Why Alan Alda Is Auctioning His 'M*A*S*H' Dog Tags and Boots After 40 Years

Alda as Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, with co-star Gary Burghoff on "M*A*S*H." (CBS)

Every day for 11 seasons, actor Alan Alda donned the same dog tags and boots to play his character, Dr. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, on "M*A*S*H." They became so important to him that he kept them after the show's final episode aired on Feb. 28, 1983 -- more than 40 years ago.

The seemingly innocuous props had such a special meaning for him that the show's costume department let him keep them. They were a lot more important than just any old props, because the dog tags, it turned out, were real. Alda is now willing to part ways with his pieces of television history, but for a good cause: his passion project of helping scientists better communicate their research to the rest of the world.

Read: Alan Alda Didn't Just Play an Army Officer in Korea on TV. He Was One.

For the uninitiated, "M*A*S*H" is the story of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, a real kind of surgical unit that was designed to follow combat units closely on the front lines. Conceived during World War II and perfected during the Korean War, the MASH units, combined with helicopter evacuation, dramatically reduced the death rate of wounded soldiers.

The television show "M*A*S*H" centered around the 4077th MASH, technically a fictional unit, but the show (and the 1970 movie) were based on a book, "MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors" by Richard Hooker and W.C. Heinz. Hooker's name was actually a pen name, but the author actually was a MASH surgeon in Korea.

Naturally, over the course of 11 seasons, the television show strayed from the plot of the book, but many of the characters and the spirit of the two were the same. First airing in 1972, the dark comedy soon became a critique of the ongoing Vietnam War. Even after the United States left Vietnam, "M*A*S*H" still used its comedy to criticize the Cold War covertly.

"M*A*S*H" propelled Alda to stardom. He earned five Emmy Awards for his work on the show, three for his performance as Hawkeye, one for writing and one for directing. Although "M*A*S*H" never topped the ratings, it was consistently in the top five, 10 or 20 shows on the air throughout its run.

The last episode of the series, titled "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," was the most-watched television broadcast in American history. It was unseated by Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, but it remains the most-watched series finale ever.

The dog tags Hawkeye wore for those 11 seasons didn't belong to Alda, who served as an Army officer in Korea, but rather to two other men, Hersie Davenport and Morriss D. Levine. Heritage Auctions, the house that will be conducting the auction on July 28, 2023, researched the names and found that both men had been in the Army and both were discharged in 1945.

"I put these boots on every day that we shot MASH, for eleven years," Alda wrote in his auction letter of provenance. "And the dog tags, too. And every time my foot found its way into one of the boots, or the necklace of tags went over my head, I remembered: Someone had worn these once in a real war."

According to the research conducted by Heritage Auctions, Davenport died in 1970. Levine, whose first name is misspelled on his dog tag with an extra "s," died in 1973. Neither could have known that their personal military history would be a part of television history.

"There's an old belief among actors that when you put the shoes of the character on, it's easier to believe you're the character and I think the boots had that effect on me," Alda told The Associated Press.

For 40 years, he kept both props on a shelf in his office, but decided it was time for them to go to work again. The auction will benefit the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York, a learning annex he founded to help doctors and scientists learn how to communicate better about their work through improvisational exercises and other communications techniques.

"Putting them up for auction, with all proceeds going to the non-profit Center, is a way for them to march again. This time to help improve communication -- something a little different from the conflict in which they were first worn," the actor wrote.

"Mike Farrell and I today toasting the 50th anniversary of the show that changed our lives - and our brilliant pals who made it what it was. MASH was a great gift to us."(Alan Alda via Twitter)

Alda realized how important explaining their work would be as the host of the long-running PBS series "Scientific American Frontiers." He realized he didn't know what many of the scientists he interviewed were talking about, but connected with them using his skills as an actor. If they could communicate without his interaction, he reasons, the world would be better off for it.

The actor continues his scientific communication work on his podcast, "Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda." The auction for Hawkeye's boots and dog tags is ongoing at Heritage Auctions. As of this writing, the bid was $14,500. It includes a signed letter from the actor.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, or on LinkedIn.

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