Work was scarce in the small town of Williamson, W.Va. in the early 1950s. Most people had the choice between working in a coal mine or on the railroad.
After graduating high school, one 17-year-old Williamson native decided he wanted more.
“If you can guarantee me I can work on airplanes, I’ll go in right now,” Carl Hackworth told an Air Force recruiter in 1955.
“I didn’t know at the time they were hurting for mechanics,” Hackworth said. “I scored nearly a 90 on the mechanics portion of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test.” It was a done deal for Hackworth to work with airplanes and so began his journey in the Air Force.
When first arriving at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., and straight out of technical training, Hackworth began working on a B-25 Mitchell. “The old sergeants, all they let the Airmen do was change the oil and spark plugs. It was the nastiest job,” Hackworth said. “We weren’t even allowed to climb inside the airplane.”
After a few months, Hackworth and a few of his fellow Airmen were told they working on the wrong aircraft. The blunder was quickly corrected, and they were transferred to work on the F-86L Sabre.
In 1959, the F-86 was about to be phased out due its high maintenance requirement.
“With all the tubes and wiring, you beat on the side of it and something would go out,” he said.
It was the last aircraft to use vacuum tubes for the air intercept radar system, and it also had an outstanding amount of wires running through it, he said. It was finally phased out in 1960, and the majority were sent to what used to be James Connally AFB, Texas, before it became Texas State Technical College Waco Airport in 1968.
Hackworth said there are now only four F-86s in the U.S., one of which is now at Moody AFB. The vintage F-86 sat on two cement mounts on a busy intersection in downtown Valdosta, Ga., where it was well known for decades as a memorial to the late Maj. Lyn McIntosh. After speaking with the McIntosh family about relocating the airplane, several city and base agencies moved it on April 25, 2012, to be refurbished and displayed in the President George W. Bush Air Park at Moody Field.
“People were ranting and raving about it being moved,” Hackworth said. “To tell you the truth, I’m glad to see it. The airplane was going down. Give it another 10 years or less and (it was) gonna fall right off the stand from people jumping on the wings.”
As a member of a generation that is disappearing quickly, Hackworth visited the base to get a first-hand look at the progress of the F-86 refurbishment. When seeing the familiar aircraft he once knew so well, memories began to surface and continued to tell more of his life stories. One of those stories included a wing commander and a sledgehammer.
After returning from his second tour in Vietnam, Hackworth was stationed at Myrtle Beach AFB, S.C., from 1961 to 1965 to work on the F-100 Super Sabre. During his time there, Polish-American fighter ace Col. Francis Gabreski was the 354th Tactical Wing commander.
“He chewed tobacco,” said Hackworth about Gabreski. “He’d walk up to you before his flight and ask, ‘Ready, sarge?’”
“Yes sir it’s ready,” Hackworth would reply. After the exchange, Gabreski would spit his tobacco out on the ramp, climb into the cockpit and take off.
“I was a pretty good carpenter back then, so my supervisor at the time, Tom Gurkin, a line chief for Gabreski, asked me to help him with a favor,” Hackworth said.
Gabreski had eight children at the time and needed more than a three bedroom duplex –the largest available housing unit for his family, Hackworth said. He and Gurkin were told to go to base housing and install a door to connect two duplex houses, so they began hammering a hole into the wall.
“A woman came out screaming, ‘What are you enlisted pukes doing? I live here! I’m calling the police!”’ With Hackworth puzzled on whether to continue, Gurkin said, “Press on.”
Moments later, Gabreski pulled up to the house and asked if there were any problems, Hackworth said. The others explained there was an awfully ticked off woman threatening to have them arrested.
“Oh don’t worry about her. She’s moving,” Gabreski said. With that, an Air Force cargo van backed up on the lawn and four Airmen began packing her family’s belongings.
“That woman was cussing the whole time, using words I never heard before,” Hackworth said.
Sixty-two years after joining the Air Force, Hackworth regularly gathers with colonels, brigadier generals, chief master sergeants and others who served in the armed forces at a local restaurant in downtown Valdosta. When asked how often they get together, Hackworth said, “Seven days a week, depending on how gimped up we are.”
They bicker, laugh and joke at each other, but mostly reminisce about the “old days.”
“These guys don’t laugh like we used to,” said Hackworth about modern day military members. “We were always playing jokes on each other, and everyone had a nickname like ‘Bohunkus,’ or if you had big ears you’d be ‘Speed Brake.'”
“My supervisor, Tom Gurkin, gave me my nickname,” said Hackworth. “‘Hoss,’ he called me. Dan Blocker was a big guy that played the character Eric ‘Hoss’ Cartwright in the show “Bonanza,” and I was about 260 pounds back then.”
After being tasked for his third tour to Vietnam, Hackworth protested that there were others who hadn’t gone yet, so they sent him to Thailand instead.
“Besides the fact that I wasn’t getting shot at, which was a plus, it turned out to be one of the best overseas tours I’ve ever had,” he said.
From working with famous fighter pilots, meeting former President George W. Bush while he was training at Moody, two tours in Vietnam, and constantly being separated from his three children back home, Hackworth remains a proud veteran. He is passionate about keeping men, women and children informed about the Air Force’s rich history.
Hackworth retired in Valdosta, Aug. 1, 1977, and he is today, coincidently, back where he started as a young Airman.
Shortly after retiring, Hackworth took on a second job with the Boys and Girls Club as the director of maintenance and worked there for more than 20 years building baseball and football fields. He said he also enjoys building miniature models of all the aircraft he’s worked on throughout his military career as a crew chief.
“Nobody cares as much as they should about the history in this country,” said Hackworth, referring to the lack of preservation of aircraft that helped win the war. “The F-100, best plane we had in Vietnam, they’re taken to Panama City and used as aerial targets.”
After seeing the F-86 in its restored state, Hackworth was overjoyed. As he circled the aircraft, feeling the bolts and running his fingers along the fresh paint, he started to speak, and Airmen of all ranks stopped to listen.
“I always said when I was a kid that I was going into the Air Force because I loved airplanes,” said Hackworth, with a smile on his face.