I heard his voice long before I ever met him: ‘Gaaaa-rry Owen, Garry Owen, Garry Owen, / In the Valley of Montana all alone / There’ll be better days to be for the 7th Cavalry / When we charge again for dear old Garry Owen….’
It was the summer of 1995. I was a company commander in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry — George Armstrong Custer’s old outfit — and an audiotape made at An Khe in the spring of 1966 had found its way into my hands. ‘Garry Owen’ is the motto of the 7th Cavalry. The voice pounding through on the scratchy tape was a voice out of the pages of history for me — the voice of Rick Rescorla.
As a 7th Cavalry man I had heard of Rescorla. He was made famous by the account of his actions during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965, the Americans’ first major battle of the Vietnam War. He became a legend in the unit for his behavior in combat, and his face became an American icon when a young reporter named Peter Arnett snapped his photo. That photo became the cover of the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, by Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, two who were there. The book, and now the movie, We Were Soldiers, tell the story of the fight. Rescorla was a second lieutenant then, but was already experienced in combat.
Born in Cornwall, on the English coast, Rescorla had seen man’s darker side already, first from service with the British army on Cyprus, and later in a’security force’ in Rhodesia. The epitome of the young warrior, he was the sort that England seems to have bred in abundance for centuries: the type of young man who in times past went forth from Britain and created an empire upon which the sun never set. England happened to be fresh out of wars in the 1960s, so Rescorla became an American and fought in ours.
In 1965 Rescorla knew war. His men did not, yet. To steady them, to break their concentration away from the fear that may grip a man when he realizes there are hundreds of men very close by who want to kill him, Rescorla sang. Mostly he sang dirty songs that would make a sailor blush. Interspersed with the lyrics was the voice of command: ‘Fix bayonets…on liiiiine…reaaaa-dy…forward.’ It was a voice straight from Waterloo, from the Somme, implacable, impeccable, impossible to disobey. His men forgot their fear, concentrated on his orders and marched forward as he led them straight into the pages of history: 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry…’Hard Corps.’
When I started interviewing these veterans of my regiment decades later, I was struck by the emotions Rescorla’s men still felt for him. His old radio telephone operator (RTO), Sam Fantino, 30 years later still seemed to maintain that constant ‘where-the-hell-is-the-lieutenant-now’ look out of the corner of his eye. When a lieutenant and his RTO click, the radioman takes on a host of new roles — part radioman, part scrounge, part mother hen looking over ‘his’ lieutenant. With Fantino and Rescorla it was something special to watch. Many other survivors of the platoon acted the same way. Over time, I came to believe that they would have followed Rescorla in an assault upon the gates of Hell, for he did not order, he led.
After his time as a rifle platoon leader, Rescorla technically became a liaison officer. But in reality he was running a sort of miniature, brigade-level LRRP (long range reconnaissance patrol) team for Hal Moore, who had by then been promoted from comman-der of 1-7 Cavalry to commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. They called it a Ground Reconnaissance Infiltration Team, though Rescorla told me they preferred to call his group a GRIT patrol. One hundred fifty men tried out, from whom Rescorla chose 15 for a trial patrol. From those 15, three men were selected to accompany Rick on the ground, one of them a former British SAS member. Walking deep into areas such as the ‘Crow’s Foot,’ well ahead of the rest of the brigade, Rescorla and his team bridged the gap between division recon and bat-talion scouts. That was his idea of a ‘cushy staff job.’
Twenty-nine years later, the tape made in 1966, in a claptrap officers’ club, made its way into my hands, and for the first time I heard the voice that I had only read of in history books. It was a strong voice, booming out the solos and leading the chorus of young American officers trying to forget, or perhaps to remember with honor, their soldiers who now lay still. I doubt there was a sober voice in the pack. In the background there is the recurrent booming of 105mm howitzers firing. This was the 1st Cavalry Division, in war. It was eerie to know that nobody had heard this tape in almost 30 years. I made seven copies so the tape would not disappear into history, and sent one to Rescorla himself.
I am really lucky. Over the course of my life I have met men who, to my eyes, have walked into the room off the pages of a history book. Sometimes I get to meet my heroes.
A few months after receiving the tape from An Khe, I had the chance to attend the annual reunion dinner of the veterans of the fighting in the Ia Drang. That weekend I also had the honor of meeting Rick in person. He was bigger now, rounder and downright jolly actually, but in his eye I caught the glint of mischief that so many of his former soldiers talked about. He was now a civilian. After returning to the States in 1966 he had spent a year teaching at Fort Benning and then got out — sort of. He stayed in the Army Reserve, advancing to colonel before he retired in 1990. Along the way he had picked up a master’s degree and a law degree. But something in his makeup would not allow him to entirely abandon the idea behind our profession. Rick Rescorla had become the director of security for Morgan Stanley in their offices at the World Trade Center.
Nor had he forgotten his origins as a warrior poet. Approaching him almost as a religious supplicant, I asked him to sign my copy of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young. He asked me to wait a moment, got himself a drink, and sat staring into the middle distance for a moment. When he handed my copy back, the inscription read: ‘To: Captain Bob Bateman / Old Dogs and Wild Geese are Fighting / Head for the Storm / As you faced it before / For where there is the 7th / There’s bound to be fighting / And where there’s no fighting / It’s the 7th no more. / Best, / Rick Rescorla, Hard Corps One-Six [his radio call sign in Vietnam]’
When Islamic fundamentalists bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, Rick was there. Apparently songs don’t work as well on civilians as they do with us soldiers, and so Rick had some difficulty in getting people’s attention, to stop the panic and get them the hell out of there. And so (or at least so the legend goes), he jumped up onto a desk and bellowed out to the flower of American capitalism and propriety that he would moon them all unless they listened.
Nobody I ever met said Rick could not make a statement. People stopped, that’s for sure, and Rick proceeded to do his job, saving lives by moving people out of the tower. And that’s what he was doing again on September 11. Various employees of Morgan Stanley report his presence across all 20 floors occupied by the company. Just as in combat, he was everywhere — calm, jocular in the face of panic, reassuring in his personal presence. There is no way to exaggerate the number of human lives he saved that day. Not just the Morgan Stanley employees, but every single person on a floor above theirs owes a nod in his direction. Thanks to him, just about every one of the employees of his company made it out of the building, all 20 floors of them. Of their thousands, all but seven got out. Think about that. His legend in the company helped (people remember when somebody on an executive salary threatens to moon the staff), and that was enough to keep those people moving, which allowed others to follow, to leave — and to live.
Rescorla would no more have left that tower before every single person was outside than I would start singing show tunes from Broadway. When he called his wife not long after the first plane hit the other tower, he told her not to worry, he was getting everyone out. Despite the fact that an announcement was made over the building speakers telling everyone to stay put after that first strike, Rescorla apparently said, ‘Bugger THAT!’ and started the evacuation immediately. When it appeared that everyone was out, he went back in, heading up those stairs with the rescue workers. That is where he was last seen. He was inside, being himself, when the tower came down on him.
They killed my hero. But heroes never really die. Rick will live on. So long as my pen has ink, and my voice bellows out to your sons manning the ramparts today, he will live on. Rick was a volunteer in a draftee army. In some ways that made it hard for him. It’s easy today. Today we are all volunteers, and the young men and women I serve with will hear Rick’s story because I will tell them, and they will remember. It is our professional strength: We remember.
This period of global peace has been called ‘Pax Americana,’ just as the peace under the Romans was called ‘Pax Romana.’ It has always been a peace that exacted a cost. Rick knew that. He lived that. I suspect that he’s waiting now, down in Fiddler’s Green — ‘halfway down the trail to hell,’ where all cavalrymen pull off the road for a drink — composing his next bawdy ballad and telling those men from his platoon whom he last saw in the Ia Drang what they missed over the past 30-plus years. He’ll be telling them lies, of course, but they will be magnificent glowing lies, and every one of them will have a punch line to bring tears to your eyes. Shoot, he’s probably tending the bar by now.
‘…So after you read this, get your canteen cup, / And fill it with mead, or scotch, or rotgut, / Then pour it right out, on the ground, on the floor, / For the heart of the Seventh, Rescorla’s no more. / Garry Owen.’
This article was written by Major Robert L. Bateman, U.S. Army and originally published in the June 2002 issue of Vietnam Magazine.