David Hackworth's men wanted to frag him before they learned to love him
David Hackworth, affectionately known as “Hack,” was a one-of-a-kind American soldier and a legend among the troops. His military acumen both on and off the battlefield are rivaled by few. His service spanned nearly three decades and began at the age of fourteen during World War II when he lied about his age to join the Merchant Marine. After his time with the Merchant Marine in the Pacific, his lust for adventure and the military life was not satisfied so he again lied about his age to join the U.S. Army as an infantryman, a job at which he would excel. Hackworth was stationed on occupation duty in Trieste with the 88th Infantry Division before volunteering for a combat unit in Korea.
It would be in action in Korea that then-Sergeant Hackworth would start to make a name for himself and to start his collection of Silver Stars and Purple Hearts. He served with numerous elite units while in Korea, including the 8th Ranger Company, 25th Recon Company, and the 27th Wolfhound Raiders. He also set a precedent he would follow for the rest of his career in combat: lead from the front, attack aggressively, ignore overwhelming volumes of fire, and when necessary shrug off wounds to continue the attack.
Because Hackworth reached the rank of sergeant because he lied about his age in 1945, he was still only 19 years old in February 1951 when he earned his first Silver Star and Purple Heart leading troops in Korea. His gallantry in action and aggressive leadership style also earned him a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant and an offer from the commander of the 27th Infantry Regiment to create a special unit, the Wolfhound Raiders. After being promoted, Lt. Hackworth continued his aggressive leadership, volunteering for dangerous patrols and missions, earning two more Silver Stars and two more Purple Hearts. At one point, he refused a direct order to evacuate due to his wounds and stayed on the field until all of his wounded men had been retrieved. At the age of 20, he was promoted to Captain, the youngest in the Army. He also volunteered to stay for another tour in Korea, this time with the 40th Infantry Division.
Between the wars, Capt. Hackworth completed his bachelor’s degree and served in a variety of positions. When the announcement was made that military advisors were being sent to Vietnam, Hackworth immediately volunteered but was denied on the grounds that he had too much combat experience. He would eventually deploy to Vietnam in 1965 with the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division as a major, first as the Battalion Executive Officer and the Battalion Commander.
Maj. Hackworth was once again asked to establish an elite unit, the Tiger Force, to “out-guerrilla the guerrillas” or “out G-ing the G,” as he called it. During this tour, he added a new component to his leadership style, using his command and control helicopter to insert right into the fight where he was needed most, again leading his troops from the front. During Hackworth’s first tour in Vietnam, he earned two more Silver Stars, as well as the first of two Distinguished Service Crosses he would earn there. After Maj. Hackworth returned to the states he was stationed at the Pentagon briefly, promoted to lieutenant colonel – once again the youngest in the Army, and the sent back to Vietnam with S.L.A. Marshall to conduct research for a book they would co-author called “the Vietnam Primer.” In the book, Hackworth advocated for his counter-insurgency tactics of “out G-ing the G” but more importantly that the fundamentals of combat never change and that a well-trained grunt is the most lethal weapon an army can employ.
In 1969, Lt. Col. Hackworth was given a unique opportunity – to take the poorly trained and demoralized 4th Battalion 39th Infantry Regiment and to apply his knowledge and turn it into a formidable fighting force. Training the unit in counter-insurgency tactics, Lt. Col. Hackworth’s leadership transformed the unit in the “hardcore recondo” battalion that was soon routing enemy main forces. Though initially there was talk of ‘fragging’ their new ‘lifer’ commander, the men soon found their improved tactics and training improved their lives and many credit Hackworth with saving their lives. During his tenure as commanding officer of 4/39, Lt. Col. Hackworth was awarded an additional five Silver Stars and another Distinguished Service Cross. He consistently braved enemy fire (and had his pilot do so as well) to reach wounded soldiers, direct operations and fire support, and when need be, to join the fight himself. His soldiers have pushed for the Medal of Honor for an action in which he had his helicopter land virtually on top of an enemy position while he hung from the strut and pulled his pinned down troops to safety. During his tours in Vietnam Hackworth was wounded an additional five times – for a total of eight Purple Hearts – tying him for the second-most received by a single person.
Lt. Col. Hackworth was next assigned as an advisor to the South Vietnamese Army. However, his views on the war had taken a turn for the worse. Dissatisfied by his experiences with S.L.A. Marshall and the U.S. military’s failure to learn from the lessons in Vietnam, he also came to see the ARVN officers as corrupt and incompetent. In 1971 though, after being promoted to Colonel and turning down a second opportunity to attend the Army War College, he gave an interview in which he spoke disparagingly about the war in Vietnam. He criticized U.S. commanders and called for a withdrawal of troops. This effectively ended Hackworth’s career. He retired after 26 years of service, seven of which he spent in combat zones, owning an exemplary record for heroism and the love and respect of all those who served under him.
For more information about David Hackworth’s amazing exploits read his books, About Face and Steel My Soldiers Hearts.