15 Stories From The Wild Life Of David Hackworth, Who Inspired Two 'Apocalypse Now' Characters
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.
- Photo: National Archives at College Park / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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.
- Photo: Sgt. Bobby Bethune / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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.
- Photo: U.S. Air Force / National Museum of the U.S. Air Force / Public Domain
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."