On the bloody battlefield of Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley and in the burning tower of the Word Trade Center, Rick Rescorla entered the maelstrom and helped others get out alive.

Rick Rescorla knew his history. The native of England knew how stories of the past, recent or distant, could move people. Be it the English victory at Agincourt in 1415 or the British victory at Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu War of 1879, his tales of individuals surmounting incredible odds could lift people that last small bit to keep fighting. To survive. To win. He wrote and sang songs to puff up morale and calm nerves. We know because his singing was captured on a reel-to-reel tape in a ramshackle officers club at the U.S. base at An Khe in 1966. The percussion heard on the recording was outgoing harassment and interdiction fire.

It is just over 50 years now since Rick showed his courage at Ia Drang, where the U.S. Army waged its first big battle with North Vietnamese troops, and exactly 15 years since he braved the fire in New York when the city was hit by the deadliest terrorist attack in history. 

On 9/11 Rick died doing what he did best: rallying the troops—the employees of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter at the World Trade Center. When Tower Two collapsed around him at 9:59 a.m., 73 minutes after the first plane flew into the Twin Towers, Rick, head of security at the largest financial institution in the building, had already sped the evacuation of more than 2,000 employees. Only three had not safely exited, and he was going back in to get them.

Thousands of civilians in New York lived because of Rick, just as soldiers in Ia Drang lived because of him. Rick was in Vietnam at the beginning of combat operations in 1965, just as he was in New York at the start of another war in 2001. The children of those saved by Rick will pass the story on to their own children, and Rick’s memory will be
preserved.

My first memory of Cyril “Rick” Rescorla is at a reunion of Ia Drang veterans in 1996. I was a young captain, commanding a company in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, at Fort Hood, Texas, and being invited to this reunion was a great honor. Rick was one of the most famous veterans of our battalion. When retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, who as a lieutenant colonel commanded the 1st Battalion of the 7th at Ia Drang, says a man is “the best combat platoon leader I ever saw,” that sort of thing rather sticks. Induction into the Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame is another point toward immortality.

The November 1965 fighting at Landing Zones X-Ray and Albany in the Ia Drang Valley immediately became front-page news because of the high casualty rate. Both formally and informally, the battles profoundly affected the ways American forces would fight throughout the rest of the war. It validated the concept of “air assault” (transporting troops to the battlefield in helicopters), which then became the overarching American tactical concept for the use of infantry in Vietnam.

 The dual battles at Ia Drang were immortalized by General Moore and my friend journalist Joe Galloway, who was on the ground from day one, in their 1992 book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, which become a New York Times bestseller. On the book’s cover is a photo of Rick taken by Associated Press journalist Peter Arnett, who also covered the battle.

Rescorla, born in Hayle, Cornwall, England, served in the British Army, then became a member of the Rhodesian paramilitary police and later joined the U.S. Army to help fight the Communists in Southeast Asia. After Officer Candidate School, he was assigned to the 7th Cavalry Regiment and led the men of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion.

On Nov. 14, 1965, Moore’s1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, air-assaulted into the remote Ia Drang Valley, less than 10 miles from the Cambodian border. The troop drop stirred up a hornets’ nest. Hours later, Lieutenant Rescorla’s Bravo Company was ordered to the center of that area to support Moore’s battalion. Moore’s men were surrounded by more than 2,000 soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army.

As Rescorla’s troops landed at LZ X-Ray, the lieutenant ordered his men to set up a new defensive perimeter, 50 yards behind the previous one, and dig deep foxholes. They rigged grenades and booby traps in front of them. They carefully emplaced their machine guns and piled up ammunition.

Then they waited overnight. Rescorla sang songs to steady the men. At 0400, grenades and booby traps began to erupt in front of Bravo, but the company was primed. The NVA assaulted four times, attacking in human waves. In the first rush, an attack by as many as 300 NVA was stopped cold.

Around 0630, the North Vietnamese launched a heavier attack. Rescorla and his men continued to pump rounds into the clumps of bodies nearest their holes. At 0655 they commenced a “mad minute” of firing. Ultimately, the 2½ hour predawn attack failed.

In daylight, Rescorla took a patrol through the silenced battlefield, policing up the area. After his men left the perimeter, they came under heavy machine-gun fire, and Rescorla gave the command “Fix bayonets!” Arnett just happened to be nearby and snapped the photo that would become a book cover. Rescorla lobbed a grenade at an enemy gunner and wiped out a nest of NVA.

On November 17, the rest of the 2nd Battalion, which had arrived on foot, began a tactical march to a new landing zone, Albany, for a helicopter pickup. On the march, the battalion came under another NVA attack, and Rick’s platoon was again deployed in relief. Rick, the sole remaining officer platoon leader in Bravo Company, led the initial reinforcement into the Albany perimeter.

As the helicopter carrying Rick descended into Albany under heavy fire, the pilot was hit and started to lift up. Rick and his men jumped the remaining 10 feet, bullets flying at them, and made it into the beleaguered perimeter.

Leading 1st Platoon, Rick yelled, “Come on, let’s let them have it!” according to Lieutenant Larry Gwin, whose book Baptism recounts the same events.

“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,’” Gwin wrote. “His spirit was catching. The troops were cheering as each load came in, and we really raised a racket. The enemy must have thought that an entire battalion was coming to help us because of all our screaming and yelling.” But it was just Rescorla and a few of his men.

Dozens of wounded Americans lay at Albany, awaiting medevacs throughout the night. Brave aviators risked everything for the wounded in Albany. Rick, inside the perimeter, disciplined the men, admonishing no more firing. “As dawn broke over the Albany battlefield on Friday, November 18, a profound shock awaited the Americans who had survived the night,” wrote Moore and Galloway in We Were Soldiers Once…and Young. “To this point no one had a clear picture of the extent of the losses suffered by the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry….Rescorla described the scene as a ‘long, bloody traffic accident in the jungle’.”

In the movie We Were Soldiers, based on the book, Moore went outside the perimeter, found the body of one of his lieutenants and brought it back. That part was true. Moore would bring every man out. But the part about Moore finding an NVA bugle was not true. It was Rick who found that bugle on a dying enemy soldier forward of his lines during a sweep at LZ Albany.

“We returned to [Camp] Holloway and for a while we were buoyed up with the fact that we had survived,” Rick said. “All gloomy memories were shoved below the surface.” The bugle can still be seen at the infantry museum at Fort Benning.

After those two swirling fights, in which Rescorla’s men defeated forces estimated at five or six times their own size, company commander Captain Myron Diduryk approached the lieutenant and asked him (not told, asked) if he would mind if the entire company adopted the nickname of Rick’s 1st Platoon, “Hard Corps.” Thus Rick, whose radio call sign in the platoon was One-Six, became “Hard Corps One-Six” on the company and battalion networks.

There is no easy or simple way to describe the life of Rick Rescorla. The men who knew the 26-year-old second lieutenant in Vietnam mostly knew him for only a year and then did not see him for decades. Those who knew him longer offer a host of descriptions: poet, romantic, playwright, a man truly addicted to song, academic, intellectual, raconteur, Cornishman, dedicated father, a man known for his fierce loyalty to those he felt deserved it, whether superiors, peers or subordinates.

Everyone who knew Rick, regardless of what they remembered about him, could agree on one thing: Rick Rescorla was, always, the baddest son of a bitch in the valley.

Following his tour in Vietnam, Rescorla spent a year teaching at Fort Benning in Georgia and then got out of the Army—sort of. He joined the Army Reserve, advancing to colonel before he retired in 1990. Along the way, Rick picked up a master’s degree and a law degree. In 1985, he took a corporate security position with Dean Witter.

At the Ia Drang reunion in ’96, I had mostly tried to keep my mouth shut and let the veterans of combat talk to each other. But Rick was having none of that. Drawing me out, he learned of my own inclinations: history, academia, writing, even acting, all very nontraditional for your standard airborne infantry Ranger. As one who aspired to someday become a historian, I sat and had a good scotch while he told me his stories, which I was writing down in an untutored oral-history kind of way. Later, I asked him to inscribe my copy of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young.

Rick ordered a fresh glass of single-malt scotch, took my book, borrowed my pen and walked over to the other side of the room where he sat, facing away, seemingly looking into the distance…though the distance was a wall just a few feet away.

The secret to Rick’s successes, in battle and in life, was his instinctive ability to be a leader. And like the best leaders, it was not because of any military rank he ever wore, in the British Army, the Rhodesian paramilitary police or the U.S. Army. He was a leader because he understood men. He knew, in his bones, what some who reach far higher ranks never do learn.

What he knew is simple: When things drop in the pot, when lives are at stake and the danger is real, people want to believe that the one they are following is something more than they are themselves. Smarter. Stronger. Not as afraid as they are at that moment. Rick, adept at suppressing his own fear when it mattered, inspired other men to greatness. When he entered the maelstrom, his people followed.

After the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, Rescorla prepared for another. (Laperruque/Alamy Stock Photo)

After terrorist hijackers flew a plane into Tower One of the World Trade Center on 9/11, Rick was told by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which managed the towers, to “shelter in place.” Rick replied, “Bugger that!” (a very, very…very impolite term when used by a Brit) and initiated an evacuation of his entire company. In other places chaos reigned, but not where Rick was in command.

Rick had been training employees for such an attack since 1993, when a truck bomb exploded in the structure’s basement. Even before then, Rick had realized the building’s allure as a target for terrorists. In 1990, he had arranged a meeting with a security official at the port authority to discuss the building’s vulnerability, but the authority didn’t take any action, according to a New Yorker story in 2002.

In the 1993 attack, Rick safely evacuated all of his company’s employees from the building. He immediately began pushing to beef up security at Dean Witter, which merged with Morgan Stanley in 1997. He recommended fail-safe lighting and smoke extractors and made sure that they were installed in the emergency stairwells. Employees had to go through regular evacuation drills, in an orderly and organized way. Rick got that much past corporate.

In 2001, Rick’s office was on the 44th floor. His company had more than 2,000 employees on 22 floors, and as always, Rick felt responsible for each one of them. Two by two, just as he had trained them, the employees of Dean Witter Morgan Stanley exited down the stairwells.

Here is a number: 2,684. That was the number of employees that Rick successfully evacuated. That does not include the thousands of others who made it down those stairwells because Rick coordinated a professional, disciplined and militarylike evacuation of his people. Those additional numbers will never be known.

But Rick knew that three employees were unaccounted for and he went back in for them. Rick was last seen on the 10th floor, heading up. He would leave nobody behind.

The last time I saw Rick was earlier in 2001, when I was teaching military history at West Point. General Moore had been invited to address the cadets in the military history courses, and the department turned to me for advice on what to give him as a memento. They knew Moore was writing the introduction to my next book and that he was the honorary colonel of my regiment. What do you give the man who has everything?

I knew that Rick lived in New Jersey and worked in Manhattan, about 50 miles from West Point. I also knew that Rick was a rare attendee at the regiment’s reunions, which are held every year.

He came to see friends, but he was really fairly reluctant to drop into the “old soldier” mode and retell stories long rehashed. He had only seen Moore a few times since Vietnam. I knew this, and I knew Rick had been fighting cancer. I got on the phone and invited Rick and his new wife, Susan, to West Point for Moore’s address to the cadets.

When the day arrived, we planned a small dinner, just 12 people or so, on post at the Hotel Thayer, before the West Point ceremony. When Rick and Susan came in, which was a surprise to Moore, I watched as confusion, recognition and joy flashed in quick succession across the general’s face. Later, at the ceremony, Moore gave the assembled cadets his wisdom about war. These cadets, who would be lieutenants, then captains, then majors, soaked it up. Rick and Susan were sitting in the front row. I had not realized, until Rick explained to me later, that Susan knew little of his military story at the time. They had met only a few years earlier. Both divorcees, they found something in each other that worked and had married just a year before. And since Rick had retired from the Army Reserves in 1990, there really was no reason for him to say much about that part of his past. So he never did.

He never mentioned the bestselling book, the Peter Arnett photo, the movie. To Susan, her Rick was the head of security at a major investment thingamabob. He had a soul with a sense of humor miles deep. Soldier? No, that was just something he once did sort of casually.

Susan wondered why this West Point event was such a big deal. In addition to the thousand cadets, the faculty had come out in force, and the crowd far exceeded the seating room of the capacious auditorium. Moore talked about war. Not nice platitudes, but the dirty bits that we usually don’t talk about. How to take normal, decent, young American boys into hell, and then out of it, alive. Moore never did mince
his words.

At the end of his address, Moore said something that stunned Susan: “And now I want to introduce you to the best combat leader I ever saw, Rick Rescorla, Hard Corps One-Six, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry.”

The foundations shook as the cadets and the officers and every single person who could cram into Eisenhower Hall that night leapt to their feet in the sort of applause that makes “thunderous” an entirely inadequate word. Rick stood up.

He just gave a short wave and sat down again.

Susan was awestruck. That was her Rick. Her goofball. Her poet and romantic. Always surprising.

I look back on the Ia Drang reunion of 1996, when I first met Rick and he autographed my copy of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young. He returned the book to me after several minutes of reflection; the scotch he had poured was mostly gone. Later, discreetly, I looked at the
inscription:

To: Captain Bob Bateman

Old Dogs and Wild Geese

are Fighting

Head for the Storm

As you faced it Before

For where there is the Seventh

There’s Bound to be Fighting

And when there’s no Fighting

It’s the Seventh no More

Best Regards,

Rick Rescorla, Hard Corps One-Six

A poet, as always. And as always, much more. After Rick’s death, his memory inspired me to compose an ode of my own for him:

So after you read this

Get your canteen cup

And fill it with mead, or scotch

or rotgut

Then pour it right out,

on the ground, on the floor

For the heart of the Seventh

Rescorla’s no more

Garry Owen

First published in Vietnam Magazine’s October 2016 issue.