M*A*S*H episode
“Sometimes You Hear the Bullet”
Sometimes you hear the bullet
Henry consoles Hawkeye after the death of his friend. "There are certain rules about a war, and rule number one is: Young men die. Rule number two is: Doctors can't change rule number one."
Season 1, Episode # 17
Number (#17) in series (256 episodes)
Guest star(s) James T. Callahan
Ron Howard
Fred Lerner
Chuck Hicks
Network: CBS-TV
Production code: J-318
Writer(s) Carl Kleinschmitt
Director William Wiard
Original airdate January 28, 1973
IMDb logo IMDB Sometimes You Hear the Bullet
Episode chronology
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"The Ringbanger" (J‑316) "Dear Dad...Again" (J‑317)

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"Dear Dad...Again" (J‑317) "The Longjohn Flap (J‑319)"

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Season 1 episodes
List of all M*A*S*H episodes

Sometimes You Hear the Bullet, the 17th episode of Season 1 of the M*A*S*H TV series, was also the 17th overall series episode. Written by Carl Kleinschmitt, it was directed by William Wiard, and originally aired on CBS-TV on January 28, 1973.


Frank throws out his back and applies for the Purple Heart. Meanwhile, Hawkeye finds out one of his patients (played by Ron Howard) is an underaged soldier. He begs Hawkeye to let him stay on and at first Hawkeye agrees. But then an old friend of Hawkeye's, Corporal Tommy Gillis, is wounded, rushed to the 4077th, and dies despite Hawkeye's best efforts. Hawkeye is overcome by grief and decides to turn in the underaged soldier for his own good.

Full episode summaryEdit

Frank and Hot Lips engage in a romantic evening, but it's ruined when Frank's back goes out. As Hawkeye and Trapper tend to him, they learn Frank has applied for the Purple Heart (he claims to have slipped in the mud coming back from the showers, and Margaret insists that it qualifies, since it happened in a battle zone), something neither they or Henry can believe.

But that's interrupted when a childhood friend of Hawkeye's, Corporal Tommy Gillis (James T. Callahan) arrives in camp. Gillis, Hawkeye, and Trapper head back to The Swamp to get blasted. Tommy tells them he's writing a book about the war ("You Never Hear The Bullet") - not from a reporter's POV, but a soldier's - Tommy is there on the front lines, with the rest of the fighting men.

Wounded arrive, and Tommy heads back. One of the wounded is a very young man, Private Wendell Petersen (Ron Howard), who is only there for a bad appendix. He seems very anxious to get back to the fighting, but Hawkeye tells him he must stay and rest for at least a few days. Later, Hawkeye catches him trying to hotwire a jeep to get back to his unit - he thought he was going to be sent home. After talking with him, Hawkeye learns Wendell is not even 16 years old, and went to war to impress his girlfriend back home, so he can "Earn a medal and be a hero." He confesses that he used his brother's birth certificate to get in, and his name is really Walter. He begs Hawkeye not to turn him in, and Hawkeye agrees after getting Walter to return to bed.

More wounded arrive, and one of the most hurt is Tommy. Hawkeye works on him, but it's no use. Tommy dies on the table, muttering in amazement that, unlike his book title, he actually heard the bullet that did him in.

Afterwards, Hawkeye stands in the doorway of the O.R., crying. Henry tries to console him, pointing out the two rules they taught him in command school: "Rule #1 - Young men die. Rule #2 - Doctors can't change Rule #1."

Hawkeye decides, then and there, to do something to avoid another senseless death - he tells Major Houlihan to get the M.P.s because Pvt. Wendell is really Walter, only 15 years old, and should be sent home immediately. Walter threatens to never forgive Hawkeye for the rest of his life, and Hawkeye hopes "it's a long and healthy hate."

Later, to partially make it up to Wendell, Hawkeye gives him Frank's Purple Heart - so he's getting what he wanted, but will no longer be on the front lines. (This scene is usually omitted from most syndicated airings.)

Research notes/Fun factsEdit

  • Although he plays an underage young person, Ron Howard was actually 18.
  • Frank Burns
    • Burns and Hot Lips have a secret knock now.
    • The last time that Frank Burns's back went out, it was VJ day, in Times Square.
      • This appears to be a reference to the famous picture of a sailor kissing a nurse, so that couldn't have been Frank.
    • The first of several ailments of Burns; besides a bad back (which has a tendency to go out) which should have disqualified Burns as 4F(too physically impaired to join the service), he also suffers from anemia and a chronic hernia.
  • Hawkeye
    • Before this episode, Hawkeye hadn't cried since he got to Korea.
    • This is one of the few times Hawkeye follows military regulations - when it will save a life. He will do it again later when he refuses to fudge Col. Potter's high blood pressure results in Season 9's "The Red/White Blues."
  • It may seem odd that they gave up on Gillis so quickly. Hawkeye was ready to open his chest and do a heart massage, a technique he had done numerous other times in other episodes with mostly successful results. But Col. Blake refuses to allow Hawkeye to do this for Gillis. He stated just before that Gillis's blood pressure dropped since his aorta had been hit, and Henry knew that the massage wouldn't work.
  • Hawkeye makes sure that an underage soldier [Howard] goes home. In a future episode, "The Price," Hawkeye and B.J. hide an underage conscript from the Korean Army; however, the boy is so overcome with guilt on seeing a famous aged Korean soldier that he flees to join the Korean Army.
  • It seems unlikely that Gillis and Hawkeye would have gone to elementary school together; not only does Gillis look much older than Hawkeye, but the actor playing him (James Callahan) is six years older than Alan Alda (Hawkeye's actor).

Guest stars/Recurring castEdit