Guts, Glory and No Regrets : After Decades of Battling the Enemy and the Brass, Outspoken Col. David Hackworth Is Making Peace

Times Staff Writer

He is the U.S. Army’s most decorated living soldier and one of the more outrageous figures to emerge from the Vietnam War. Col. David H. Hackworth (U.S. Army-ret.) gave 25 years of his life to the military, and when visitors ask why, he lets them have it right between the eyes.

“I did it for sex and adventure,” he says. “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.”

Hackworth roars with laughter and rolls up his shirt-sleeve to reveal a grisly shrapnel wound from the Korean War. Without much prodding, he tells the story of the massage parlor and bordello he set up for his men in Vietnam. From there, it’s a quick flashback to his military baptism after World War II as a 15-year-old soldier.


“I don’t regret a thing,” he says. “Not a damn thing.”

It is late in the afternoon, and as sunlight streams into a hotel patio, the Warrior, as he calls himself, knocks back a glass of vodka and cranberry juice. A lean and wiry man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Paul Newman, he is in town to promote his recently published autobiography, “About Face.” Hackworth, 58, speaks brashly of his past exploits. But at times he also seems defensive, flinching at questions about his unorthodox behavior like they were incoming shells.

“Sure, I’ve done some strange things, but I don’t make apologies,” he says. “War is an atrocity and people do crazy things in war. All I can do is tell the truth and fire away.”

Pulls No Punches

In his long and rambling autobiography, Hackworth pulls no punches. He tells the story of a gung-ho kid from Santa Monica who joined the Army in 1946 and wound up bitterly disillusioned with U.S. policies in Vietnam. Along the way, he serves up a scorching, grunt’s-eye view of modern warfare that may set a new standard for military memoirs.

During his career, Hackworth collected 78 combat awards and earned a reputation as one of the Army’s most brilliant commanding officers. But he also could be a royal pain in the butt. Brash and outspoken, he ticked off his superiors in three wars by criticizing military strategies that he believed were costing lives and wasting billions of dollars.

It all came to a head in June, 1971, when Hackworth appeared on ABC-TV’s “Issues and Answers” and denounced America’s conduct of the Vietnam War. He became an overnight media sensation, but the Army reacted with a fury. Within months, the outspoken colonel retired from the service under a cloud of criticism and moved to Australia to begin a new life.

Now, 18 years later, Hackworth has emerged from exile, and although he still growls about the good old days, his transformation could not be more complete. The hell-raiser who once scorned the soft civilian life now looks relaxed and comfortable in work shirt and jeans. Formerly a tough anti-Communist, Hackworth has become a nuclear-freeze activist. He hopes to return to the United States with his second wife, Margaret, and write about the military.

“I am so thankful that the Cold War is over and that in my life a guy like Gorbachev has come along,” he says. “All indications are that we might be in a new period, where we don’t have to waste money inordinately on swords. We can get back to the plowshare and get back to making America strong again economically.”

Forgiven the Army

These days, Hackworth insists he has forgiven the Army and is trying to forget the past. On a recent visit to the Pentagon, he says, it was heartwarming to shake hands with former enemies and greet officers with whom he once served.

“I’ve turned a new page,” he says. “The point now is for me to keep looking ahead.”

But then, slowly, the conversation returns to the carnage of Vietnam--to Hamburger Hill, the bloody Tet offensive and to U.S. leaders who said the war could be won. The colonel’s blue eyes narrow and his back stiffens. He puts down his drink. Suddenly, it’s 1971 all over again.

“Don’t let any damn fool tell you this war could have been won, or that we could have won all the battles,” he says angrily. “That was a whitewash then and it’s a whitewash now.”

History will show that “ticket-punching” U.S. officers were more interested in furthering their careers than telling the truth about the war, he says. If they knew the conflict was futile, they kept it to themselves. Meanwhile, 58,000 Americans died for no good reason.

Ultimately, Hackworth says, it was impossible to remain silent.

“Those guys (military officials) broke my heart, so I had to speak out. Turning my back on the service in 1971 was tough, and getting over it was like a five-year hangover. I never expected to leave the war except on a stretcher.”

Born in 1931, David H. Hackworth was descended from a long line of military men, some of whom had fought in the Revolutionary War. He was orphaned at 5 months and raised by a grandmother who regaled him with stories about his family’s wartime exploits.

By age 15, Hackworth had become a tough, street-smart kid more interested in surfing on the beach at Santa Monica than excelling in school. He says he was probably heading for a life of juvenile delinquency when World War II came to the rescue.

“At that time, I was a boy and the war was happening, and everything was rationed . 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.”

Anxious to leave Southern California, Hackworth used phony ID papers to finagle his way into the U.S. Army and embarked for Europe, where World War II had ended. He eventually was assigned to a division on the Italian-Yugoslavian border and got a crash course in military discipline.

“They grabbed a hold of me and said, ‘Boy, you are going to shape up.’ This was done by the Burt Lancasters of this world, those good sergeants in ‘From Here to Eternity.’ The sergeant grabbed a hold of you and took you behind the mess hall and whipped the crap out of you, so you learned about discipline. They beat patriotism into you.”

Battlefield Commission

During the next four years, the young soldier rose quickly in the ranks. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he won a battlefield commission and was chosen to command an all-volunteer regiment known as the Wolfhound Raiders.

“The Raiders were the cockiest, most gung-ho (soldiers) on the block,” he wrote in his book. “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.”’

In a pattern that would repeat itself in future years, Hackworth drove his men to the limits. He shrieked orders, bullied them to fight harder and, finally, earned their loyalty.

He also infuriated higher-ups by ignoring regulations and speaking his mind. If his men wanted T-bone steaks, warm clothes and more reliable weapons, Hackworth would stop at nothing to meet their needs. He became a champion “scrounger,” learning to beg, borrow or steal supplies wherever he could get them--even if it meant breaking every rule in the book.

“I’ve never been one for just toeing the line. That got me in trouble, but it also kept me honest. If people didn’t like that, well, what the hell. It wasn’t my problem.”

Macho Legend Grew

All the while, Hackworth’s macho legend grew. In one Korean skirmish, he killed more than 100 Chinese soldiers. During another battle, he was shot in the head but refused to stop fighting. He saved innumerable soldiers from dying in subzero temperatures. In less than three years of combat, he collected three purple hearts.

But the war left him with growing doubts about the wisdom of U.S. policies.

“We went into this war as if it was World War II, so we could just blow the enemy back,” Hackworth says. “We went in there and said, ‘We’re here, North Koreans, you’ve got to leave.’ And the North Koreans shot the hell out of us for a couple years until we wised up.”

When the Korean conflict ended, Hackworth had become a highly decorated captain. Over the next 15 years, he would command troops in Germany and the United States. By now, he also had married Patty Leonard, an Army nurse whom he had met earlier in Manhattan Beach. To his great surprise, he bought a house, started a family and seemed to be settling down.

After several years, however, the peacetime Army drove him up the wall. Hackworth hungered for combat and had no stomach for the bureaucrats who were proliferating at the Pentagon.

“It didn’t take much to realize that there were a lot of people working their way to the top who had absolutely no long-term interest in the Army itself,” he says. “People became careerists. They weren’t interested in serving their nation. They become so super-ambitious, they lost sight of what it’s all about.”

Marriage Broke Up

Soon, Hackworth’s marriage began deteriorating along with his morale. When his wife called him one day at work to say she had accidentally broken two teeth, he snarled at her to visit a dentist and told her never to call him at his office again. The marriage ended several years later. Asked about the break-up, Hackworth shrugs and makes no apologies.

“I was a bigamist, because the Army was my first love,” Hackworth says. “The marriage was something I did for convenience. It was expected of you as an officer. You know, being programmed to get married, and being programmed to have a family. I was a warrior. I should never have been married.”

By 1961, Hackworth had become a major. But as the Cold War continued, he felt more adrift. It wasn’t until Vietnam heated up that the most fateful chapter of his life began.

Long before America escalated the war in Indochina, Hackworth had seen brief duty there with U.S. Special Forces. The experience showed him how ill-equipped U.S. troops were to fight a guerrilla war, and he resolved to become an expert in jungle combat.

Over the next few years, Hackworth poured over the writings of Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara and other guerrilla commanders. Eventually, he would write the “Vietnam Primer,” a classic manual on jungle combat that is still in use today.

His big opportunity came in April of 1965, when Hackworth led the first group of U.S.-based paratroopers into Vietnam. He was ready to fight a new kind of war, one that relied more on stealth, surprise and cunning than conventional troop movements. But while he made numerous efforts to get his ideas across, the U.S. Army did not get the message.

“This was not the same kind of war as World War II,” Hackworth wrote in his book. “This was not a war of terrain objectives, each one worth the price in lives if in taking it you moved closer to your final objective, your Berlin, your Tokyo or Pyongyang.

“Vietnam was a war where more often than not our elusive enemy just went to ground or ran away while we swept through and ‘cleared’ a village, only to return, rebuild and reoccupy it again the minute we’d moved on.”

Led Elite Units

Hackworth was able to test his theories when he was given command of several elite units, including some crack airborne troops. On several occasions, he says, “we’d beaten them (the Viet Cong) at their own game. We’d used their bag of tricks to fight them on the ground.”

Most notably, the young commander led a helicopter unit that was later immortalized in the movie “Apocalypse Now.” His Black Hawk “Air Cavalry” brigade featured buglers playing reveille, pilots wearing Civil War campaign hats and crossed swords painted on each helicopter.

“We were a wild bunch,” he says. “There was nobody quite like us,” he says.

Despite these exploits, Hackworth became disenchanted with the war effort. The conflict was not winnable, he says, but few wanted to admit it. While U.S. officers were rotated in and out of Vietnam for brief stints in battle, enemy forces dug in for a protracted fight. More important, they had the people on their side.

“The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops were fighting for a political idea, a cause. We couldn’t match that. We didn’t even try. The whole thing was probably over before it began.”

Challenged Orders

By 1970, Hackworth’s faith in his superiors had evaporated. He reacted angrily to the American bombing of Cambodia and threatened to take his two boys to Canada if U.S. commanders persisted in talking about the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

Finally, something snapped. Sensing that his days in Vietnam were numbered, Hackworth began challenging every rule in the book--especially the ones that prevented his men from having a good time or threatened their sanity.

Were his troops lonely for the girls at home? Hackworth set up a massage parlor and bordello that kept the men happy. Were heroin-addicted soldiers under his command facing discharges for bad conduct? Hackworth arranged to have non-addicted soldiers take urine tests for them, so long as the men agreed to get prompt treatment.

To this day, Hackworth defends his actions.

Ran “Clean Whorehouse”

“I ran a clean whorehouse in my command, I did. 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.”

As for the urine testing, Hackworth says soldiers had easy access to a powerful brand of Vietnamese marijuana that was laced with heroin. After three weeks of steady smoking, they became addicted and were soon either shooting or sniffing the drug.

“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. But I didn’t see it that way,” he says.

“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.”

Hackworth fired his last--and most memorable--shot on June 27, 1971, when he appeared on the ABC television show. Speaking calmly, the war hero told his audience that U.S. military strategy in Vietnam was bankrupt. He said “friendly fire” casualties, in which Americans were accidentally killing other Americans, were unacceptably high. He ridiculed the training that left U.S. recruits ill-equipped to fight a guerrilla war.

But he saved his harshest criticism for U.S. commanders, saying: “What we have now among the Army is a bunch of shallow dilettantes who run from pillar to post trying to punch their card, serving minimum time at (battlefield) levels because of the exposure.”

Army Was Incensed

Army officials were incensed and tried to destroy Hackworth’s credibility. During the ensuing weeks, they uncovered stories about his X-rated activities, such as the bordello. Later on, he was subjected to a lengthy tax audit by the Internal Revenue Service.

By now, Hackworth was emotionally drained. Deciding that the time had come for him to leave the service, he resigned without facing any charges and moved to Australia. There, he began a new life as a successful restaurateur.

Looking back, Hackworth refuses to blame the Army for harassing him.

“Look, they were reacting to this maverick colonel who was sounding off, who had violated the sacred taboo of biting the hand that feeds you,” he says. “That’s what I did. But I have no regrets. I’d do it all over again if I had to.”

As the last shaft of sunlight filters in the patio, Hackworth tries to sum it all up. America’s military future is bright, he says, because many of the officers who fought under him are now in power at the Pentagon. Hopefully, they have learned the right lessons.

And then again, maybe not. The colonel’s voice softens when he starts talking about the Vietnam War Memorial and the grief it unleashes with each visit.

“I think of all those names, 58,000 names, and they all died in vain,” he says. “Their country called, they responded, and they died. And the sad thing is I really don’t think too many people care.”