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Singing in the Face of Danger

In 1965, a tiny American combat unit entered a clearing in Viet Nam’s Ia Drang valley and was quickly surrounded by nearly 2,000 enemy troops. The ensuing battle, the first major engagement of the Vietnam War, was one of the most savage in U.S. history. We Were Soldiers Once… And Young is a detailed account of the battle of Ia Drang. It became a New York Times bestseller in 1994.

But the photo chosen for the book’s cover has a story all its own: the gritty young soldier leading the bayonet attack is barely mentioned in the book. The platoon leader of Bravo Company wasn’t the captain of the football team, the mayor’s son, or his high school’s valedictorian. Cyril “Rick” Rescorla wasn’t even an American citizen. Rescorla volunteered to fight in the US army because he remembered the arrival of the Americans on D-Day to rescue his native Cornwall, England, when he was 5 years old.

Pat Payne fought beside Rick Rescorla in the vicious battle of Ia Drang. “My God, it was like Little Big Horn. We were all cowering in the bottom of our foxholes, expecting to get overrun when Rescorla looked us in the eye and said, ‘When the sun comes up, we're gonna kick some ass.’ He gave us courage to face the coming dawn.” Throughout the bloody battle that followed, Rescorla could be heard singing God Bless America and Cornish folk songs at the top of his lungs:

“Men of Cornwall stop your dreaming.
Can't you see their spear points 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!”

And sure enough, the battalion fought its way out.

Following the war, Rescorla came to the US and found success on Wall Street as vice president of security at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. His office was in the south tower of the World Trade Center. In a report filed with the Port Authority in 1990, Rescorla pinpointed the load-bearing columns in the garage as a vulnerable point for a terrorist attack, but there was no response to his warning. Then, in 1993, a van packed with explosives was detonated exactly 30 feet from where he had predicted. Rescorla pressed his employer to move out of the Twin Towers, convinced that the next attack would come by air.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Rescorla used his cell phone to call an old army buddy, Dan Hill, in St. Augustine, Florida. “Are you watching TV?” he asked. “What do you think?”

“Hard to tell. It could have been an accident, but I can't see a commercial airliner getting that far off.”

“I'm evacuating right now,” Rescorla said.

Over the phone, Hill could hear his old friend calmly issuing orders over the bullhorn, never raising his voice. Then he heard him break into song. When Rescorla came back to the phone, he told Hill the Port Authority had told him not to evacuate - that he was supposed to order people to stay at their desks.

“What’d you say?” Hill asked.

“I said, ‘Piss off, you son of a bitch, Everything above where that plane hit is going to collapse, and it's going to take the whole building with it. I'm getting my people out of here.’”

The only other call Rick made was to his frantic wife, Susan. “I want you to know that if something happens to me, you made my life.” And then 62 year-old Rick Rescorla picked up his bullhorn and safely evacuated all but 3 of his company’s 2,700 employees from 22 smoke-filled, upper floors of the burning South Tower. He was searching for the final 3 when the building went down.

Rick Rescorla’s body was never found. But those who made it safely out in the final seconds before its fall speak of the hallways behind them echoing with refrains of God Bless America and old, Cornish folk songs.

~ Roy H. Williams

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Invisible Heroes is a collection of more than 100 biographical stories written by Roy H. Williams, the Wizard of Ads. You can read a few of these stories in the archives of this web page, but most of them are inaccessible because they're soon to be published in a book.

We create our heroes from our hopes and dreams. And then they create us in their own image. Heroes raise the bar we jump and hold high the standards we live by. They're the embodiment of all we're striving to be.

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