I first wrote about Rick Rescorla in 2003 after finishing James Stewart’s Heart of a Soldier, the book based on Stewart’s New Yorker article “The real heroes are dead.” (“The real heroes are dead” is what Rescorla would say in response to recognition of his heroism on the battlefield in Vietnam.) The book is good, not great, but it touches on profound themes in a thought-provoking way: life and death, love and friendship, heroism and sacrifice, destiny and fate, man’s search for meaning, all fall within the book’s compass.
Rescorla was a British native who moved to the United States to join the Army and fight the Communists in Vietnam. Rescorla was inspired to move to the United States in part by his friendship with Dan Hill. Their friendship is the one constant theme of the book. Hill and Rescorla had become friends in Rhodesia; they consciously modeled themselves on the characters of Peachy and Dravot in Kipling’s story “The Man Who Would Be King.” Later they both served as officers in Vietnam, where in 1965 Rescorla saw harrowing combat in the Ia Drang Valley.
In April 2001, thanks to Hill’s efforts, Rescorla was inducted into the Army’s Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame for his service in Vietnam. The famous photo at the left (taken by UPI reporter Joe Galloway) depicts Rescorla in action in the Ia Drang Valley It is moving to read of the officers who sought Rescorla out to shake his hand and have him autograph their copies of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, in which Rescorla plays a key role.
Rescorla died a hero’s death saving his charges at Morgan Stanley in the south tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Rescorla was head of security for the company; he directed the evacuation in which he had long drilled the company’s WTC employees. He knew that a terrorist attack on the WTC was coming and he knew what had happened as soon as the building was hit. His message was one of resolve. Using a bullhorn, he shepherded his charges into the tower’s one usable fire escape and exhorted them that it was “a day to be proud to be an American.”
The book closes with the words of Hill, the man who remained Rescorla’s best friend until his death. His haunting words pay tribute to Rescorla:
One of my life’s biggest regrets is that I couldn’t have been with Rick at the moment of his great challenge and crisis of his life. Then again, maybe it was so destined, because if I didn’t survive, there would be nobody left to tell the story.
Kipling wrote that “all men should count with you, but none too much.” I failed there. Rick counted as the world to me.
Somebody cautioned that if a person or thing means the world to you, and you lose that person or thing, then you have lost the world. I lost the world when Rick died.
First posted 9/11/2005.
UPDATE 9/11/2011: The San Francisco Opera debuted Heart of a Soldier, an opera composed by Christopher Theofanidis to a libretto by Donna DiNovelli, based on Stewart’s book. Cori Ellison provided a preview in the New York Times article “Opera recalls a hero’s life, love and song.”
The Daily Mail recounted Rescorla’s story in an article full of good photos.
One final note. Please spend a few minutes with the video below.