(This was originally posted September 11, 2008. Never forget, never forgive.)
This iconic image is from the Battle of Ia Drang. The grimy, unshaven, soldier, bayonet fixed, jaw set in fierce determination, is Lt. Richard Rescorla, a platoon leader with Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Air Cav Division. It was taken on the morning of November 16th, 1965, the third day of the battle as he leads a bayonet charge forward. Although most of the soldiers under his command were new to war, he was not. And this would not be the last time he would bravely lead others in a crisis.
Cyril Richard Rescorla was born in May of 1939 in Hayle, Cornwall, England. He had grown up reading of commando operations and the French Resistance, and he soon followed the path of a warrior himself, joining the British Paratroops while in his teens. He had fought communist guerrillas on Cyprus as an intelligence officer, leading small unit counter insurgency operations. He then joined Her Majesty’s Colonial Force and fought in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. After some time with Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad conducting operations against the IRA, he and a comrade from Rhodesia, Dan Hill, decided that the next fight against communism was going to be in Southeast Asia, and they both joined the US Army in 1963. Hill was an American mercenary when Rescorla met him in Rhodesia, and they both shared an ardent hatred of communism. 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. Their decision to join the Army was based solely on the desire to continue the fight against the world wide threat of communism.
Enlisting as a private, Rescola was soon promoted to sergeant and later appointed to attend OCS at Ft. Benning Ga. He was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in April of 1965 and by November he was in Viet Nam with the 7th Cavalry.
In “Baptism”, a memoir on Viet Nam, Larry Gwin described Rescorla as a charming raconteur with a “crazed irreverent twinkle” at play, but also a ruthless killer with a “cold steely glint that could sear through you like the icy stare of death” in the bush.
The first night of the battle the enemy had surrounded LZ X-Ray and a company of the 7th Cavalry had almost been wiped out. Lt. Rescorla and the rest of Bravo Company were ordered to the perimeter to replace it. Rescorla described seeing bodies scattered about, including one dead American soldier with his hands still clutched around the throat of a PAVN soldier. He knew the fight would be a rough one and steadied his men in preparation. A natural leader, he walked along the lines singing dirty limericks and Cornish folk songs, including “Men of Harlech”, a song later made famous in the movie “Zulu”, and one of Rescola’s favorites.
Men of Harlach stop your dreaming;
Can’t you see their spearpoints gleaming?
See their warriors’ pennants streaming
To this battlefield.
Men of Cornwall stand ye steady;
It cannot be ever said ye
for the battle were not ready;
Stand and never yield!
He ordered his men to dig new fighting positions, reoriented and layed out machine gun fields of fire and pre-registered artillery. That night he ventured out forward of the lines to reconnoiter the land and scout out enemy avenues of advance. The next morning the NVA assaults came. He and his men beat back four of them, killing an estimated 200 enemy in the process.
“A quietness settled over the field,” Rescorla wrote later. “We put more rounds into clumps of bodies nearest our holes, making sure. . . . Forty yards away a young North Vietnamese soldier popped up from behind a tree. He started his limping run back the way he had come. I fired two rounds. He crumpled. I chewed the line out for failure to fire quickly.”
A few minutes later he saved many of his men by dropping a grenade on an enemy machine gun nest. When he returned to garrison after the battle, the enemy gunners brains still stained his uniform.
“The stench of the dead would stay with me for years after the battle,” he wrote. “Below us the pockmarked earth was dotted with enemy dead. . . . A grenadier next to me threw up on my lap. He was, like many, a man who had fought bravely even though he had no stomach for the bloodletting.”
After the battle at LZ X-Ray several companies of 2nd Bn. marched overland to LZ Albany, a few miles away. In an infamous prologue to the battle they were ambushed and almost wiped out. Lt. Rescorla and Bravo Company were sent in to rescue the survivors. “You know the battalion is in the shit,” Rescorla told his men. “We’ve been selected to jump into that shit and pull them out.” Under heavy fire, only two of Bravo companies helos made it in. Rescorla’s men were forced to jump 10 feet from their helicopter when the pilot was wounded and could not touch down. He marched into the ragged perimeter of survivors and helped to organize them for the fight out to Albany. Larry Gwin 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.” Boosting the men’s morale he told them “Tomorrow when the sun comes up we’re gonna kick some ass!” And they did, fighting out of the ambush and making it to LZ Albany. Along the way Rescorla grabbed a talisman of a souvenir, a war trophy French bugle captured by the Vietnamese during the French Indo-China War.
The survivors of the 7th Cavalry still tell awestruck stories about Rescorla. Like the time he stumbled into a hooch full of enemy soldiers on a reconnaissance patrol in Bon Song. “Oh, pardon me,” he said, before firing a few rounds and racing away. “Oh, comma, pardon me,” repeats Dennis Deal, who followed Rescorla that day in April 1966. “Like he had walked into a ladies’ tea party!”
Or the time a deranged private pulled a .45-caliber pistol on an officer while Rescorla was nearby, sharpening his bowie knife. “Rick just walked right between them and said: Put. Down. The. Gun.” recalls Bill Lund, who served with Rescorla in Vietnam. “And the guy did. Then Rick went back to his knife. He was flat out the bravest man any of us ever knew.”
In 1967, after earning his citizenship, Rescola left the Army and attended the University of Oklahoma where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literature, then began law school, and later taught criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. Growing tired of the academic world, he entered banking/financial security and was hired on at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in 1985. Rescorla however stayed in the Army Reserves, retiring in 1990 as a Lt. Colonel.
As Vice President of Security for Morgan Stanley, he was concerned about the firms vulnerability to terrorist attack in its 22 floors of offices in the south tower or the World Trade Center. In 1991 he brought his old friend Dan Hill in to help him conduct a risk assessment. Hill had twice fought with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the fighter who would later lead the Northern Alliance forces against the Taliban until his death in September of 2001. Rescorla asked Hill “How would you take this out?” referring to the WTC. After going to the basement parking garage Hill said “This is a soft touch,” pointing to a load-bearing column easily accessible in the middle of the garage. “I’d drive a truck full of explosives in here, walk out, and light it off.” Less than two years later terrorists would attempt exactly that. Rescorla’s prescience did not end there. After the first attack he had pleaded with Morgan Stanley to move their offices out of the vulnerable towers. He told them that the WTC was a symbol of American economic might and would be targeted again. There was no way to prevent it he said, warning that teh next time they would hit the tower with a cargo aircraft filled with explosives or chemical weapons, and told them they should instead move their operations to several smaller 3 or 4 story buildings in New Jersey. Morgan Stanley listened, but could not move because their lease didn’t expire until 2005. So Rescorla instead developed an evacuation plan and drilled the 2700 employees in it’s execution twice a year. He appointed floor watches to ensure an accurate head count, set up buddy teams, and installed generators and emergency lighting in the stairwells in the event of a power outage. That planning would bear fruit on September 11th 2001.
After the first plane had hit the north tower Rescorla immediately began the evacuation. There was no hesitation, he had already made that decision in 1993. Even though the Port Authority had told people in the south tower to stay at their desks, Rescorla had immediately countermanded it. “Bugger that!” he had said. In a phone call to Hill that morning he told him how an official with the Port Authority had called and told him to have the employees stay put. “Piss off, you son of a bitch… I’m getting my people the fuck out of here.” As they evacuated he resorted to Lt. Rescorla from Viet Nam, telling the employees that “today is a day to be proud to be American” and that “tomorrow, the whole world will be talking about you.” They say he also sang “God Bless America” and once again the defiant “Men of Harlech” in the stairwells. His baritone voice calmed the panicked employees and help them focus on getting out of the building. Due to Rescorla’s command presence and thorough planning, by the time the second plane hit the south tower, all of Morgan Stanley’s 2700 people were already out. But there were still three employees missing, and Rescorla and two of his security staff went back in to find them.
Despite undergoing cancer treatment which had weakened his once strong body and caused him to balloon in weight, Rescorla raced up the stairs, like the Good Shepherd in search of his one missing sheep. He was spotted as high as the 72nd floor, clearing floors as he went. He was telling people to stay calm, pace themselves, get off their cell phones, keep moving. At one point, he was so exhausted he had to sit for a few minutes, although he continued barking orders through his bullhorn. Morgan Stanley officials said he called headquarters shortly before the tower collapsed to say he was going back up to search for stragglers.
Rescorla knew that the south tower was going to collapse. He went back in anyway. There were still Morgan Stanley employees in there, and their safety was his responsibility. So he climbed the stairwells, helping others to get out, doing what was natural to him, leading others during crisis.
At 9:59 AM on September 11th 2001, the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. Cyril Richard Rescorla was still inside. I imagine that the words of “Men of Harlach” were booming through the stairwells as tons of concrete crashed down on him.
Dan Hill wrote of him;
“I have wept only one time over the loss of my one true friend, brother, and companion – and that, unfortunately, was on national television while being interviewed by Jane Pauley. She asked me then if that was the first I had cried over Rick. I replied, “Yeah. I’ve been too busy being proud of him. I’ve been too busy cheering.”
I have vowed to never again cry over Rick Rescorla and his death. It was not an event to weep over. It was a noble ending for a noble man. I choose to rejoice in that. I will continue to cheer.
Such magnificent men are rare. They appear every few eons or so, and they are a gift to mankind.
Rescorla died the death for which he was destined – standing for the principles of honor, integrity, and valor. He was a man who considered everyman as important as himself. From bush natives in Africa to the barons of Wall Street, he considered every life as valuable as his own. In the end, he died as he lived – in service to his fellow man. Like the Good Book says: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).
There was no better man in history. There probably never will be better. I give you 2700 survivors of the 9-11 World Trade Center disaster as witnesses.”
Men of Harlech onto glory
This will ever be your story..