During the 1960s and early 1970s, television’s evening news brought the Vietnam War home to America, in real time and in living color. While Vietnam was proving to be the country’s most unpopular war, a strange phenomenon was occurring. With Americans fighting and dying overseas, military-themed TV shows were a hit with audiences back home.
Some of the more popular ones were “Combat” (1962 to 1967), “McHale’s Navy” (1962 to 1966), “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” (1964 to 1969), “12 O’Clock High” (1964 to 1967) and “Hogan’s Heroes” (1965 to 1971). All but “Gomer Pyle” were set in WW II.
Gomer Pyle took place in contemporary times. Jim Nabors introduced the character on “The Andy Griffith Show” and studio execs gave him his own series by having him join the Marines. Paired with Frank Sutton as Gunnery Sergeant Vince Carter, we follow Pyle to Boot Camp and beyond. Country bumpkin Pyle drives Carter crazy. He’s the square peg Carter must fit into a round hole. This creates endless comedic scenarios, making for a lighthearted comedy within a military context, but one totally out of touch with its time.
The Vietnam War cost the Marine Corps 101,600 combat casualties, of which 13,607 were fatalities, yet any reference to the war was conspicuously absent from the show. NCOs and officers wore combat decorations, but none related to service in Vietnam. During its five seasons, the word Vietnam is never mentioned. For Gomer, the war didn’t exist.
The show received full cooperation from the Marine Corps. The opening scenes were shot at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, California, using real Marines. Nabors would later say he had difficulty watching those scenes, because several of the Marines used in the filming were killed in Vietnam.
Perhaps because of this cooperation, the show’s writers complied with the Marines’ desire to eliminate any reference to Vietnam. Gomer remained comfortably stationed in California for the duration. The closest the show ever came to acknowledging the war was in its last season. In episode 146 out of 150, which aired on March 28, 1969, Gomer befriended a group of hippies who give him “peace beads” and Gomer sings “Blowing in The Wind.” Incidentally, one of the hippies was played by Rob Reiner, who two years later achieved stardom as Archie Bunker’s son-in-law in the TV series “All In The Family.”
Of Note: Frank Sutton, born in 1923, tried to enlist in the Marines during WW II, but didn’t pass the physical. Subsequently drafted into the Army, he saw extensive combat in the South Pacific, participated in several assault landings in the Philippines and was decorated with the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart for wounds received in action. For their unwavering support and service to the Marine Corps, visiting and entertaining at numerous hospitals, bases, and Vietnam itself during the height of the war, Nabors and Sutton were accorded the rare distinction of being awarded the title, Honorary Marine.
To view the portion of “The Andy Griffith Show” that served as the pilot for “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” click here.
To view episode 1, Season 1 of “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” click here.