Was Mr. Rogers a Navy SEAL or Marine Sniper?

From the Urban Legends Mailbag

Mr. Rogers press photo
Was Fred Rogers hiding something under that long-sleeved sweater?. PBS

Dear Urban Legends:

I've been listening to the radio today, and a couple of speakers made mention of the "fact" that Mr. Rogers was a Marine sharpshooter; some even said he's supposed to have had something like 150 "kills" in the Vietnam War and wore tattoos on his arms to prove it. I don't think that can be true, because I think he was on TV during the war — in any case, he would have likely been too old to serve in Vietnam.

I was wondering if you'd heard the story, whether it — or any part of it — was true.

Dear Reader:

Unless all the biographical information we have about him is wrong, Fred McFeely Rogers never served in the military in any capacity, much less as a Marine Corps sniper (or Navy SEAL, as another version of this apocryphal story claims). I'm sure some cynical folks are loathe to believe that the gentle, soft-spoken host of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was exactly what he seemed, but he was.

Rumors of a "secret past" began circulating in the early 1990s. It's unknown precisely where these stories originated, or why, but around 1994 Fred Rogers' alleged military exploits suddenly became a hot topic on the Internet, and grew hotter as the decade wore on. Here are some examples:

1994:

A note on Mr. Rogers. He would be a tough competitor. He has 42 confirmed sniper kills (in Korea?).

1998:

So this fellow at work (retired Army vet) says that Mr. Rogers of childrens' TV fame served three tours of duty in 'Nam as a sniper and has been credited with kills in excess of 1500 meters.

1999:

Interesting side note about Fred Rogers. He was the number three Marine sniper in the Vietnam war. And one of the reasons he always wears long sleeve clothing is because his arms are covered in tattoos.

Posthumous resurgence

Predictably, Rogers' death in February 2003 sparked a resurgence of the old rumors, but with a fresh twist: now he was supposedly an ex-Navy SEAL, instead of a former Marine sniper.

This variant circulated far and wide after someone attached it to a newer email hoax that made similar claims about Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan. The relevant portion of that text, again dated 1993, went as follows:

On another note, there was this wimpy little man (who just passed away) on PBS, gentle and quiet. Mr. Rogers is another of those you would least suspect of being anything but what he now portrays to our youth. But Mr. Rogers was a U.S. Navy Seal, combat-proven in Vietnam with over twenty-five confirmed kills to his name. He wore a long-sleeve sweater to cover the many tattoos on his forearm and biceps. A master in small arms and hand-to-hand combat, able to disarm or kill in a heartbeat. He hid that away and won our hearts with his quiet wit and charm.

Fred Rogers won our hearts, true enough; but the rest of the story as told in this email and elsewhere is hogwash. After graduating from Rollins College in Florida with a degree in music in 1951, he immediately embarked on a broadcasting career — a career that continued uninterrupted for nearly 50 years, even while he was studying for a Bachelor of Divinity degree, by virtue of which he became an ordained minister in 1962.

Far from hiding a secret past as a trained killer, Mr. Rogers was a truly gentle soul who devoted his entire adult life to educating and bettering the lives of children everywhere, and as such he deserves to be remembered.

See also:
Mr. Rogers on How to Comfort Children During a Tragedy: "Find the Helpers"

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