"The Late Captain Pierce" was the 77th episode of the CBS-TV series M*A*S*H television series, and, also the fifth episode of the fourth season of the series. It was written by brothers Glen and Les Charles, who would later go on to produce the ABC-TV sitcom Taxi, and later create the sitcom Cheers. It was directed by Alan Alda, and first aired on October 3, 1975.
Hawkeye finds out that due to a clerical error, he has been declared dead by the Army.
Full episode summary
Late at night, Klinger (filling in for Radar on R&R in Seoul) enters the Swamp and wakes B.J. for a stateside phone call - from Hawkeye's father, which naturally confuses B.J.. He wakes Hawkeye to tell him and he accompanies them to the phone, but all B.J. can hear is “How?” and “Why?” before the line gets knocked out. Baffled, Hawkeye waits the rest of the night for a return call, but none ever comes.
As Hawkeye leaves to take a shower, he runs into Lieutenant "Digger" Detmuller who just arrived from Quartermaster Corps morgue detail to retrieve a corpse; when he asks Klinger where he can find Captain Pierce, Klinger tells him he's in the shower. Confused, Digger finds Hawkeye in the shower and tells him he's been listed as dead by the Army. Digger shows Hawkeye a copy of his own death certificate and notifies him the original has been sent to his next of kin, meaning his father. Hawkeye now understands why his father asked for B.J. instead of him – he thinks Hawkeye is dead.
Hawkeye informs Potter, who has Klinger notify HQ of the snafu. When Hawkeye tells B.J. about the gaffe he decides to throw his friend a wake saying, "What kind of a friend would I be to let you pass away without a party?" In lieu of the phone line being out, Klinger comes up with a plan for Hawkeye to send a telegram through another unit to get word back home; he writes Hawkeye's dictation:
"Dear Dad, I am not dead. Stop. Hope you are the same. Stop. Thinking of selling my clubs? Stop. Spending my insurance money? Stop. Will call soonest. Please don't worry. Love, your nowhere-near-late son, Hawkeye."
As Hawkeye wonders what his father must be going through, B.J. replies, “C'mon, cheer up. We're going to a funeral!” While Digger trolls the rest of the camp looking for any dead body (even looking through Post Op), the wake is hyped over the PA system:
"Attention all personnel: Come one, come all, to a wake for the late, great Captain Pierce. Will be mourning all afternoon and evening. The deceased will deliver the eulogy, and the guests will have twenty minutes for rebuttal. Remains to be seen in the Swamp."
During the wake, Hawkeye becomes upset when Klinger informs him that all communications to the States have been temporarily shut down; General Eisenhower's impending visit to Korea has forced the Army to clamp down on security. Seeing Hawkeye's concern, B.J. leads the party in a chorus of “For He Was A Jolly Good Fellow”, but Hawkeye adds a macabre final line himself: “I was much too young to die.”
Hawkeye begins to enjoy the upsides of being dead, including exemption from orientation classes, O.D. duty, inspections, and Frank's bodybuilding program. But then the downsides begin to seep in; Klinger, after informing Hawkeye that even the Red Cross can't help him get through to the States, tells him that his mail has been stopped at HQ because they believe he's dead. Later, Frank, the pay officer, takes great pleasure in telling Hawkeye he's been “red-lined,” meaning now that the Army lists him as deceased, Hawkeye is no longer on the payroll. Now angered, Hawkeye attacks Frank before being dragged out of the Mess Tent.
HQ sends Captain Pratt to explain the mix-up and the incredibly complicated way it has to be fixed. Pratt's nonchalant attitude (he even goes so far as to call Hawkeye an "un-person") infuriates Hawkeye, who explains that his father, not knowing he's still alive, is back home mourning his son. When Pratt tells Hawkeye that he sees no other way out of his situation, Hawkeye quickly comes up with one and excuses himself, stating he is “late for an early grave” and goes to the Swamp to pack his belongings. Hawkeye boards Digger's bus, passing himself off as cargo, just as Klinger tells B.J. that a mass of casualties is on the way.
B.J. boards the bus and gently tells Hawkeye that wounded are on the way just as the choppers begin to arrive. Hawkeye insists he does not care, citing that no matter who goes home (Trapper) or who gets killed (Henry), the wounded will keep coming whether he's there or not. Hawkeye orders Digger to drive on, but right after the bus pulls outside the gate it stops, and a sullen Hawkeye emerges through the back door and trudges back to camp to do surgery, a duty his conscience will not let him forsake.
After surgery, the phone lines reopen and Hawkeye is finally able to call his dad and tell him he is still alive; he then tells him he needed a new set of golf clubs anyway, and asks him if he can start sending his allowance again.
Guest stars/Recurring cast
- Richard Masur as Lieutenant "Digger" Detweiler
- Sherry Steffens as Nurse Able (name seen in credits, but not used in dialogue)
- Kellye Nakahara as Nurse Kellye (name seen in credits, but not used in dialogue)
- Todd Susman as the P.A. announcer
- Jeff Maxwell as Igor (assisting Frank with payroll)
- Gwen Farrell (at the wake)
- Dennis Troy (subduing Hawkeye in the mess tent)
Research notes/Fun facts
- Though credited, neither Loretta Swit nor Gary Burghoff appear in this episode. Radar is mentioned as being on R&R in Seoul, with Klinger acting as company clerk in his absence; Margaret's absence is not commented on or explained.
- This is the first episode of the series without Radar appearing.
- Backdate November 1952 [Episode 3/16 "Bulletin Board"] Dwight Eisenhower vows to go Korea if elected President; in this episode President elect Eisenhower did indeed keep his campaign promise and visited Korea in December 1952; if MASH had kept to the real Korean War Timeline, it would have only lasted for about one more season, as the Korean Conflict ended in July 1953, 7 months after Eisenhower visited.
- A continuity error is Hawkeye's father is referred to (by Klinger) as Mr. Pierce instead of Dr. Pierce. However, it's possible Klinger doesn't know (or maybe forgot) Hawkeye's father was also a doctor.
- There is an error in the time zone difference. Klinger says that it's 2 in the morning in Seoul, and B.J. says that it's 8 at night Eastern time (in Maine where Pierce's father is). There is 14 hours difference between the two zones, so if it was really 20:00 Eastern Time in the United States it would be 10:00 (10 in the morning) in Seoul.
- Captain Pratt callously refers to Pierce as an "un-person", a reference from George Orwell's then-futuristic book 1984.
- Captain Pratt is played by Eldon Quick, who we've seen before (and will see again) as Captain Sloan. While both characters are unhelpful and bureaucratic, Sloan is much more strict and humorless than the joking Captain Pratt.
- When Hawkeye is talking to Klinger he mentions his family has a summer cabin in Crabapple Cove. This is the first mention of Crabapple Cove in the series; in all future references, Crabapple Cove will be Hawkeye's home town.
- Hawkeye would later repeat his statement on how wars and wounded would continue no matter who entered or left in Good-Bye Radar: Part 2 to convince Radar, who was reluctant to leave the 4077th in a tough spot, to accept his hardship discharge in spite of it. However Hawkeye opted to stay in this episode. Probably because he realized he was merely exploiting a loophole, rather than accepting a true discharge.