Mr. Rogers Wasn't a Tattooed Military Sniper

Military officials say the rumor is just an urban legend

Fred Rogers
Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images

Since at least the 1990s, an urban legend has circulated claiming that Mr. Rogers—aka the late Fred McFeely Rogers, host of the children's television show "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood"—was a Marine sharpshooter. Some even claim the television personality, known for his colorful sweaters, notched as many as 150 "kills" during the Vietnam War and wore tattoos on his arms to prove it. The viral rumor is false. Military officials say it's just another urban legend.

Posthumous Rumors

Rumors that Mr. Rogers had a military background died down in the mid-1990s. But the TV host's death in February 2003 sparked a resurgence of viral postings and emails, this time with a fresh twist: now, Rogers was supposedly an ex-Navy SEAL, a member of the United States' main special operations force. This rumor began spreading after someone attached it to an email hoax that made similar claims about Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan.

A 2003 chain email, fairly representative of the rumor, claimed that Rogers had concealed his violent past from his millions of adoring fans:

"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 portrayed. 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. (He was) 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."

The Truth About Mr. Rogers

Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, did indeed win the hearts of minds of children and adults with his calm and friendly demeanor. And, true, he always wore a sweater on his show, fully covering his arms. But the sweater was part of the persona Rogers created for the program. It was not covering any tattoos.

The story as told in the above email and elsewhere is false. After graduating from Rollins College in Florida with a degree in music in 1951, Rogers immediately embarked on a broadcasting career, which continued uninterrupted for nearly 50 years, even while he was studying for a Divinity degree, by virtue of which he became an ordained minister in 1962. He never served in the military.

Nevertheless, the rumor has taken on such a life of its own that the U.S. Navy itself decided to issue a correction:

The Facts:
Firstly, Mr. Rogers was born in 1928 and thus at the time of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict was too old to enlist in the U.S. Navy.
Secondly, he had no time to do so. Right after finishing high school, Mr. Rogers went straight into college, and after graduating college directly into TV work.
From the above mentioned reasons, it is clear that Mr. Rogers could never have served in the military. He was purposely choosing long-sleeve clothes to keep his formality as well as authority not only to children but to their parents as well. Surprisingly, nobody called him Fred and he wanted to keep it that way.

Far from hiding a secret past as a trained killer, Rogers was, by all accounts, truly a gentle soul who devoted his entire adult life to educating and bettering the lives of children everywhere. For his contributions he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.