He inspired not one but two characters in Apocalypse Now. David Hackworth, the inspiration for Colonel Kurtz and Bill Kilgore, admits that he went wild in Vietnam. After shooting at his own men and opening a whorehouse, Hackworth hopped on his surfboard to escape a court martial.
In his book About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, Hackworth chronicled the highs and lows of his military career. He snuck into the military at the age of 15 and became a captain at 20. He tested recruits by dropping a decoy grenade at their feet. And his own men put a bounty on his head.
All the way up to Hackworth’s passing in 2005, he was one of the most controversial figures in the military. He openly criticized the country’s policies in Vietnam and transformed himself into a legend. The true stories of Hack’s life are almost more fantastic than anything in Apocalypse Now.
He Enlisted In The Army At Age 15 After Paying A Wino To Pose As His Father To Say He Was Old Enough
David Hackworth was just 14 years old when he joined the Merchant Marines and shipped off to the South Pacific. A year later, the 15-year-old Hackworth slipped some bills to a wino in exchange for a favor: pretend to be Hackworth’s father so that he could join the Army. It worked. It was 1945, and the teenager shipped out to Europe, where US troops monitored the border between Italy and Yugoslavia.
“At that time, I was a boy and the war was happening, and everything was rationed,” Hackworth told the Los Angeles Times. “I can remember the threat of the Japanese coming, hitting us in the beaches of Santa Monica, the blackouts, even us being shelled by Japanese submarines at Santa Barbara. For me, war had a very real effect. It was wild.”
If he hadn’t joined the Army, Hackworth says, he would have become a juvenile delinquent.
He Nearly Shot Off A Subordinate’s Manhood When He Fired What He Thought Was An Unloaded Gun
One time, Hackworth picked up a pistol and sighted a shot between a fellow soldier’s legs. “I took careful aim at the log he was splitting no more than 6 feet away, and squeezed the trigger, figuring the pistol wasn’t loaded,” Hackworth recalled in his memoir. “BANG! The slug went between Crispino’s legs, missed the log, and cut the ax handle in two… It scared the sh*t out of both of us, but I pretended I’d hit my target.”
The near-mishap only added to Hackworth’s legend. Soldiers told stories about the officer who was scared of nothing and could shoot between a man’s legs.
His Men Once Put A $3,500 Bounty On His Head
In Vietnam, Hackworth pushed his men into fighting shape. When he was training a group of men for guerrilla combat, Hack made so many enemies that his own men placed a $3,500 bounty on his head.
But in spite of harsh training tactics, Hack won over his men’s loyalty. One time, while leading his platoon through tall grass, Hack kicked a land mine, thinking it was a vine. Seconds later, the land mine detonated, but Hack’s kick saved the platoon. As the story spread, soldiers told each other that Hack was tough enough to simply kick land mines out of his way.
In One Clash While Leading His ‘Wolfhound Raiders,’ He Was Shot In The Head But Kept Fighting
In the Korean War, Hackworth commanded the Wolfhound Raiders, a regiment made up of volunteers.
“The Raiders were the cockiest, most gung-ho [soldiers] on the block,” Hackworth later wrote. He continued:
The men approached each raid with superhuman confidence, knowing just as well that it could be their final journey. Last-minute wills would be drawn up: “If you get killed, I want your jump boots.”
“Oh yeah? If you get killed, I want your knife and watch.”
But Hack stood out even among the Raiders. During one skirmish, Hackworth was shot in the head – but he kept fighting. Hack came home from that conflict with three Purple Hearts.
He Led A Helicopter Unit In Vietnam – And Brought Along His Surfboard
“You either surf or fight. That clear?” Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) says in Apocalypse Now. The movie didn’t invent the idea of officers surfing in Vietnam. That came from Hackworth.
In 1965, Hack shipped out to Vietnam with a group of paratroopers. He eventually became the leader of a helicopter unit. And yes, when Hack boarded a chopper in Vietnam, he brought along a surfboard. The boy who grew up surfing at Venice Beach carried the same attitude to ‘Nam.
He Actually Did Love The Smell Of Napalm In The Morning
Legendary actor Robert Duvall made the line famous: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
The character, Bill Kilgore, was based on Hackworth and shared many similarities with the real Army commander. A maverick, Hack strayed far from official Army procedures. He was the source of the napalm quote.
It’s not hard to see why Francis Ford Coppola used Hackworth as his inspiration. When explaining why he took up arms, Hackworth said, “I did it for sex and adventure. That’s what got me, to be dead-truthful. I was into sex and adventure. And I thought, well, you know, along the way, if you can serve your country, great.”
He Would Drop Seemingly Real Dummy Grenades During Recruit Interviews As A Test
Hackworth became the youngest captain in the Korean War. But even when commanding men older than himself, Hack didn’t pull any punches.
When he was interviewing potential recruits, Hack liked to test their instincts. After modifying a grenade to remove the primer cap, Hack would drop the dummy grenade in front of the recruit, pretending it was a live grenade.
“If the volunteer froze, we knew we didn’t want him,” Hack later said. “If he threw himself on the grenade, we thought he was nuts, or at least suicidal, and we didn’t want him, either. But if he grabbed the thing and threw it out of the tent, or if he cut a trail out of the place himself, we knew he had good sense – he was a cool hombre, and real Raider material.”
During The Korean War, He Jumped On A Live Grenade
Hackworth might have called recruits nuts for jumping on a dummy grenade, but in Korea, he did the same thing – only the grenade was actually a live one.
During an entanglement, Hack was already bleeding from his wounds. Then a grenade fell into the bomb crater where Hack and his platoon were taking shelter. With no other option, Hack leapt on the grenade, using his rifle to absorb the blast. The grenade left Hack’s body sliced with shrapnel, earning him a Purple Heart.
Hackworth Was Asked To Consult On ‘Apocalypse Now,’ But Declined
In the final years of his deployment, Hackworth grew disillusioned with the Army. After the US bombed Cambodia, Hackworth said, “The way it was done violated all the principles I loved and soldiered for. It was no different from the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.”
In response, Hack went rogue: “I was heartbroken over what had happened to my Army, and I lashed out at the institution that had hurt me. I was crazy. I was angry.”
Hack’s rebellion inspired Marlon Brando’s character of Colonel Kurtz, a modified version of Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. But when writer/director Coppola personally asked Hackworth to serve as a consultant on Apocalypse Now, the veteran declined. After nearly three decades of military service, Hack was ready to leave armed conflict behind him.
For His Service, He Was Awarded 10 Silver Stars, Eight Bronze Stars, And Eight Purple Hearts
Hackworth became one of the most decorated troopers in US history. During his career, Hack earned 10 Silver Stars, eight Bronze Stars, and eight Purple Hearts. In all, Hackworth received 91 medals.
In 1971, a leading general called Hackworth “the best battalion commander I ever saw in the United States Army.”
After Vietnam, Hackworth returned all of his combat medals and moved to Australia to get away from the United States. But he didn’t stop collecting hardware. Thanks to his anti-nuclear activism, Hackworth received a United Nations Peace Medal.
After Leading A Battlefield Victory At Age 20, He Became The Korean War’s Youngest Captain
Hackworth was just 20 years old when he became the youngest captain in the Korean War. As a commander, Hackworth pushed his troops to their limit. But he also won their loyalty thanks to a willingness to ignore regulations.
During the conflict, Hackworth pilfered supplies to make sure his troops had warm clothes. He “borrowed” tactical gear and traded them for steaks to make sure his men were treated well.
“I’ve never been one for just toeing the line. That got me in trouble, but it also kept me honest,” Hackworth said in 1989. “If people didn’t like that, well, what the hell. It wasn’t my problem.”
He Set Up His Own Bordello And Massage Parlor In Vietnam
“We were a wild bunch,” Hackworth said of his men in Vietnam.
How wild? Hackworth created his own massage parlor and bordello on his Army base. “I ran a clean whorehouse in my command, I did,” Hackworth told the Los Angeles Times. “But you have to realize that we had a type of syphilis in Vietnam that was not curable. And you know, boys are going to be boys. If you were to say to a guy, ‘Go die for me,’ you can’t expect him to live a chaste life. He is a warrior, after all.”
Hack also protected soldiers who became dependent on hard substances. “The Army’s solution is, if you had stuck a needle in your arm, you’d be given a bad conduct discharge and you’d be sent home,” Hack explained. “But I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as you were wounded in action, and it was my responsibility to bring you down. So we did that. We sent you home clean, not with a $300-$400 a day habit, but a chance to start your life all over again.”
He Would Regularly Fire Behind Lagging Soldiers’ Feet To Get Them To Move Faster
In 1969, Hackworth took over a battalion in Vietnam. In four weeks, Hack turned them into a powerful guerrilla unit. “Nobody bothered to ask, ‘How did you do it?'” Hackworth complained. “Nobody superimposed that system on other battalions.”
That might be because of Hackworth’s unusual tactics, which often crossed the line.
“Sure, I’ve done some strange things, but I don’t make apologies,” Hackworth said. “War is an atrocity and people do crazy things in war. All I can do is tell the truth and fire away.”
Both Of His Parents Perished Prior To His First Birthday, And He Was Raised By His Grandmother
Hackworth was only 5 months old when both his parents perished. Hackworth’s father, who had been a miner, passed within weeks of Hack’s mother’s demise. Instead of going to an orphanage, Hackworth was raised by his grandmother in Venice Beach, CA.
Grandma raised Hackworth on a steady diet of stories about his ancestors, who’d fought in conflicts since the American Revolution.
“I had these very strong themes of patriotism,” Hackworth later recalled. “It became important to be a serviceman and do something for my country.”
He Became An Outspoken And Controversial Critic Of The Vietnam War, Which He Insisted Was Never Winnable
In 1971, Hackworth openly criticized US policy in Vietnam on an ABC television program. He accused the Army of not training men properly and called the conflict unwinnable. Hack also told the public that up to 20% of American combat casualties were thanks to friendly fire.
In response, the Army nearly court-martialed him. Hackworth was declared derelict in duty and told he had “acted without honor” in his interview.
Instead of court-martialing him, the Army let Hack resign and granted him an honorable discharge, ending his military career.
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