"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 summary
Frank and Hot Lips engage in a romantic evening, but when Frank's back goes out, it is ruined. 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.) This is 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 to be titled You Never Hear The Bullet, to be told 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 proves to be 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."
In a final scene that is usually omitted from most syndicated airings, Col. Blake starts to officially give Frank his Purple Heart, but opens the box to find a purple earring instead. Outside, Hawkeye pins the Purple Heart on Wendell's uniform as a way of making up for breaking the promise of not turning him in. This way, Wendell--or rather, Walter--gets what he wanted, but will no longer be on the front lines.
Research notes/Fun facts
- Although he plays an underage young person, Ron Howard was actually 18. Ironically several years before In March 1966 when Ron Howard was about 11 he played Opie Taylor on a episode of Gomer Pyle USMC who runaways from home to Join the USMC "[Opie Joins the Marines | Mayberry Wiki | Fandom Opie Joins the Marines]"
- Frank Burns
- Frank 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.
- 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 James T. Callahan, the actor playing Gillis, is six years older than Alan Alda (the actor playing Hawkeye).