Hogan's Heroes

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Hogan's Heroes

Depending upon whom one asks, Hogan's Heroes was either a cutting edge situation comedy or a testament to how desensitized to human suffering American television viewers had become in the 1960s. The basic plot of the popular television show centered around American Col. Robert Hogan, played by Bob Crane, and a band of other prisoners of war, who had established a secret complex within and below the grounds of Stalag 13, a Nazi concentration camp. From there they engaged in sabotage and rescue operations against the Third Reich. Every bed was a passageway, every coffee pot a radio. For six seasons on CBS, Hogan and his group used a stash of supplies, that would have made the Third Army envious, to confound Hitler's hapless forces in and around Dusseldorf.

Hogan's Heroes was loosely based on the play Stalag 17, triggering a lawsuit by the producers of the play, but also contained elements of the 1963 hit movie The Great Escape. Hogan's team was composed of demolition expert Andrew Carter (Larry Hovis), radio operator Ivan Kinchlow (Ivan Dixon), all-around procurer Peter Newkirk (Richard Dawson), and chef Louis LeBeau (Robert Clary). Their primary nemesis was Wilhelm Klink (Werner Klemperer), a pompous colonel who sought promotion to general by constantly reminding his superiors that "No one has ever escaped from Stalag 13!" He was aided by Sgt. Major Hans Schultz (John Banner), who regularly stumbled across Hogan's escapades but, unable to fathom the consequences of his perceptions, managed to ignore them by chanting the mantra "I see nothing!" Among Klink's regular superiors were General Albert Burkhalter (Leon Askin) and Gestapo Major Wolfgang Hochstetter (Howard Cain). The show never actually featured Adolf Hitler as a character, but he was impersonated twice—once on radio and once in person—to great comic effect.

While Hogan's Heroes was a popular show, it was also a lightning rod for controversy. In 1965, when the program first aired, organized reaction to America's involvement in Vietnam was intensifying. It did not help matters much that corporate America was making huge amounts of money and the "silent majority" was settling back once a week to revel in the lighthearted high jinks, as a fun-loving bunch of POWs confounded their dumb-but-lovable Nazi tormentors. This was not new territory. McHale's Navy, which debuted in 1962, featured Ernest Borgnine as the Commander of an American PT boat crewed by a load of drunks and petty thieves and catered to by an escaped Japanese POW named Fuji, who they hid from their dumbfounded commanding officer Admiral Binghamton (Joe Flynn). But the members of McHale's Navy rarely fought the enemy face-to-face. By comparison, a whole concentration camp of prisoners, who could have left at any time and chose not to, policed by representatives of a system of imbecility that appeared to stretch all the way to the top of the chain of command, was more than many people, particularly those less than a generation removed from the war, could stand.

The show's defenders countered that it was meant to be nothing more than slapstick entertainment. Indeed, the action of the show was extremely unrealistic—in one episode they smuggled a whole German army tank into camp, in another Hogan convinced Klink and Burkhalter that the war was over. They also pointed out that Clary had spent most of his early life in a concentration camp and thought ridicule a more than appropriate treatment of the Nazis. But those defenses mattered little to the show's critics, and Hogan's Heroes was regularly attacked throughout its run.

—Barry Morris

Further Reading:

Royce, Brenda Scott. Hogan's Heroes: Behind the Scenes at Stalag 13. Los Angeles, Renaissance, 1998.

Shive, Nathan. The Official "Hogan's Heroes" Companion. New York, Macmillan, 1995.