet back then!)


We watched Trapper John MD for a while.  I had no clue that he was a former MASH character. Given that it was a contemporary show and MASH was set in the Korean War, was it the same actor playing the character both times?


I remember Trapper John lived in a mobile home in the carpark of the hospital.  Between him and Petrochelli, it must have been something of a lifestyle choice back then.


It never occurred to me for years that MASH was set anywhere other than in Vietnam in the 70's.  I was surprised to learn after the fact that it was supposed to be Korea. 


I remember the big deal of the final episode being broadcast in the US.  It was on the news in the UK and everything.


What was the deal with doctors serving in the army in wartime?  Had they enlisted or were they conscripted?  Would their medical training have been sponsored by the US Army?  Did the army conscript fully trained doctors?  Why didn't Hawkeye just chuck it in and head back to the states if he hated the war so much?  Didn't conscription mean you only owed the army 2 years or so of your time?  In the series, how many years did he end up serving there?


All this talk of Alda getting up people's noses with his pontificating, aligned with talk of the delicate balance MASH tried to keep between the comic and dramatic aspects reminds me of how Woody Allen used Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanours:


Alda played a filmmaker that everyone loved, but Allen's character hated.  Allen's character gets a chance to make a documentary on him and uses a soundclip of Alda's profound philosophy of film:


"If it bends, it's comedy, if it breaks it's tragedy."


Except he overdubs the line so we see it coming out of the mouth of a donkey!

Mike Williams said:


Well, 'Allo 'Allo was a strange beast in many ways.  Written by Croft and Perry, who created Dad's Army, it was actually a spoof of Secret Army, a very serious drama set in Belgium during the occupation that dramtised the undergroudn railroad run by the resistance to get downded Allied combatants home.  That was very true to life - the cafe owner almost got lynched in the last-but-one episode as he had been seen as a collabrator.  'Allo 'Allo on the other hand soon went into incredibly broad farce.  Personally I never saw the funny side of it, but my late father enjoyed it - and he served in the European theatre post D-Day.


Sitting here now, I can't decide if 'Allo 'Allo was absolute genius or tasteless rubbish.  Entertained a hell of a lot of people for a long time, and Croft and Perry knew a thing or two about entertaining the masses.


It's ironic that Rory McGrath was in that IRA spoof of 'Allo 'Allo, and his only sitcom - Chelmsford 123 - was set during the Roman occupation of Britain and featured the same dynamic of secret revolutionarys working under the noses of goofy occupiers.  Obviously the dodgy premise isn't ridiculous if it's 2000 years after the fact!


As it was Hogan's Heroes that got us onto this topic, I'd have to say that I can see Hollywood remaking Hogan's Heroes as a tragi-comic WWII movie.  Anything's possible.  And tragi-comic war movies are pretty common.

Figserello said:

What was the deal with doctors serving in the army in wartime?  Had they enlisted or were they conscripted?  Would their medical training have been sponsored by the US Army?  Did the army conscript fully trained doctors?  Why didn't Hawkeye just chuck it in and head back to the states if he hated the war so much?  Didn't conscription mean you only owed the army 2 years or so of your time?  In the series, how many years did he end up serving there?


Good questions all, Fig, and actually easy to answer.  What isn't so easy is fitting the real-world facts into the fictional world of M*A*S*H.  But at least I can give you the particulars.


Let's start with your question about the U.S. Army sponsoring medical training.  Yes, there are, and have been, programmes in which the U.S. military will pay for an individual's medical schooling.  The quid pro quo is that, upon graduation from medical school, the newly-minted physician is required to serve a certain amount of time---usually four years---on active duty with the service that paid for his schooling and then an equal amount of time in a reserve status.


The military prefers to access health-care professionals after they have earned their degrees and completed their internships.  There is a programme for that, too.  The candidate is commissioned at a rank commensurate to his number of years, and his experience, as a physician/dentist/nurse, and then sent to Officer Indoctrination School (i.e., "Knife and Fork" School) before being assigned to duty.


With respect to M*A*S*H,  either of these options would apply only to Colonel Potter and Major Houlihan, the only career Army officers present at the 4077.


As for the other regular cast members who portrayed physicians---Lieutenant Colonel Blake, Majors Burns and Winchester, and Captains Pierce, McIntryre, and Hunnicutt---they were conscripted.


And, yes, during the Korean War, the United States Army did, indeed, draft doctors.  And dentists and veterinarians, too.


It goes back to the Selective Service Act of 1948 (U.S. Code, Title 50).  After the demobilisation following World War II, the U.S. military suffered a shortage of medical personnel, which became a severe problem after the U.S. entered into the hostilities in Korea,  In response, on 09 September 1950, Congress passed an admendment to the Selective Service Act, establishing what became colloquially known as "the Doctor Draft Law".


Basically, the Doctor Draft Law (U.S. Code, Title 50, Section 454) stipulated that all male U.S. citizens under the age of 50 who held, or attained, a medical degree, dental degree, or veterinary degree were required to register with the Selective Service.  Of those individuals, all who were at least 19 and not yet 30 were subject to being drafted.  Approximately two thousand physicians, dentists, and veterinarians were conscripted to serve in Korea as the result of the Doctor Draft Law.


As far as M*A*S*H goes, that part of it is all well and good.  But there were other provisions of the Selective Service Act that need to be examined under the show's set-up.


Initially, the period of conscription for medical professionals was twenty-one months; in 1953, President Eisenhower signed an executive order, extending that period to a total of two years.


Now, the time-line on M*A*S*H was always dodgy.  The first real benchmark established in the show came with the arrivals of CPT Hunnicutt and COL Potter, which, according to their debut episodes, occurred in September of 1952.  Now, I know that later-season episodes back that up as far as 1950-1, but given that LCOL Blake and Trapper John had clearly been in Korea for a substantial amount of time before their departures, late '50-early '51 really doesn't fit.  (The United States entered the war on 27 June 1950; it's highly unlikely that Blake and McIntyre would have been in theatre for only a few months before receiving their discharges.)


So marking the arrivals of Hunnicutt and Potter as September, 1952 (back-to-back 1975 episodes "Welcome to Korea" and "Change of Command") works the best.  If we go by that, then the time of obligated service can be made to fit all of the physician cast-members.


LCOL Blake and CPT McIntyre could have been drafted in late 1950 and completed their (pre-'53) obligation of twenty-one months by fall of 1952.


Conceivably, Major Burns was drafted later, perhaps in 1951, and would still have time yet to serve on his obligation at the time that his character was written out of the series as being transferred stateside.


We know from "Welcome to Korea" that CPT Hunnicutt was drafted in '52. so his obigation would have continued through the end of the war, on 27 July 1953, and we can safely presume the same thing for MAJ Winchester.


COL Potter was a "lifer", so draft-obligations didn't apply to him.


Hawkeye is the only one who might be problematic.  It could work, though, depending on when he was drafted.  We know, when the show began, that he had been at the 4077 long enough to be considered an "old veteran".  But it didn't take long to achieve that status under wartime conditions. 


Allowing for that, we can make things fit Hawkeye's circumstance if we put the time of his drafting at the summer of '51.  Under the original twenty-one-month obligation, he would have been eligible for discharge around April of 1953.  But by then, Ike had extended the obligation to two years, adding three more months to Hawkeye's required service.  That would put him out of the Army right after the end of the war.


There is another wrinkle, though, and one much more difficult to explain away.  Mr. Portelli alluded to it when he asked, in an earlier post, if the Army would send a married man with a child like B. J. Hunnicut overseas.


At the time, as established by the show, that CPT Hunnicutt was drafted, the Selective Service Act of 1948 had a paternity deferment.  Section 456(h)(2) specified that men who had either (a) children; or (b) a wife and at least one child, were deferred from conscription.  This deferment remained in place until President Eisenhower eliminated it by executive order on 11 July 1953, just before the Korean War's end.


Now, B.J. had both a wife (Peg) and a child (Erin).  And we know he had both when he was drafted; in "Welcome to Korea", he remarks that he and Peg were enjoying a night on the town when the telegram with his draft notice arrived at his home, and the babysitter was there to receive it.  And since Hunnicutt was drafted sometime in the late summer of '52 (based upon his September, '52 arrival at the 4077), the paternity deferment was still active.


So I can't explain that one away.


Other than the above, I don't know too much about it.  Hope it helps.


Other than the above, I don't know too much about it. 


That's most comprehensive.  Thanks Commander.


To be honest, I wasn't sure how long the Korean War had lasted.  They don't call it the Forgotten War for nothing.  For the MASH team, it seems to have been a tough engagement where everyone aged 10 years in the space of 3.  I wonder how many Christmas episodes they showed over the ten year course of the show?

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