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Rick Rescorla: American Hero of Vietnam and 9/11

Flag planted in military cemetary.
Flag planted in military cemetary.

Rick Rescorla was 62 years old and dying of terminal bone marrow cancer on September 11, 2001. He was also working on the 44th floor of World Trade Center Tower 1 when a plane crashed into the building.

Rescorla, who had already gone through a terrorist attack in the same building near 20 years earlier, jumped into action. Running up and down 22 floors in the Morgan Stanley Dean Witter headquarters, he helped evacuate 2,700 of his fellow co-workers. He was last seen on the tenth floor, heading up to find more people, when the building collapsed with him inside.

This single glimpse into Rescorla’s life may make him one of the greatest heroes in modern American history, but his story goes back much further.

Small Beginnings

Cyril Richard Rescorla was born in Cornwall, England, in 1939. He was an athlete that had little desire for formal education, so at 16, he quit school and joined the British military. Working initially as a military intelligence officer, Rescorla decided he needed a more adventurous military life and became a member of the British South African Police. He spent the next few years backing South African forces against Soviet ones in conflicts that often lead to brutal confrontations.

It was here that Rescorla proved himself to be a natural leader, and someone that was willing to fight for a cause he believed in. That’s why his next step took him to the United States where he enlisted in the U.S. Army — all so that he could fight in Vietnam.

Let’s put that in perspective. Vietnam is without a doubt one of the most brutal conflicts the U.S. military has ever taken part in. It was so terrifying to our nation that people burned draft cards and moved out of the country to avoid being selected for service. And yet Rick Rescorla, a man not even native to our country, volunteered to serve as an infantry officer in one of the world's bloodiest conflicts.

He was fighting about 10 miles from the Cambodian Border when, in the middle of the night, three full regiments of North Vietnamese Army soldiers launched a massive assault on the battalion, effectively crippling them. It was Rescorla’s Bravo Company, already outnumbered and exhausted, that was called upon to reinforce the weakened position once held by Charlie company.

Because Rescorla was a seasoned fighter, he knew how to rally his troops. Belting out traditional Cornish folk songs in his mighty British accent, Rescorla lead the way by digging foxholes, establishing firing lanes and reinforcing the perimeter with overwhelming success. Encouraged by the sight of their leader’s actions, the 100 men still alive in Bravo Company became inspired, holding off more than 2,000 NVA soldiers that night.

Hal Moore, the Vietnam veteran and author of “We Were Soldiers”, said that Rescorla was, "the greatest platoon commander I have ever seen."

Earning His Keep

In 1866, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer became the commander of the newly minted 7th Cavalry Regiment. Nearly 100 years later, during the first major American battle of Vietnam—Ia Drang— Englishman turned American Rick Rescorla acted as a platoon leader for that very same unit.

Until the End

Though Rescorla, who was awarded both the Silver and Bronze Star’s and retired from the Army as a Colonel in 1990, carries more stories than a volume of Grimms’ fairy tales, it doesn’t matter if they’re true. Rescorla was a man of unwavering convictions that cared deeply for those around him, as evidenced by his path through life.

After retirement, Rescorla earned a law degree in Oklahoma with his GI Bill and taught Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina. He found his final job as Director of Security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in New York City, where he trained thousands of employees to evacuate with military precision. Some made fun of him, some resisted, but his persistence paid off for the employees on that day in September.

Rick Rescorla is not only one of the greatest soldiers that ever lived, he’s one of the greatest Americans this nation has ever seen.

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