This is a great profile of Rick Rescorla: Cornwall-born, naturalized American citizen, infantry officer in Vietnam, head of security at Morgan Stanley on 9/11/01, credited with saving hundreds of lives before dying in the collapse of the towers.
Rick, always wearing his suit jacket and tie despite sweating profusely, kept people marching down the right side of the dark staircase, singing into his bullhorn, as firemen and rescue personnel raced up. At one point, he had nearly been overcome by the heat, and had to sit down on the stairs. But he kept singing or speaking reassuringly. “Slow down, pace yourself,” he told one group. “Today is a day to be proud to be an American.”
Susan learned that at some point he had used his cell phone to report that all Morgan Stanley employees were out of the building. But one of the last to leave, Bob Sloss, told her that, just ten minutes before the building collapsed, he had seen Rescorla on the tenth floor. When Sloss reached him, he told Rescorla to get out himself. “I will as soon as I make sure everyone else is out,” Rescorla replied. Then he began climbing back up into the building.
[Dan] Hill and Rescorla had met in Northern Rhodesia two years before. Hill was originally from Chicago, and had been in Rhodesia as a mercenary, fighting a Communist-backed insurgency there. The two men, who met at a rugby match, had felt an instant rapport. Rescorla introduced Hill to the works of Rudyard Kipling, especially “The Man Who Would Be King.” Kipling’s accounts of British heroism struck a chord. Rescorla had worked for British military intelligence and fought in Cyprus; Hill had been active in various capacities in Hungary in 1956 and in Lebanon in 1958, and in training exercises for the Bay of Pigs operation, in 1961.
After the Rhodesian conflict ended, with the British withdrawal from Northern Rhodesia, Hill persuaded Rescorla to join him in the United States Army. He argued that the next major fight against Communism was shaping up in Vietnam.
Both Hill and Rescorla were fanatics about fitness and about survival skills. Rescorla may have told Susan that he was running barefoot as research for a play, but he had already been running barefoot in Africa, and then at Fort Dix, toughening his soles to the point where he could extinguish a fire with his bare feet. He told Hill that if he lost his boots in combat it wouldn’t matter. This was something he’d absorbed from his years in Africa. “You should be able to strip a man naked and throw him out with nothing on him,” he told Hill. By the end of the day, the man should be clothed and fed. By the end of the week, he should own a horse. And by the end of a year he should own a business and have money in the bank.
At Fort Dix, the two were immediately promoted to acting sergeant. They spent weekends together, with Hill’s wife and two children. In their free time, they went on picnics and visited Revolutionary War battlefields. Hill considered himself something of a military historian, but he was no match for Rescorla, who, although he hadn’t been to college, had read all fifty-one volumes of the Harvard Classics. He had memorized long stretches of Shakespeare and often quoted Churchill. When Rescorla became an American citizen, in 1967, Hill was at his side.
Both men were chosen for Officer Candidate School, and when they graduated, in 1965, Hill was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, Rescorla to the Seventh Air Cavalry. Units of the two divisions were among the first ordered to Southeast Asia. Rescorla arrived in September; Hill followed in December. Rather than spend his first week of R. and R. in Hong Kong or Honolulu with the rest of his brigade, Hill opted to go straight to the Vietcong-controlled Central Highlands to fight with Rescorla, who was leading a mobile combat platoon.
The remote Ia Drang Valley, less than ten miles from the Cambodian border, was a Communist stronghold and a supply route for North Vietnamese forces in the south. In November of 1965, the American military command ordered Rescorla’s unit, Bravo company of the Seventh Air Cavalry’s 2nd Battalion, to the center of a hostile area to support a battalion surrounded by three regiments of hardened enemy troops—more than two thousand soldiers. Rescorla directed his men to dig foxholes and establish a defense perimeter. Exploring the hilly terrain beyond the perimeter, he came under enemy fire. After nightfall, he and his men endured waves of assault. To keep morale up, Rescorla led the men in military cheers and Cornish songs throughout the night.
The next morning, Rescorla took a patrol through the battlefield, searching for American dead and wounded. As he looked over a giant anthill, he encountered an enemy machine-gun nest. The startled North Vietnamese fired on him, and Rescorla hurled a grenade into the nest. There were no survivors.
Rescorla and Bravo company were evacuated by helicopter. The rest of the battalion marched to a nearby landing zone. On the way, they were ambushed, and Bravo company was again called in for relief. Only two helicopters made it through enemy fire. As the one carrying Rescorla descended, the pilot was wounded, and he started to lift up. Rescorla and his men jumped the remaining ten feet, bullets flying at them, and made it into the beleaguered camp. As Lieutenant Larry Gwin later recalled the scene, “I saw Rick Rescorla come swaggering into our lines with a smile on his face, an M-79 on his shoulder, his M-16 in one hand, saying, ‘Good, good, good! I hope they hit us with everything they got tonight—we’ll wipe them up.’ His spirit was catching. The enemy must have thought an entire battalion was coming to help us, because of all our screaming and yelling.”