‘Goodbye, Radar’, Part 1

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #11 in the series.

Now we come to the character that was the unquestioned heart of M*A*S*H: Corporal Walter Eugene ‘Radar’ O’Reilly, late of Ottumwa, Iowa, myopic farmboy, animal lover, Grape Nehi drinker, perpetual adolescent, and all-round débrouillard. When Gary Burghoff gave up the role after seven years, a considerable part of the show’s appeal left with him; also some of the audience, though not enough to seriously damage the ratings. When other actors left, their characters were replaced: Henry Blake with Col. Potter, Trapper John with B. J., Frank Burns with Winchester. Radar was irreplaceable.

The first thing we find out about Radar in ‘M*A*S*H: The Pilot’, in the very first scene before the opening credits, is that he hears incoming helicopters before anyone else. This ability, along with his nickname and his home town, came from the real-life Radar: Don Shafer, who served in Korea as company clerk to the 171st Evacuation Hospital. (Unlike Radar O’Reilly, Shafer went on to serve in Vietnam and eventually earned the rank of chief warrant officer.) In a 2009 interview, Shafer distinguished himself from his fictional counterpart: ‘I didn’t have ESP, obviously – I’m not sure if anyone does – but I was observant. I would listen for things… that nobody else was listening for.’

The novel MASH makes it clear that Radar does have ESP; the Robert Altman movie makes him do things that pretty solidly imply it; the TV series leaves it an open question. The TV Radar’s anticipations of events can generally be explained by natural causes, first among which is the sheer predictability of his superiors. Radar knows the official routine of the 4077th so well that he can put his hands on any needed paperwork five minutes before Col. Blake even knows it will be needed, and he is generally even ahead of Col. Potter. This is solidly established in the pilot episode, in the first scene where we see Radar in Col. Blake’s office. Radar has just come into the room behind Henry’s back, anticipating the call:

Yes, sir.

     (a split second too late)
     (exasperated, gritting his teeth)
Radar, don’t do that.

Yes, sir. You wanted to see me, sir?

Yes. Let me say I want to see you before I see you.

RADAR hands a sheaf of papers to HENRY.

Yes, sir. You wanted to see this, sir?

How did you know that?

That’s why you called me.

Oh, yeah.

Once or twice over his seven-year run, we see him misstep – for instance, in ‘Henry, Please Come Home’, when Frank Burns is in temporary command:

Bring me the, uh…

Fitness reports.

Not the fitness reports! You can’t anticipate what I’m thinking. I’m not Henry Blake.

RADAR turns back to FRANK’S desk, puts down his sheaf of papers, and picks up another one.

Sorry, sir.

I want the—

          FRANK and RADAR
(together, as RADAR hands over the papers)
Efficiency reports.

Half the secret of superhuman efficiency is having good people under you. The other half, in too many cases, is taking all the credit for their work. The official company clerk at a MASH unit was only one wheel in the clerical machine, owing to the sheer volume of medical paperwork. Radar was the balance wheel: he made the rest of the clockwork run on time. Since this is television, and the number of characters who can be shown and developed onscreen is strictly limited, Radar is the only member of the clerical staff we hear of by name. Col. Potter at one point makes mention of a typing pool, and in the later years, Klinger occasionally filled in as clerk when Radar was on leave. Otherwise, we are left with the impression that Radar was a one-man operation. This is misleading, like the reduction of the medical staff from fourteen medical officers to four; but it preserves the essentials.

Radar’s official work as company clerk is only half of his job at the 4077th, and often it is the short half. Every large organization is in a permanent state of struggle between two tectonic forces, the formal structure and the informal systems that fill in the gaps. Radar sits at the fault line between them, which makes him the natural choice (for anyone who knows military life) for the heart of the show. On the one hand, he has to feed the insatiable maw of the Army with daily, weekly, and monthly reports, supply requisitions, patient records, personnel files – all the myriad varieties of bumf that keep the formal structure from seizing up. On the other hand, he has to turn the often comically inappropriate supplies the unit receives (ice cream makers and salt tablets during a blizzard) into the stuff the hospital actually needs. The plot of many an episode turns on Radar’s success or failure as a scrounger.

From the beginning, the creators of M*A*S*H had an ambivalent attitude towards scrounging. When Radar scrounges penicillin to save lives, he is a hero; when Koreans or other unauthorized personnel do it, they are black marketeers and therefore villains. I have never heard of any army that could run without scrounging; the black market is an inevitable feature wherever the troops are scrupulous enough to trade for their supplies instead of looting. The writers, on the whole, seem to have understood this, though some of the characters – Hawkeye in particular – clearly did not, and resented the occasional necessity of such dealings. Father Mulcahy knows better: twice, in fact, it is he who trades for supplies that cannot be had through official channels. In ‘Tea and Empathy’, by Bill Idelson (season 6), he learns the location of the cache where black marketeers are keeping the penicillin stolen from the hospital, and goes with Klinger to steal it back. In ‘Out of Gas’, by Tom Reeder (season 7), he actually makes a deal with the black market for desperately needed pentothal.

The most convoluted black-market plot of all came in ‘Black Gold’, by Larry Gelbart and Simon Muntner (season 3). For once, Colonel Flagg, the bumbling counterintelligence agent, comes across as a sympathetic (though unsavoury) character. Thieves have been raiding the 4077th’s supplies, stealing their penicillin in particular. One of the culprits is caught red-handed, but he is wearing stolen dog tags and refuses to identify himself. Enter Col. Flagg. He goes to the tent where the thief is being held, ostensibly to question him, and orders the guard away. Instead of interrogating him, he gives an order: ‘Beat it. Get lost. Take a powder.’ He then wrecks the furniture and knocks himself out, making it look like the prisoner overpowered him and escaped.

The reason for this bizarre behaviour? Flagg needs the black marketeers. He himself is trading the stolen penicillin to the enemy for information about troop movements, enabling the U.N. forces to anticipate and prevent enemy attacks. In fact, as he points out to the Swampmen, he is saving more lives with the drug than they could save by administering it to patients. This cuts no ice with the doctors; but when the escaped thief turns out to be a corpsman, who also needs the penicillin to treat wounded men at the front, they offer him all they can spare if he will only ask instead of stealing it. We are meant to come away with the impression that saving casualties with medicine is a noble thing, but preventing casualties by spying is a dirty trick. Perhaps I am not the only one who drew a different conclusion.

But let us return to Radar. His first master stroke of scrounging occurs in ‘The Incubator’, by Larry Gelbart and Laurence Marks (season 2). A patient in Post-Op is critically ill with an undiagnosed infection. Standard Army procedure for testing blood cultures amounts to ‘hurry up and wait’, and the Swampmen are indignant:

          NURSE OWENS
Rizzo… I did a white count on him. What’s the problem?

We don’t know. Complications. Fever.

OK. I’ll ship this off to the Tokyo lab. We’ll know what he has in 72 hours, then you can treat him.

Seventy-two hours? The kid’s so hot now, you can fry an egg on his head.

Why don’t we have an incubator here so we can do our own tests?

Because it would save time and effort, and it would make sense.

Can’t have any of that in the Army.

Every serviceman recognizes the wry truth of the last two lines. In the early years, M*A*S*H did a brilliant job of portraying the follies of military life with realism leavened by humour. In the later years, both realism and humour were frequently absent. I have known quite a number of soldiers and ex-soldiers in my time. To a man, they loved the early seasons of M*A*S*H, and most of them quoted lines like these from memory. None of them had much use for the later seasons, though some of them watched the show right to the end from force of habit.

The Swampmen go to Henry’s outer office, where he and Radar have just finished assembling their new barbecue, official Army issue. The two surgeons ask their commanding officer for help:

Our lab needs an incubator.

Yeah, we could speed up diagnoses and treatment by days.

Well, hell! We just got the barbecue, I can’t pester them for an incubator.

Tell them we decided to open up a hospital instead of a restaurant.

Radar, how do we go about requisitioning an incubator?

Now, just hold it! I’m sick and tired of you guys going over my head down to Radar!

Henry reluctantly acquiesces and sends for Captain Sloan (Eldon Quick) from Quartermaster Corps. Sloan crisply informs them that they can’t have an incubator.

I checked your B.E.L. – basic equipment list. This unit has everything it’s supposed to have. You’re not entitled to an incubator. That would be a luxury.


We’re not asking for a jukebox or a pizza oven.

Oh, those I can let you have.

Foiled by official channels, the Swampmen try the other way, and tell Radar to track down an incubator. He finds out that there are three at the 728th Evac, in the keeping of one Major Morris. On Henry’s advice, they put on their Class A uniforms and go to beg the major for one of his spares. They are delighted to find three brand-new machines, two still in their crates. Morris dashes their hopes:

My clerk said you wanted an incubator. No dice.

Yeah, but you’ve got three.

That’s right, but if I give one away, I’ll only have two.

What’s wrong with two?

Two is not as good as three.

You’re not even using them.

Who says I have to?

What do you do when you want a culture?

I send a smear to Tokyo. If I use one of these and it breaks down, then I’ll only have two.

Morris has an alternative suggestion:

Why don’t you guys just salute and get the hell on out of here?

So the Swampmen go over his head to Col. Lambert, who offers to sell them an incubator for a thousand dollars.

Ah! Preparing a little doggie bag for Switzerland, Colonel?

That was a perfect diagnosis, Doctor.

Wait a minute. You sell incubators?

Oh, yes. Sterilizers, ice cream makers, pontoon bridges, jeeps, and with a week’s notice, the odd B-52. The crew is extra, of course.

This, by the way, is an anachronism: the B-52 bomber did not go into service until 1955. Such slip-ups were frequent in the early years of M*A*S*H: for instance, there were several references to Godzilla, though Ishiro Honda’s original Gojira did not appear until 1954. The offence is a venial one, since most of the anachronistic dialogue occurs in punchlines and does not materially affect the plots.

Onward and upward: the Swampmen pester General Mitchell at a press conference. The gathered reporters, hearing what an incubator is, grab the wrong end of the stick and start asking if the U.S. is engaging in germ warfare. Pandemonium ensues; between the cut and the next scene, Hawkeye and Trapper are arrested by MPs and sent back to the 4077th. Their mission has ended in ignominious failure.

But Radar has already saved the day. With a triumphant ‘Ta-da!’ he uncovers the coveted incubator, now sitting in the outer office.

Radar, how?

Oh, a little wheeling-dealing, a little horse-trading… a little this for that….

And we went all the way up to a general.

And a little corporal shall lead them.

You guys gotta learn to start at the top.

In the tag, we discover just what ‘this’ Radar traded for ‘that’:

Um, sir? We… we do have just a little bit of a problem here.


     (pointing his thumb back at HENRY’S office)
Well, uh, he wants steak for tonight. Barbecued.


Can you set this thing for rare?

Radar knew better than to engage in a wild-goose chase, trying to beg or borrow the incubator. Though the script does not say how he made the deal, it is fairly easy to figure out. For Major Morris, the pathological pack rat, or (more likely) his clerk, two incubators are not as good as three; but two incubators and a barbecue are better than three of a kind. From Radar’s point of view, it did no harm to let the Swampmen ask for the machine; Morris might have said yes; stranger things have happened. But he already had Plan B ready. The moral of the tale is that the Army is stupid, and nothing gets done through official channels. But the moral in the tail is quite different, though slyly hidden, like the words of wisdom that Shakespeare puts in the mouths of fools and madmen: There are orders even a general cannot give, but Private Enterprise outranks any general.

By way of contrast, this lesson was lost on the Swampmen, especially in their later edition with B. J. Hunnicutt. At times, Hawkeye and B. J. positively prided themselves on their lack of practicality in business matters. A case in point is ‘None Like It Hot’, by Ken Levine, David Isaacs, and Johnny Bonaduce (season 7). Hawkeye and B. J. receive a collapsible canvas bathtub from Abercrombie & Fitch. At first, they try to keep it a secret from the camp. When it is discovered, everyone in the company wants a bath in the scorching heat of the Korean summer. The queues are endless and unruly; fisticuffs break out; everyone is snarling at everyone else. A visiting sergeant, an old and battle-hardened scrounger, shows up and offers to buy the tub; the Swampmen turn him down flat.

          SGT. RHODEN
I got it figured out. You’re making money on this, aren’t you? I seen that lineup. Now how much are you charging, five bucks a butt? Ten?

          B. J.

Nothing for a skinny dip in paradise? What are you guys, Communist?

Rhoden is played as a thoroughgoing heavy, smarmy, sleazy, cocky, unpleasant, complete with redneck Southern accent; we are meant to regard him as a villain, and his ‘Communist’ crack as just a bit of loony Red-baiting by another idiotic right-wing Army clown. In fact, he is completely right. If the Swampmen (who, after all, own the tub) let people pay to use it, the queue would thin out, the disturbances would cease, and they would raise money that they could use for other purposes. They could order another tub; they could donate the proceeds to charity (Father Mulcahy could suggest a few), or put the cash in the Officers’ Club kitty for a unit party – any number of things. Instead, the queue is worthy of the old GUM store in Moscow – Communist indeed.

Basic economics tells us that every scarce resource must be rationed, either by price, by privilege, or by some other method. The Swampmen have tried privilege (keeping the tub secret); they have tried the Communist method (making everyone wait their turn, wasting scores of man-hours and causing an intolerable ruckus); but they are too high and holy to dirty their hands with lucre, so they refuse even to consider rationing by price. In the end, Col. Potter gets fed up with the fighting and orders them to get rid of the tub. The mere facts of the plot make an excellent parable on the failings of socialism; but the production team and the cast spare no effort to throw all our sympathies onto the other side, painting the socialist solution as egalitarian and caring, the capitalist Rhoden as callous and selfish. Yet the egalitarian and caring Swampmen are selfish enough to hog the only tub in Uijeongbu for themselves. In the end Rhoden gets the tub anyway, and the Swampmen are out the purchase price (which is never mentioned at any time) and the months they spent waiting for it to arrive.

As we shall see, Radar never lost his skills as a wheeler-dealer, though he had fewer opportunities to show them off in later years. However, that side of his character was gradually downplayed in favour of his endearing (and sometimes cloying) naïveté.

‘I Hate a Mystery’, by Hal Dressner (season 1), is a thoroughly forgettable episode, important in the history of M*A*S*H only because it introduces Radar’s teddy bear. Larry Gelbart later came to regret this, saying that the device became coy through overuse. At the time, it offered an interesting sidelight on the character: this slick operator, part magician and part juvenile delinquent, who kept the 4077th running in spite of its madcap staff and foggy-headed commander, was at heart just a little boy who needed his stuffed toy. But over time, the little boy took over.

Unlike some of the later changes, which happened through laziness or sloppy writing, the redesign of Radar was quite deliberate and instigated by the show’s creators. The teddy bear struck a chord with viewers. Hawkeye remained the star of the show, but the audience’s hearts went out to Radar: the sole enlisted man among the regular cast at that time, he stood for all the draftee GIs who were too young for the horrors they endured, and longed above all to be home. Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds exploited this effect to the full. They worked with Gary Burghoff and the writing staff to make Radar gentler, more innocent and childlike.

We can trace this process by stages; it was complete well before Gelbart and Reynolds left the show. Some of the key episodes:

  • ‘Love Story’, by Laurence Marks (season 1). Radar receives a ‘Dear John’ record from his girl back in Iowa. Initially heartbroken, he rebounds and falls for a new nurse, the highbrow Lt. Louise Anderson (Kelly Jean Peters). To help him win her, the Swampmen give him a crash course in classical music and literature, teaching him to fake it with phrases like ‘I’m partial to the fugue’ and the old standby, ‘Ah, Bach!’
  • ‘The Army-Navy Game’, by Sid Dorfman (season 1). A brilliant episode, in which Hawkeye and Trapper risk their lives trying to disarm an unexploded bomb in the compound – which turns out, when it detonates, to be a CIA bomb filled with propaganda leaflets. While the whole camp is hunkered down and fearing imminent death, Radar works up the courage to proposition the statuesque Nurse Hardy (Sheila Lauritsen): ‘For months now, I have worshipped you from below.’ She leads him away gently by the hand, and though nothing specific is said, we are led to believe that he manages to lose his virginity before the bomb goes off. Emboldened, he tries the same come-on on the next nurse he sees – but to his embarrassment, the ‘nurse’ turns out to be Klinger.
  • ‘The Chosen People’, by Laurence Marks, Sheldon Keller, and Larry Gelbart (season 2). Oops! Radar is a virgin again. A Korean girl puts the finger on him as the father of her half-American baby. At first he denies paternity, but then decides to go along with it until a blood test reveals that the child cannot be his. Radar confides to Hawkeye: ‘Do you remember when she first came around and I said that I do, but I didn’t? Well, I didn’t because I don’t, and I never. But I sure liked the way it felt when everybody thought I did.’
  • ‘Springtime’, by Linda Bloodworth and Mary Kay Place (season 3). As previously discussed, Radar accidentally seduces Nurse Simmons (Mary Kay Place) by reading an awful Rupert Brooke poem to her. Later he turns up in Henry’s office, glasses askew, uniform in disarray, with lipstick smeared all over his face: ‘I think I’ve been slaked.’
  • ‘Mad Dogs and Servicemen’, by Linda Bloodworth and Mary Kay Place (season 3). Radar is bitten by a dog. If the dog can’t be tracked down and tested for rabies, Radar will have to undergo a long and arduous series of rabies shots. He shows more concern for the dog’s fate than his own.
  • ‘Private Charles Lamb’, by Larry Gelbart and Sid Dorfman (season 3). M*A*S*H mavens seem to concur that this episode marks the real emergence of the childlike Radar. The Greek contingent of the U.N. forces, many of whom have been treated at the 4077th, express their gratitude by putting on an Orthodox Easter feast, with a live lamb for the main course. Radar, the animal lover, decides to rescue it, tricking Henry into signing an emergency leave for ‘Private Lamb’ so he can spirit it out of the country. The Greeks wind up celebrating Easter with a substitute lamb made out of Spam.
  • ‘Welcome to Korea’, by Everett Greenbaum, Jim Fritzell, and Larry Gelbart (season 4). Radar accompanies Hawkeye to Seoul to try to catch Trapper’s flight home (which they miss) and pick up Trapper’s replacement, B. J. Hunnicutt. At the officers’ club at Kimpo Air Base, we see Radar order a Grape Nehi for the first time. Henceforward, he is a teetotaller.
  • ‘Dear Mildred’, by Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell (season 4). Radar is still ill at ease with his new C.O., Col. Potter. A chopper pilot reports that he has spotted a wounded horse, and suggests it ought to be put out of its misery. Radar objects vehemently: ‘It’s got rights!’ He talks the Swampmen into rescuing and treating it, and then gives it as a present to Col. Potter, finally breaking the ice between the colonel and himself.
  • ‘The Gun’, by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds (season 4). A wounded colonel has to check his antique Colt .45 with Radar, but Frank Burns steals it out of the gun locker. The colonel threatens to throw the book at Radar, who tries to drown his sorrows at the Officers’ Club. We see him swaying on his barstool, and his speech is slurred. Klinger, concerned, asks him how many beers he’s had. ‘One,’ says Radar. He contemplates the prospect of fifteen years in the stockade: ‘I’m going to jail in my puberty, and I won’t come out till my adultery!’
  • ‘Mulcahy’s War’, by Richard Cogan (season 5). Frank Burns refuses to operate on a wounded dog, even though the dog is a soldier in the U. S. Army – Corporal Cupcake. Radar tries to talk him into it: ‘After all, dogs are people too!’

With the new Radar firmly established, the old one begins to disappear down the memory hole. In ‘Chief Surgeon Who?’, just a few weeks into the show’s run, we saw Radar in Henry’s office, drinking brandy and smoking cigars. Five years later, in ‘Fade Out, Fade In’, Col. Potter helps Radar smoke his first cigar, and Radar is duly sick. In ‘Hot Lips is Back in Town’, despite his previous experiences with Nurses Hardy and Simmons and possibly others, Radar is completely and comically lost when trying to make time with the latest arrival, Lt. Linda Nugent. No wonder Charles Winchester, in the same episode, made a sarcastic reference to Radar’s ‘interminable childhood’. Through the magic of the sitcom reset-to-zero, Radar was actually more immature and childlike when he left the show than when it started.

And it was starting to wear thin. Gary Burghoff himself had had enough. The second half of his career on M*A*S*H, besides being marked by Radar’s slow regression towards childhood, was a long drawn-out goodbye, to which we turn our attention next.

Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view


  1. Matt Osterndorf says

    It seems like more attention paid to continuity could have solved lots of problems with the later seasons. How quickly were the screenplays (if that’s the right word) written?

    (Also, as usual, good blog.)

    • I believe the technically correct term is teleplay, but I have rarely seen that used except in credits.

      As far as I know, the scripts were generally cranked out pretty fast. When you consider, for instance, that Larry Gelbart had a full-time job producing the show, and (in effect) another full-time job story editing, and directed episodes as well, and yet contributed several scripts per year on top of all that – well, he had to be pretty quick with his typewriter.

      I believe, however, that the real fault with continuity lies in the sheer number of writers employed (over 60 all told) and the lack of a series bible. People were going off shaky memories at times, and feeling free to establish things that had been definitely nailed down in earlier seasons.

      • Jay Allman says

        Was continuity even such an important consideration back then, especially for comedy shows? The impression I have — and it’s only an impression — is that most comedies were written so broadly that there was never enough character or situation detail for continuity to even develop, let alone be worried about.

        I’m not even certain how important it was in long-running dramas from the 50s into the 70s. I wasn’t old enough to watch such shows when they were on. The only one I ever watched in syndication was “Star Trek” (original series), and that one has some continuity issues that are pretty jaw-dropping considering it was a universe that wanted (in both senses of the word) some rigorous secondary world creation.

        In fact, my overall impression is that interest in continuity, at least as we’re used to it today as a sometimes make-or-break issue, only began to emerge during the 70s. Comic books famously didn’t care about continuity before that. And then suddenly they did, and readers have been paying a price ever since.

        • Matt Osterndorf says

          Isn’t the trouble with comic books having to worry about continuity that they’re forced to rely on ridiculous plot devices to “reset to zero”? (I could be wrong about this, since I’m not at all familiar with the genre.)

          • Jay Allman says

            There’s also keeping straight the various relationships between the incompatible continuities. It’s not just a matter of utterly bizarre resets, it’s that what’s on either side of the “reset” has to be taken seriously.

            So, for instance, Peter Parker at one time totally was married. Then later he totally was never married. And in fact you can only explain the fact that he was never ever married by pointing to the fact that something happened after he totally was for reals-and-true married. There may be branches of modal logic that explain how that relationship between “true-that-p” and “never-true-that-p” works, but it’s been 20 years since I studied modal logic and I didn’t get a good grade in it anyway. I pity anyone else who tries thinking it through.

            Even when you don’t have to worry about resets, continuity can gradually derange a series. “Batman” is a good example. For obvious sales reasons, Batman can’t kill the Joker, the Riddler, Two Face, et al., because it’s the villains that actually sell the books. So Batman and the GCPD play catch-and-release with these guys, to the mounting incredulity of the continuity-obsessed fans who, with a certain amount of justice, wonder why no one takes the Joker, after he’s escaped for the bumpity-bumpth time and killed his (bumpity-bump x 5)th victim, up to the top of a tall building and “accidentally” drops him.

  2. Ecxellent, as ever.

  3. For the record, coming from somebody who has never seen MASH, the writing for “The Incubator” is brilliant. Top-notch comedy edged with excellent military commentary, but neither is sacrificed for the other. Really great stuff.

  4. My MASH faves remain Radar, followed by Father Mulchay, Col. Potter, and Winchester (in no particular order).

    I always preferred the interpretation that Radar just had good hearing and was a skilled observer giving others the impression of ESP, but was just a sign of his unrecognized talents.

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