TV's Tour of Duty


The Western and the musical-variety show aren't the only once-popular genres that have all but disappeared from television. On this Memorial Day weekend, consider the war show.

While the Vietnam War was raging during the '60s and early '70s, viewers would watch such service comedies as "Hogan's Heroes," "McHale's Navy," "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.," "No Time for Sergeants," "The Wackiest Ship in the Navy," "Ensign O'Toole," "Mr. Roberts," "C.P.O. Sharkey" and "Operation Petticoat," and the war dramas "Rat Patrol," "Combat," "Garrison's Gorillas" and "Twelve O'Clock High."

None of these series were set in Vietnam. Most took place during World War II when America was solidly behind the war effort. Even the anti-war comedy "MASH," which premiered in the fall of 1972 while U.S. troops were still in Vietnam, was set during the Korean War.

It was well over a decade after the Vietnam conflict ended that TV was able to look back at that painful time in our history in such series as CBS' "Tour of Duty" and ABC's "China Beach." Audiences, though, weren't ready to relive the "living room war" week after week.

"Tour of Duty" struggled through two seasons. And although "China Beach" received Emmys and much acclaim, it attracted a marginal, though devoted, audience during its three seasons.

Though it premiered on CBS during peacetime in the fall of 1955, "The Phil Silvers Show" (a.k.a. "Sgt. Bilko") was one of the most popular and copied service comedies. The veteran comic Silvers starred as Sgt. Ernie Bilko, an outrageous con man stationed at Fort Baxter, Kansas. "Bilko" kept America laughing through 1959.

"Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." was an immediate hit when it premiered on CBS in September, 1964. Jim Nabors had originated the role of the sweet, bumbling Gomer on "The Andy Griffith Show." Gomer was a member of the peacetime Marine Corps stationed at Camp Henderson, Calif. The only enemy he had to face was his immediate superior, tough-as-nails Sgt. Carter (Frank Sutton), who refused to believe anyone could be as innocent as Gomer. The series concluded the spring of 1970.

"Hogan's Heroes," which premiered Sept. 17, 1965, on CBS, was a first for television: a sitcom set in a Nazi POW camp. Of course, "Hogan's Heroes" made no mention of Nazi death camps. These Allies had no desire to escape. Bob Crane starred as the crafty leader of the prisoners, Col. Robert Hogan, and Werner Klemperer, the actor who fled from Europe with his family in the late '30s, was the incompetent camp commander Col. Klink.

"Hogan's Heroes" placed No. 9 in the ratings during its first season, and continued on CBS through July, 1971.

The aim of CBS' "MASH," based on the enormously popular 1970 Robert Altman film, was not only to entertain but to address the futility and waste of war. Alan Alda headed the ensemble cast of the award-winning series, which lasted 11 seasons. The final episode, which aired Feb. 28, 1983, was viewed by the largest audience ever to watch a single dramatic program.

"Combat," which premiered on ABC in September, 1962, is one of TV's best war series. It focused on the exploits of a U.S. Army platoon fighting its way across Europe after D-day. Gritty and unromanticized, the series featured real footage from World War II. Rick Jason, Vic Morrow and comedian Shecky Greene were the stars. The series placed No. 10 in the ratings during its third season and was canceled in the spring of 1967.

"Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." airs Tuesday-Friday at 2:05 a.m. on TBS. "Combat" airs weeknights at 9 on KDOC. "China Beach" airs weeknights at 7 on Lifetime. "McHale's Navy" airs weekdays at 10 a.m. on Comedy Central. "Sgt. Bilko" airs weekdays at 4 p.m. on Comedy Central.

"Hogan's Heroes" airs Sundays at 4:30 p.m. on WGN; Monday at 8 p.m. and Tuesday-Friday at 6:30 and 8 p.m.on KDOC; and Tuesday-Friday at 1:30 a.m. on TBS.

"MASH" airs Sunday-Friday at 11:30 p.m. on KTTV, Sunday at 4 a.m. on KESQ, Sunday at 5 p.m. and Monday-Friday at 4 p.m. on KFMB and Monday-Friday at 6:30 p.m. on KEYT.

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