In Fort Benning, Georgia, there stands a statue of one of America’s finest infantrymen. During his life, he embodied the very essence of the American hero archetype, from fighting against waves of communist soldiers as a young officer in Vietnam to sacrificing himself in an attempt to evacuate people from the doomed World Trade Center.
With this in mind, it’s surprising to some that one of America’s finest was born in the coastal English county of Cornwall.
Born in 1939, Cyril Richard “Rick” Rescorla grew up in the windswept little town of Hayle, located in Southwest England. During World War II, the village was a temporary headquarters for the 175th Infantry Regiment and the US 29th Infantry Division as they prepared for the Normandy invasion.
With the units largely composed of Virginians and Marylanders, a young Rescorla took a quite a liking to the Americans who took over his town. Idolizing them, it was the men of the 29th and 175th who inspired him to one day become a soldier.
In 1956, a 17-year-old Rescorla left his hometown to enlist in the military. Enlisting in 1957, he went to airborne training for the British Paras before heading to Cypress during the Cypriot insurgency, eventually departing in 1960.
From Cypress, Rescorla headed to Northern Rhodesia for three years, where his experiences on the ground with the Northern Rhodesia Police turned him into a staunch enemy of communism. During his time on the African continent, he met a US Soldier by the name of Daniel J. Hill.
Nothing short of a legend, Hill fraudulently enlisted at the age of 15 and had been all over the world, operating in covert roles. From sniping during the Hungarian Revolution to being an undercover mercenary in the Congo, he was wherever America wanted to be- just not officially.
Inspired yet again by another American warfighter, Rescorla was inspired to join the US Army after his term as a Tommy was up. Briefly working for the London Metropolitan Police Service after his discharge, he eventually caught a ride to the US and settled at a hostel in Brooklyn until he was allowed to enlist in the US Army in 1963.
Finishing his basic training at Fort Dix, Rescorla eventually attended Officer Candidate School and Airborne school at Fort Benning, eventually earning himself a platoon leader slot in the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment. Skipping out on R&R with his unit in the 101st Airborne, Hill would join up with his old buddy and head into the belly of the beast by his side.
Serving under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, he participated in the legendary 1965 Battle of Ia Drang, the first major battle between the United States Army and the North Vietnamese Army. In his book (co-authored between himself and reporter Joseph Galloway) We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, Moore would describe Rescorla as the “best platoon leader” he ever saw. If one were to pick up a copy of the book today, they would likely find a photo of Rescorla on the cover.
Rescorla was beloved by his men, who called him “Hard Core” due to his ferocity in combat and appreciated his humor and compassion toward his men. In fact, his widow would later recall how he sang Cornish songs from his youth to his troops in an effort to calm their nerves during times of great psychological stress.
In battle, Rescorla was ruthless. He would relish combat, raising the morale of his men and giving them the courage to not only drive on but push aggressively.
By the time Rescorla left Vietnam, he had been awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, a Purple Heart and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
“When I think of Rick Rescorla, I think of the twinkle in his eye – half joyful, half crazed, like a wild Cornish hawk. He was, after all, a Brit. When he was working, though, or out in the bush, that crazed irreverent twinkle disappeared – snuffed out like a candle in a strong wind and replaced by a cold steely glint that could sear right through you like the icy stare of death. When Rick looked that way, he was ready for a kill.” – Larry Gill (exerpt from his book, “Baptism: a Vietnam memoir”)
The “Cornish Hawk” would leave the military in 1968, taking up education and becoming a writer while teaching criminal justice. He would eventually reconnect with his friend Hill, who was the best man at his first wedding, confidant during his first divorce, and once again the best man of a second marriage- one that would last Rescorla the rest of his life.
Despite his heroics, Rescorla never wanted to be seen as a hero. He had never read the book that bore his likeness on the cover, nor had he expressed desire in ever seeing the film that was based on the book. When his wife inquired as to why, he told her that “the real heroes are dead.”
Entering corporate security in 1985, Rescorla was tasked with protecting what would later become Morgan Stanley within the World Trade Center. He would eventually once again call upon his friend Hill to come to the WTC and assess security measures. Together they determined that a vehicle-borne IED could be used. Warning the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, they were ignored- until their prediction came true during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
During the evacuation after the attack, he stayed in the smoldering building for 12 hours to help firefighters rescue trapped survivors.
Gaining credibility after the bombing, Rescorla and his friend predicted that an attack on the Twin Towers would also likely come by air, using commercial aircraft. Advising his employers at Morgan Stanley that they should move their business to New Jersey, Rescorla learned that the lease would not be up until 2006.
Knowing that he was “set in place,” the Cornish Hawk set about to ensure that if something did happen, he would do everything he could to save as many lives as possible. Working out an evacuation plan for all twenty-two floors owned by the company, he developed an elaborate escape drill that all employees would practice twice a year. Despite resistance from many civilians in the company, Rescorla had his way.
A leader even when he was in a civilian capacity, Rescorla insisted every security officer wear a suit, as he felt it conveyed authority and respect. When he learned that many of his employees couldn’t afford their own, he outfitted them with suits using money from his own pocket.
Rescorla was never without a battle to fight. If it wasn’t communism, terrorism or corporate stupidity he was fighting, it was cancer. Diagnosed with prostate cancer that spread to his bone marrow, he was subjected to painful treatments that caused his body to swell, making him self-conscious about his weight. Despite all his suffering, he always did his duty- and he frequently praised his wife for comforting him when he needed it most.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Rescorla was rocked from his routine as the first plane slammed into the North Tower of the WTC. Situated in the South Tower, he ignored the order by Port Authority to shelter in place an immediately grabbed his bullhorn, setting into motion the drill that he had set up for his company.
As he evacuated employees, he sang the same Cornish folk songs he sang in Vietnam, “God Bless America,” other patriotic and military songs over his bullhorn.
“Slow down, pace yourself,” he reportedly said. “Today is a day to proud to be an American.”
In between orders and song, he called his friend, Hill, to proudly tell him how he stuck it to the Port Authority.
“The dumb sons of bitches told me not to evacuate,” he told Hill during the brief call. “They said it’s just Building One. I told them I’m getting my people the [expletive] out of here.”
Hill told the Washington Post, during an interview just over a month after 9/11, that he could hear Rescorla commanding orders during the phone call.
“Typical Rescorla,” Hill recalled. “Incredible under fire.”
Watching the situation unfold, Hill watched as a second aircraft slammed into the tower where his friend was determined to save everyone- or “go to his Gawd* like a soldier” trying.
Fifteen minutes after the second strike, he called his wife to tell her that she was the greatest thing to ever happen to him. Shortly after, he said goodbye.
Calling his friend Hill once more as he policed up the last personnel in the building, he asked one final request- call his wife and calm her down.
Despite knowing his friend was doomed, he did so, telling Mrs. Rescorla that everything would be alright.
On September 11, 2001, a day before he was supposed to go on vacation with the love of his life and just months after being inducted into the Infantry Officer Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Rick Rescorla was last seen on the tenth floor, heading upstairs to conduct one last sweep of survivors. On his last day on earth, he had saved 2,687 people- a final salute to the soldier’s code of his adopted country, “leave no man behind…”
* The alternative spelling of “God” is a reference to a Rudyard Kipling’s use of “Gawd” in a poem that refers to the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1878.
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