Radar’ has come home

By CINDY TOOPES Courier staff writer
CNHI News Service

­ OTTUMWA ­ “Radar O’Reilly” has come home.

Native Ottumwan Don Shaffer, 76, has retired to the city and claims he’s the reason Ottumwa is the fictional Radar’s hometown. And, he can’t help but notice other similarities between Radar and himself.

Walter “Radar” O’Reilly is a company clerk at a United States Army Mobile Army Surgical Hospital a few miles from the battle front during the Korean War (1949-52). O’Reilly is one of several characters from “M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors,” published in 1968 by Richard Hooker.

The first page and half of Hooker’s book tells of O’Reilly who, “just out of high school, left Ottumwa...”  “Richard Hooker” was the pen name used by Dr. H. Richard Hornberger, a retired Army surgeon who died Nov. 4, 1997, at age 73 of leukemia. Shaffer is convinced the doctor was his colonel in Korea.

“Hornberger knew I was from Ottumwa. If you’re in the same unit, you know everybody’s hometown,” Shaffer said. “It’s your ‘home of record.’”  Shaffer was Hornberger’s corporal at the 171st Evacuation Hospital in Pyongyang, North Korea, which wasn’t as close to the front lines as a MASH unit. After Shaffer wrote to Hornberger about his connection to O’Reilly, he received an answer from his retired colonel’s lawyers. They said “the MASH characters are fictional.”

In his novel’s foreword, Hornberger noted, “The characters in this book are composites of people I knew, met casually, worked with, or heard about. No one in the book bears more than a coincidental resemblance to an actual person.”

On July 29, 1989, The Courier printed Hornberger’s answer to a Courier reporter’s letter about Radar and his hometown. The article was one of many related to the 1989 M*A*S*H Reunion in Ottumwa.

“I had heard the name of the town as the birthplace of a colleague but otherwise have had no connection with it,” Hornberger wrote, adding that he chose the name “out of the blue” for O’Reilly.  Having said that, it’s also true that Hornberger was from Old Orchard Beach, Maine. One Web site said Hornberger based the character Hawkeye Pierce on himself and Hawkeye was from Crabapple Cove, Maine.

Shaffer said he knows a fiction writer can’t use a real person in his novel; but, writers do use a few details from many people to create a fictional character.  “I once took a class in character development so I do understand that,” he added.  So, Shaffer doesn’t claim to be the exact character Hornberger created, or O’Reilly as portrayed by Gary Burghoff in the movie and TV series.

But, there are similarities besides Ottumwa. Shaffer was Hornberger’s clerk and that included jobs like doing paper work, scavenging for whatever his unit needed, and arranging business and recreational trips chosen by the colonel.  One day Hornberger told Shaffer to type up a skit the doctors planned to stage. The title was written “K*R*U*D.”  “I typed it on onionskin paper and kept a copy. The letters stood for ‘Korean Returnee Utilization Detachment,’” Shaffer said. “It was humorous and irreverent, kind of like a prototype for M*A*S*H.”

Shaffer recalled when Hornberger wanted to go to a geisha house during a trip to Japan.
“He said to me, ‘You know Japanese, don’t you?’ I had taken a two-week course, so he thought I was an expert,” Shaffer said.  As a savvy clerk, Shaffer found a “provost marshal who was regular” and made arrangements to visit a geisha house. Shaffer and the colonel went to a district where even their own MPs didn’t go.

“The senior lady of the house said to bring the colonel for a party. Most people don’t realize a geisha isn’t the same as prostitute,” he said.  A geisha does an elaborate tea ceremony, sings, and plays various stringed instruments for her guest. The experience takes hours. Shaffer still has an 8mm film that has part of the party on it. And, Shaffer and Hornberger did their share of drinking sake (rice wine). 

Afterward, the two soldiers started walking back to their lodgings.  “Hornberger always put me up to do something. That night he told me to get on the box the Japanese police used to direct traffic,” Shaffer said.  Shaffer did so and soon backed up the streetcars. When he heard sirens, he staggered toward the curb.

“An MP jeep cut me off. A big ol’ sergeant said he was going to put me in the stockade for six months,” Shaffer said. “The colonel got up from the curb and told them, ‘This man’s with me,’ and staggered to a streetcar.”  The colonel and his clerk eventually parted ways. Shaffer pursued his military career and a college education. A 1948 Eldon High School graduate, Shaffer married Pat Hem of Eldon and they reared a family.

Shaffer didn’t know about “M*A*S*H” until the evening of Sept. 17, 1972, when his children watched the first TV episode of “M*A*S*H.”  “My children came running in to where I was in the house and said the show sounded just like my crazy war stories,” Shaffer said. “I told them, ‘Want to know how it ends?’”

He told them and he was right.  Shaffer is from Ottumwa and served in the Army with the guy who wrote “M*A*S*H”. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.