In 1967, as the Vietnam War neared its height, child actor Jerry Mathers stood on stage at the Emmys in full military uniform, shortly after he graduated from boot camp.
“I was very proud to be in [the military], and it’s something I thought I should do,” said Mathers, star of “Leave it to Beaver.” “At that time … a lot of people were not very happy with people in the military. I was very proud to be in the military. My dad was in the military. So I was very proud to do it.”
Anti-war protests grew out of movements on college campuses in late 1965, spawning the burning of draft cards, and in October 1967 roughly 100,000 protesters converged on the Lincoln Memorial.
Still, Mathers said most people thanked him for his service – for which he volunteered – in the California Air National Guard. He was in from 1966-69, assigned to the 146th Airlift Wing headquarters as an aide to a colonel.
The 146th’s history dates to the 1940s and the unit was involved in campaigns in Vietnam, Korea and Panama, according to a 1990 report from the Los Angeles Times.
“When I was in high school, I took a class in typing and learned to type and that’s what they were looking for,” Mathers said. “Suddenly I was typing all sorts of things they needed typed.”
Mathers said his time in the Guard was a good experience that allowed him to meet new people.
“We all had one goal and that was to make ours the best unit in the Air National Guard,” Mathers said. “Working at headquarters, I was working for a general, but working for colonel that was the general’s aide. So I knew everything that was going on.”
But his notoriety as an actor didn’t really affect his time in the service.
“No one messed with me, to be honest with you,” he said, noting his position at headquarters. “[I was] someone that could walk into a place, say he [the colonel] wants this, he wants that, and it happened.”
What he treasures most from that time, he said, is the people he met.
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“I had a lot of new friends and went in there, [we were] all working in headquarters and everybody wanted to know what we were doing, what was going on,” Mathers said. “I always had all the information. It was a really easy way for me to go through it.”
And even though he never served overseas, rumors surfaced that Mathers had been killed in action in Vietnam.
“I don’t remember exactly when it was, I know it did happen,” Mathers said. “We think … a person with a similar name of Mathers or whatever and that poor person, I imagine passed away. I only found it out because I read it in a newspaper – ‘Actor killed in Vietnam.’”
Fellow “Leave it to Beaver” actor Stephen Talbot heard the rumor by word of mouth, according to a 2017 article on the northern California public broadcast network KQED. The news, he wrote, stopped him “cold.”
“Surely I would have heard if my TV buddy had died,” Talbot wrote. “Then again, there had been so many deaths, assassinations and shocking events in the 1960s that maybe this was just one more surreal, tragic loss.”
Though debunked, Talbot wrote that the “violent death in a controversial war of a cherished TV star was a difficult rumor to put to rest.”
“But that’s all it was, just a nightmare rumor,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, the Vietnam War itself was all too real. Somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians perished in that conflict, as well as some 58,000 Americans. My friend Jerry was fortunately not one those casualties.”
Currently, Mathers advocates for diabetes education and awareness and participates in fan conventions and autograph shows.
“‘Leave it to Beaver’ has been on now 65 years,” Mathers said. “Not only in this country but all over the world. Just fun to be able to have people come up, really enjoy it, it’s basically three generations of folks that we’ve gone through and it’s still on.”