Rick Rescorla: The Vietnam Veteran Who Saved 2,700 Lives on 9/11

Photo Credit: 1. Brownie Harris / CORBIS / Getty Images 2. US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: 1. Brownie Harris / CORBIS / Getty Images 2. US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Battle of la Drang Valley was the first major engagement of the Vietnam War. Some 36 years later, the first major battle of the Global War on Terror saw flights hijacked and crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Many remember both, but Rick Rescorla was the only person to have been at the heart of each. Sadly, the latter event resulted in his death.

Rich Rescorla was inspired by American troops

View of the Hayle Viaduct
Hayle, Cornwall, United Kingdom, where Rick Rescorla was born. (Photo Credit: John Bennett / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

Rick Rescorla was born in Hayle, Cornwall, United Kingdom, on May 27, 1939. During the Second World War, his town served as the headquarters for the US Army’s 175th Infantry Division, 29th Infantry Division, which was preparing for the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. The young Rescorla found the soldiers’ presence awe-inspiring, and he knew he wanted to become one.

Naturally athletic and without much interest in academia, Rescorla opted to enlist in the British Army. He underwent training as a paratrooper with the Parachute Regiment and was sent to Cyprus, serving there with an intelligence unit from 1957-60.

From the British Army to the Northern Rhodesia Police

US Army Ranger running through a cloud of smoke
Training at Fort Benning (now Fort Moore), Georgia, 1951. (Photo Credit: UPI / Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

Following his service with the British Army, Rick Rescorla moved to North Rhodesia (today Zambia) to join the protectorate’s police force. During this time, he backed the South African forces in engagements against the Soviets, which instilled in him a dislike for Communism.

This era of Rescorla’s life also saw him meet Daniel J. Hill, an American soldier who’d ultimately change his life. Hill encouraged him to enlist in the US Army, but not before the Brit moved to London for a short stint with the Metropolitan Police. Wanting to see more action, Rescorla relocated to Brooklyn and joined the US military.

Following the completion of Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Rescorla attended Officer Candidate School and Airborne Training at Fort Benning (now Fort Moore), Georgia. Following his graduation, he earned a commission as a second lieutenant and platoon leader with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).

Before long, he and his comrades were deployed to Vietnam.

Battle of Ia Drang

Bell UH-1D Iroquois hovering over two American infantrymen
US infantrymen during the Battle of Ia Drang, 1965. (Photo Credit: United States Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Between November 14-18, 1965, the Battle of Ia Drang raged between the Americans and the North Vietnamese (NVA). Occurring just 10 miles from the border with Vietnam, it centered around two helicopter landing zones (LZ): X-ray and Albany.

Rick Rescorla fought in the engagement under the command of Lt. Col. Hal Moore. With the American forces overrun by the NVA and in need of support, the platoon leader’s B Company was called in. Keeping his men’s morale up through song, Rescorla aided in the digging of foxholes, set up a defensive perimeter and established firing lines, all while dodging the heavy North Vietnamese fire. He even neutralized an enemy machine gun nest with a grenade.

During B Company’s evacuation, the attack intensified. Rescorla’s men were, once again, called in to support. Through enemy fire, they bravely fought, with Moore later saying Rescorla was “the best leader I ever saw.” A testament to his bravery, this sentiment was later immortalized with the publishing of We Were Soldiers Once.. And Young, which featured an image of him on the cover.

For his efforts in Vietnam, Rescorla was the recipient of the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Silver Star, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and the Purple Heart.

Rick Rescorla kept busy after the Vietnam War

Rick Rescorla holding a rifle in the middle of a wooded area
Rick Rescorla in Vietnam. (Photo Credit: US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

After returning from Vietnam, Rick Rescorla entered the US Army Reserve, reaching the rank of colonel by the time he officially retired in 1990. The same year he left active-duty service, in 1967, he received his American citizenship.

While in the Reserve and using his military benefits, Rescorla obtained his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma, where he met his first wife, Betsy Nathan. He spent time teaching criminal justice in South Carolina, before changing careers and transitioning into corporate security. He subsequently relocated to New Jersey with Betsy, with the pair splitting after the move.

A few years later, Rescorla was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which spread to his bone marrow. He received treatment to fight the disease, with his second wife, Susan Greer, helping him to keep a positive outlook.

Concerned about the safety of the World Trade Center (WTC)

View of the Twin Towers from across the Hudson River
Twin Towers, 1975. (Photo Credit: Lambert / Archive Photos / Getty Images)

With his transition into corporate security, Rick Rescorla got a job with Dean Witter, which later merged with Morgan Stanley. Following the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988, he worried about the vulnerability of the World Trade Center (WTC), where the banking company had an office spanning numerous floors. These concerns only increased when a bomb was detonated at the site in 1993.

Worried that a worse attack could occur, given the prominence of the WTC, Rescorla urged Morgan Stanley to relocate, but this wasn’t possible, as the company’s lease ran until 2006. Not wanting anyone caught unprepared during a potential attack, the veteran held evacuation drills every three months that involved all employees; even if the security measures at the WTC couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be increased, he wanted those he was responsible for to get out safely.

September 11, 2001

View of the Twin Towers from behind the Brooklyn Bridge
New York City skyline, featuring the Brooklyn Bridge and the Twin Towers, 1998. (Photo Credit: Jeff Overs / BBC News & Current Affairs / Getty Images)

At 7:30 AM on September 11, 2001, Rick Rescorla settled himself in at his desk on the 44th floor of the South Tower at the World Trade Center. Just over an hour later, at 8:46 AM, he watched from his window in horror as an explosion erupted from the North Tower. American Airlines Flight 11 had been hijacked and flown right into the building.

Despite the Port Authority telling tenants within the South Tower to remain at their desks, Rescorla knew they weren’t safe. As he had done during his drills, he ordered everyone across Morgan Stanley’s 22 floors to evacuate via the South Tower’s stairwells. He used a bull-horn, cellphone and walkie-talkie to make sure everything went as smoothly as possible.

It turns out Rescorla made the right call, as, at 9:03 AM, United Arlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower.

Going back into the South Tower to save more people

Rick Rescorla's name etched into a panel at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Rick Rescorla’s name memorialized at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. (Photo Credit: Nightscream / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

With nearly 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees evacuated, Rick Rescorla ran back into the South Tower to search for others. When the building collapsed at 9:59 AM, he was seen on the 10th floor, heading upstairs.

It’s reported that 10 Morgan Stanley employees perished on 9/11, including Rescorla, whose body has never been identified. The others included the veteran’s deputies, Jorge Velasquez and Wesley Mercer, and security guard Godwin Forde.

As with others who perished during the attacks, Rescorla was memorialized at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. His heroics on that tragic day led the US Department of Homeland Security to create the Rick Rescorla National Award for Resilience, and his wife was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2019, on his behalf. A statue of him was also erected along the Walk of Honor at the National Infantry Museum at Fort Moore, Georgia.

More from us: The 1969 Draft Lottery Fueled Anti-War Sentiments In the United States During the Vietnam War

For his military feats, the veteran and hero was inducted into both the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame and the Infantry Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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