Audie Murphy was a genuine war hero from World War II. After the war, James Gagney influenced Murphy to come to Hollywood and make the transition from military life to movie star. Murphy stared in 44 American military films, and was always that guy my dad would point to (on a weekend movie or late night show) and say, “Hey, that’s Audie Murphy. He was a war hero.” A plane crash took his life in 1971.
No. 12: SERGEANT BLAST AND PRIVATE MEEKLY FROM THE WACKY RACES (9/14/68 to 01/04/69)
Sergeant Blast makes this list, because, well, did you know that military guy on The Wacky Races was called Sgt. Blast? You do now. I can remember watching The Wacky Races in its first run in 1968. My brother and I liked to guess who would win and cheer ‘em on. Sergeant Blast and Private Meekly rode in car number 6, the Army Surplus 6.
No. 11: MCHALE’S NAVY (10/11/62 to 8/31/66)
McHale’s Navy is one of the silly sit-coms that kids of the 60s and 70s grew up with, this one starring Ernest Borgnine. Even though I ended up in the Navy myself, I believe Gilligan’s Island had a much greater influence on that decision. However, McHale’s Navy still remains a good show to watch when you have a hangover.
No. 10: M*A*S*H (9/17/72 to 2/28/83)
M*A*S*H began as a really solid show, funny and intelligent with a great cast of actors portraying the tribulations of operating a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, however, as its cast of characters disappeared and reappeared with weaker replacements the show devolved until it was almost un-watch-able. Yet, I’ll say two things for M*A*S*H: the show (before Trapper John left) was better than the original movie of the same name (1970) and the (1968) Richard Hooker book that actually created the characters and premise, and that’s pretty darn good.
No. 9: RAMBO (1982 to Present)
Rambo, in film first appeared in First Blood (1982), based on the (1972) David Morrell novel of the same name. First Blood is among the best of Sylvester Stallone’s film roles. Nevertheless, like many pop culture icons, “Rambo” evolved (or devolved) into a sort caricature of the character. Rambo started out as being a type of dark anti-hero, yet, after the second film (where the action was punched up to utter craziness) President Reagan referenced Rambo in a speech and suddenly Rambo was starring in his own cartoon. A new Rambo film is currently in the works ...
No. 8: ROGER RAMJET (1965)
Roger Ramjet was a 1965 superhero/military parody. I always thought that Jay Ward produced Ramjet, as the show was certainly done in his (Bullwinkle, Super Chicken, Tom Slick) style, but it appears to have been an independent production produced/directed by Fred Crippen.
Roger Ramjet is a funny and pretty twisted comedy of errors, making fun of the military and popular culture in general. Roger gained strength from popping PEP (Protein Energy Pills), which gave him “the strength of twenty atom bombs for a period of twenty seconds.” You gotta love that. Just check it out.
No. 7: SGT. ROCK AND EASY COMPANY (1959)
Sgt. Rock is a great comic book sergeant fighting the good fight of World War II by leading the men of Easy Company. He first appeared in Our Army at War No. 83 (June 1959). He was created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, an amazing team that created some of the best “war” stories you will ever read. The Sgt. Rock stories hold up for the following reasons: The stories take you to the action with a real sense of heart for the subject matter, and they are intelligent and mature stories, suitable for anyone. In addition, the Sgt. Rock stories are beautifully and dramatically rendered by one of the all-time great illustrators, Joe Kubert.
No. 6: GOMER PYLE, USMC (9/25/64 to 5/2/69)
There are three names associated with American military people the world over: John Wayne, G.I. Joe, and Gomer Pyle. Gomer Pyle USMC is another of the 60’s shows that played in heavy syndicated rotation throughout the 1970s, after its 1964 to 1969 original run on television. Gomer first appeared on The Andy Griffith Show and became one of the greatest spin-off shows of all-time. What I remember most about Gomer Pyle was that he brought that down-home nice guy feeling from Mayberry to the Marines. Gomer, played of course by Jim Nabors, had as much heart as Sgt. Rock in the comic books—as well as his unforgettable hard-ass but loveable Sarge, Sgt. Carter played by Frank Sutton.
No. 5: JOHN WAYNE (5/26/1907 to 6/11/1979)
John Wayne may be more well known for his westerns, but he also starred in some of the best war movies. 1968’s The Green Berets may be controversial for its pro-Vietnam war stance, but it is also undeniably a great film. I had not realized that the war in Vietnam was something currently happening—and not one of those long-time-ago wars you see on TV—until watching The Green Berets with my family in a movie theatre in 1968. John Wayne is one of the greatest actors the world as ever known, and truly, one of the greatest Americans.
No. 4: ARMY MEN (1950s to Present)
What boy didn’t grow up playing at some point in time with those little green (and other colored) plastic Army men? I especially liked the larger Army men (same kind you see in Toy Story) made by the Louis Marx toy company in the 1950s. As kids we used to line them up in a dirt lot and throw rocks at them, set them on fire, blow them up with firecrackers, or melt them with airplane glue. Good times.
No. 3: CAPTAIN AMERICA (1941)
Captain America, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, first appeared in Captain America Comics No. 1 (March 1941). Cap is one of the most dynamic and truly great iconic American superheroes, but he started out as a young man named Steve Rogers who just wanted to serve his country in the Army. Considered 4F due to his meek physicality, Steve eagerly volunteered for the Super Solider experiment that transformed him into an American fighting hero.
When Jack Kirby was drafted into the Army for WWII he said, "What the hell am I doing here? I'm supposed to be drawing Captain America!"
No. 2: SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOES (1963)
Okay, so we’ve mentioned Sgt. Rock from the comic books and we’ve mentioned Captain America, both great, but in terms of the most readable, action-packed, and pure fun in military comic enjoyment—I have to give the prize to Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandoes. Sgt. Fury was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and first appeared in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandoes No. 1 (May 1963).
Both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby served in the army during World War II and brought a true Marvel Comics-style of realism to the Commandoes. The one thing I felt DC Comics's Sgt. Rock lacked was deeper character development. Lee was a master of character development and that’s why we ended up loving his wacky cast so much. The Howling Commandoes were also the first multi-ethnic group of military men in comics. You had a black guy (Private Gabriel “Gabe” Jones), a Jew (Private Isadore “Izzy” Cohen), and even a British solider (Private Percival “Pinky” Pinkerton). The stories, again are full of heart and action-packed. If you’ve never read them, read them. If you’ve read them, read them again. Sgt. Fury is among the best work Stan Lee and Jack Kirby ever produced, as well as giving us the terrific spin-off, the post World War II spy thriller, Nick Fury and His Agents of SHIELD.
No. 1: G.I. JOE (1964)
G.I. Joe was created as the first “action figure” in 1964, representing the four branches of the military: Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines.
G.I. Joe is the number one reason I joined the military. I spent countless hours of imaginative play time as a child, pretending I was in a world of danger, excitement, and adventure with Joe and his .45 caliber handgun and other weapons. From the military Joes of the 60s to the 70’s Adventure-themed Joes—G.I. Joe inspired ideas of achieving great, bigger than life, escapades.
In the 1970s us kids used to play a game we called “Survival Joe.” We would take Joe to the Arroyo Seco watercourse (a concrete river) or “Los Angeles river,” tie Joe to a raft and toss him twenty-five feet or more down into the river as the water flowed across rocks and concrete and mud and frogs. Whoever could find their Joe, won. We also hid G.I. Joes in trees and threw rocks to knock them down. Whoever’s Joe fell last, won. Many-a-Joe lost their lives to these survival missions, but they will always be remembered.