Old Soldiers is the eighteenth episode of the eighth season of the CBS-TV series M*A*S*H; Directed by Charles S. Dubin, the episode was written by Dennis Koenig. W.C. Heinz, Richard Hooker, Ring Lardner, Jr., who all were co-writers for the 1970 MASH film, who were uncredited, also contributed as writers on the episode, which originally aired on January 21, 1980.
Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) leaves for Tokyo under mysterious circumstances, leaving Hawkeye (Alan Alda) in charge to deal with a group of refugee children, and to figure out why Potter is acting so strangely upon his return.
Full episode summary
After being woken up at "three-thirty in the blessed a.m." for a phone call, Potter instructs Klinger to immediately get him a flight to Tokyo, leaving Hawkeye in command until he gets back. Klinger asks where Potter will be, he ambiguously replies he'll be at Tokyo General visiting a sick friend.
While Potter is away, Red Cross worker Betty Halpern arrives in camp with a group of Korean refugees, mostly children, in need of basic medical care after hiding in some thorn bushes to avoid an enemy patrol. The Korean kids essentially take over the 4077th, running around and causing general (but not altogether unwelcome) chaos. Their stay becomes extended when the doctors discover the kids all have an allergic reaction to the tetanus serum, but they can't figure out why; the doctors have to dilute the doses so the kids aren't thrown into shock, and then decide to put them up for the night, letting the kids sleep in the empty Post-Op.
Potter checks in at the 4077th over the phone, but his only concern (outside of Klinger finishing the weekly reports) is a package due to arrive for him, and he warns Klinger to guard it with his life if it arrives before he returns. Potter returns the next morning, but is still not in a talking mood about his sick friend in Tokyo.
When he goes into the Mess Tent and meets Betty, the doctors tell him about the allergic reactions, but Potter already knows the reason for them: the only meat the locals consume is horse meat which sensitizes their whole system; the reason for the reaction is that the doctors are using horse serum. After a tossed off joke by Hawkeye and B.J., an offended Potter starts ranting about the atrocity of people having to eat horses, extolling the virtues and nobility of the horse, saying, "in WWI, a man's steed was his best friend, a real companion - where do people get off making porkchops out of 'em??" Noticing that his raving has left everyone listening to him in stunned silence, Potter mumbles an apology and leaves.
Later, after Potter's package finally arrives, he asks Klinger to deliver a series of special envelopes, addressed to each of the rest of the senior staff (Hawkeye, B.J. Winchester, Margaret, and Father Mulcahy). Inside each one is an invitation:
"You are invited to my tent tomorrow night at 1900 hours. Cordially, Sherman Potter. P.S.: That's an order."
Their collective curiosity is further piqued when Klinger mentions the package that Potter received from a lawyers' office. Charles has a sudden realization - perhaps the "sick friend" is Potter himself, reasoning that it would explain Potter's mood, the Tokyo trip, and the package from the lawyers. As they are inoculating the kids with the now-diluted serum, Klinger announces that Potter wants to be left alone until tomorrow night, but the wait is beginning to get on everyone's nerves, especially Margaret's.
Alone in his office, Potter is listening to Roses Of Picardy on a record player when one of the refugees, a Korean boy, wanders in. He is about to leave, but Potter kindly invites him in and sits him on his lap, showing him old photographs of himself from WWI and even sharing some fudge from Tokyo with him as they sit there together.
The following night, after Betty and the refugees leave, the nervous staffers arrive at Potter's tent at the appointed time and find him wearing his old Cavalry uniform. He tells them a story from his youth: In 1917 during WWI, Potter and his four closest friends were in France under a heavy artillery barrage and decided to hide out in an old château. One of them found a cache of fine brandy, and the five spent the rest of that night singing and drinking to their friendship until they got down to the last bottle (which Potter reveals was in the special package he got in the mail), so the five of them made a "tontine", a pledge to save the last bottle, and whoever turned out to be the sole survivor of the group would get the bottle and drink a toast to his old buddies.
Potter allays their fears when he reveals that he himself became the last survivor of the group when his friend Gresky passed away in Tokyo; Gresky had the bottle sent to him in camp. Though he mourns the loss of his old friends, he takes comfort in the new friends he has made at the 4077th, and invites them to share the brandy with him. They are honored by Potter's request and each pour a glass, but Potter first gives a solo toast to his four departed friends from his youth:
- Ryan (lost in WWI)
- Giannelli (lost in WW2)
- Stein (the joker of the group), and
- Gresky (who just passed in Tokyo; Potter counts him as his best friend)
To his new friends (Hawkeye, Margaret, B.J., Charles, Father Mulcahy and Klinger), whom he values even more, Potter then gives another toast, "to love and friendship", and they all share a drink from the final bottle of brandy.
Research notes/Fun facts
- The episode's title ironically alludes to the conclusion of General Douglas MacArthur's farewell address to Congress on April 19, 1951, eight days after being fired by President Truman. MacArthur closed his address by quoting an old "barrack ballad" that states "Old soldiers never die-- they just fade away."
- Roses Of Picardy is a British song composed by Frederick Weatherly (lyrics) and Haydn Wood (music). The song was published in London by Chappell and Co. in 1916 and became very popular during World War I.
- Buffalo bagels!
- Who in the name of Annie's argyles are all these kids?
- Give that man a cheroot.
- David Ogden Stiers regards Potter's tontine speech as his favorite memory of the show.
Guest stars/Recurring cast
- Jane Connell as Betty Halpern
- Jason Autajay as Korean Boy
- Sally Imamura as Korean Girl
- Uncredited appearances by Kellye Nakahara , Jennifer Davis , Jo Ann Thompson
- chalmers, December 7, 2011 (8:56 p.m.), comment on Ken Levine, “R.I.P. Harry Morgan,” The World as Seen by a TV Comedy Writer, December 7, 2011, http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2011/12/rip-harry-morgan.html