COL David H. Hackworth, 1930-2005
Col. David H. Hackworth, the United States Army’s legendary, highly decorated guerrilla fighter and lifelong champion of the doughboy and dogface, ground-pounder and grunt, died Wednesday in Mexico. He was 74 years old. The cause of death was a form of cancer now appearing with increasing frequency among Vietnam veterans exposed to the defoliants called Agents Orange and Blue.
Col. Hackworth spent more than half a century on the country’s hottest battlefields, first as a soldier, then as a writer, war correspondent and sharp-eyed critic of the Military-Industrial Complex and ticket-punching generals he dismissed as “Perfumed Princes.”
He preferred the combat style of World War II and Korean War heroes like James Gavin and Matthew Ridgeway and, during Vietnam, of Hank “The Gunfighter” Emerson and Hal Moore. General Moore, the co-author of We Were Soldiers Once and Young, called him “the Patton of Vietnam,” and Gen. Creighton Abrams, the last American commander in that disastrous war, described him as “the best battalion commander I ever saw in the United States Army.”
Col. Hackworth’s battlefield exploits put him on the line of American military heroes squarely next to Sgt. Alvin York and Audie Murphy. The novelist Ward Just, who knew him for forty years, described him as “the genuine article, a soldier’s soldier, a connoisseur of combat.” At 14, as World War II was sputtering out, he lied about his age to join the Merchant Marine, and at 15 he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Over the next 26 years he spent fully seven in combat. He was put in for the Medal of Honor three times; the last application is currently under review at the Pentagon. He was twice awarded the Army’s second highest honor for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross, along with 10 Silver Stars and eight Bronze Stars. When asked about his many awards, he always said he was proudest of his eight Purple Hearts and his Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
I didn’t always agree with Hackworth but I’ve long admired him and respected his work. He spent a lifetime in service to his country and doing what he thought was right for the American fighting man.
May he rest in peace.
See also, ” Col. David Hackworth, Hero of Vietnam War, Dies at 74″ (NYT)
David H. Hackworth, a much-decorated and highly unconventional former career Army officer who became a combat legend in Vietnam, and later enraged his superiors by lambasting the war on national television, died on Wednesday at a hospital in Tijuana, Mexico. He was 74. The cause was bladder cancer, his wife, Eilhys England, said.
Colonel Hackworth lied to enlist in the Army at 15 and won a battlefield commission at 20 to become the Korean War’s youngest captain. He was America’s youngest full colonel in Vietnam, and won a total of 91 medals, including two Distinguished Service Crosses, 10 Silver Stars, 8 Bronze Stars and 8 Purple Hearts. Later, he was an author, a military affairs correspondent for Newsweek, a syndicated newspaper columnist and a campaigner for military reform.
In Vietnam, he became an almost mythical figure, arriving in 1965 with the first group of American paratroopers and going on to command the helicopter unit that was later immortalized in the movie “Apocalypse Now.” He drove his men so hard, he later wrote, that they put a $3,500 bounty on his head. Early in the war he wrote a primer on how best to fight the Vietcong. His combat successes included wiping out 2,500 North Vietnamese soldiers while his troops suffered just 25 casualties. In a 1971 interview with Nick Proffit of Newsweek, Gen. Creighton Abrams, a top commander in Vietnam, called Colonel Hackworth “the best battalion commander I ever saw in the United States Army.”
General Abrams spoke shortly after Colonel Hackworth appeared on the ABC television program “Issues and Answers” and harshly criticized the conduct of the Vietnam War, saying it could not be won. He called the training inadequate and accused fellow officers of not understanding guerrilla warfare. A report by the inspector general of the Army responded that Colonel Hackworth was derelict in his duties and had “acted without honor.” General Abrams and other top officers moved to court-martial him, but eventually allowed him to resign with an honorable discharge.
He credited his later combat success to lessons learned from the hard-bitten, hard-drinking sergeants with whom he served in his first assignment, the post-World War II border dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia over the port of Trieste. After the war he volunteered for Korea, where he commanded an all-volunteer regiment known as the Wolfhound Raiders. In one battle he was shot in the head but refused to stop fighting. He received three Purple Hearts in Korea.
Long before the United States was visibly involved in Vietnam, he served there with the Special Forces. By April 1965 he was a confirmed career soldier and went back with the paratroopers, ready to fight a new kind of war. He commanded a Blackhawk “Air Cavalry” brigade in which pilots wore Civil War campaign hats and flew in helicopters with crossed swords painted on them. “We were a wild bunch,” he said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1989.
He became more and more independent, even rebellious, once threatening to take his troops to Canada if commanders persisted in talking about the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. He ran a bordello and a massage parlor to keep his men happy and relatively protected from a virulent strain of syphilis. After his television appearance on June 27, 1971, in which he said that as many as 20 percent of American combat deaths resulted from accidental American bullets, Colonel Hackworth’s well-known indiscretions were used against him. He admitted them in a book he wrote with Tom Matthews, “Hazardous Duty: America’s Most Decorated Living Soldier Reports from the Front and Tells It the Way It Is” (Morrow, 1996). But he said the regulations were wrong. Ward Just, in his introduction to Colonel Hackworth’s “About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior” (Simon & Schuster, 1989), said, “This was the simple truth, but in the pusillanimous atmosphere of 1971, Hackworth was seen as insubordinate and treacherous. But not easily dismissed.”
Slate uses the occasion of Hackworth’s death to refer back to a three-part series by Charles Krohn and David Plotz from 1996, which excoriates Hack for being rather pompous and full of himself. Much of what they wrote is true, although they overplay their hand. Like a lot of great military heroes who went on to careers as best-selling authors (Richard Marcinko comes readily to mind), Hack had a flair for self-promotion and came off as a loose cannon.
I often thought the colonel was a know-it-all whose view of the military was woefully stuck in the past. In his heart, though, I always believed Hackworth was legitimately standing up for the ground-pounder and was willing to look past his many sins.