Here's how one admiring marine on the mission remembers that night in Vietnam:

They were dug in south of the DMZ when the trim, gung-ho lieutenant rousted his men. It was around midnight. "We're going to take us a prisoner," he said, as grunts smeared faces black and donned camouflage fatigues.

Headquarters hankered for a North Vietnamese soldier to interrogate, and that was enough for "Blue" -- his radio brevity code -- as he ordered the fighting machine known as "Blue's Bastards" to move out.

They trucked toward the moonscape of canyons and gullies, pockmarked from the bombs of screaming Phantoms, then hugged the darkness on foot, light-stepping the heavily mined no man's land that marked the boundil,2.9p ary with the North.

With no quarry in sight -- Blue always hated going home empty-handed -- he nodded at his point man, and together, they slipped across the border, knocked out an NVA guard, then carried him out like a sack of potatoes.

Oliver Laurence North, a k a Blue, a young Annapolis grad whose one dream had been to be a marine, had just invaded North Vietnam by himself.

So what if it wasn't kosher for "killer teams" like North's to cross borders on the sly. "Don't write home about this," he told his troops. And if his company commander in 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, then-Capt. Paul B. Goodwin -- or any higher-ups -- blessed that foray, his ex-boss isn't saying.

"I'm not going to verify anything," says Goodwin of the officer he admired enough to name godfather of one of his children.

"He always got the job done," says an admiring Randall Herrod, 38, the highly decorated marine on that mission who North says saved his life later on. Later still, North would be a character witness at Herrod's military massacre trial.

As for the prisoner, no superior ever asked "where we got him," recalls Herrod. "North just told us this was something we had to keep our mouths shut about."

Oliver North is taking his own advice these days, an embattled officer whose gonzo diplomacy as a White House operative catapulted him from the front line to the front page. As a National Security Council aide, he reportedly helped cook up assorted derring-do: from the invasion of Grenada to the midair heist of the Achille Lauro hijackers (a beautifully choreographed operation, if you ignore the diplomatic fallout) to overcharging the ayatollah for arms to keep Nicaragua's rebels in beans and bullets -- a marine turned contrapreneur.

Just who is the 43-year-old lieutenant colonel who evokes Rambo in real life, then invokes the Fifth Amendment on national TV, an anguished-looking marine with seven -- count 'em, seven -- bedazzling rows of ribbons, a pretty wife, four kids and piercing blue eyes?

Is he a spit-and-polish, poster-perfect "national hero," as President Reagan called him just after he was fired? A good soldier who always sticks to orders, then falls on his own grenade to protect boss and country?

Or is he, as some suggest, an ambitious cowboy xl who overcompensates for inexperience in covert operations and foreign affairs by bulldozing ahead with a wink and a nod -- a workaholic with boundless drive who pushes the envelope of propriety and himself to exhaustion to get the job done? And does he add spin to his record with occasional exaggerations of his heroics?

Some old mates are circling the wagons, refusing to talk. "We want you to get it wrong," says one close friend, a fellow officer from Vietnam days. At Marine Corps Headquarters, damage control appears to be the order of the day. Asked to track down colleagues for interviews, Marine flacks warn prospects that North's attorney wants them to shun all requests, that the commandant himself is keeping mum. "But let your conscience be your guide," they add.

Yet, many are quick to man the ramparts for a wounded comrade, singing his praises as an officer and gentleman. One Annapolis classmate, a Utah-based political consultant named Keith Haines, has cranked up a legal defense fund and aims to trot out one "character witness" for the press each week.

No one questions North's courage, his valor under fire. And some are no doubt jealous of his rise. But North -- who sidetracked his career in the corps when he reupped for heady White House duty two years back -- has left behind numerous peers who long ago began to bristle at his penchant for high drama, hype and self-promotion.

"You either love Ollie or hate him," says one Marine colleague. "There's no in-between."

'Don't Tell the Captain It Was My Grenade'

He wore a crucifix in combat, an ex-altar boy hooked on holy war against communism. As a platoon commander in Vietnam, he was "all guns, guts and glory," says Herrod, now a shift supervisor in Wetumka, Okla., who once dragged North to safety, then used his own body to shield his unconscious boss.

"One night, he was hit twice, in the rear and the legs -- shrapnel," Herrod recalls. "But he was still running around, directing fire. He was in pain, but he walked out with the rest of us, didn't even tell anyone about it until he got back to the base three days later."

No pain, no gain. A 1968 Annapolis grad, North was a marine who didn't want to miss the war, friends say. He skipped taking summer leave to go straight to 'Nam, via a detour at basic school at Quantico. A good war can be a ticket to the top, and war was good to Ollie North. He got to strut his stuff as an infantry platoon commander. Knocked off a tank under fire once, breaking ribs and puncturing a lung, North spotted the enemy gunner taking aim again and wrote his epitaph with one blast from an M79 grenade launcher at 50 yards. That earned him a Bronze Star.

On May 25, 1969, NVA regulars savaged one platoon with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mines and mortars. With marines taking heavy casualties, military records show, North rallied his men and charged the enemy, pushing them back. Choppers flew out the wounded. North charged again, forcing yet another retreat.

The enemy regrouped. North charged again, ran out of ammo, pulled his men back. He summoned air strikes. Then he charged again, urging his weary men to rout a superior force. That earned him a Silver Star.

Vietnam taught North the power of chutzpah. "I remember him saying, 'After all they taught us about supporting arms and tanks, a battle often turns on some lieutenant standing his men up and saying, 'Let's go boys!' " recalls Don Moore, a Loudoun County sheriff's investigator who was majoring in philosophy at George Mason University when the war caught up with him. Moore wound up a Marine officer in North's company and spent his first night in-country sharing a tent.

"He scared the hell out of me," recalls Moore of that first encounter. He reached for a hand to shake and got a bandage. North talked about taking some NVA bunkers, losing some men. Eyes gleaming in the low candlelight, he offered leadership advice.

"We're going out tomorrow," said North. "See if you can rustle up some hot sauce and a crate of onions."

"What?"

"A lot of our guys are Spanish; they hate C-rations plain. It'll make you popular right off the bat."

North inspired fear and respect. "I was leery at first," says Herrod. "Here's this guy with chin straps on when no one wore them on their helmets -- but he made us wear them so ours wouldn't come off.

"Everything was by the book. He insisted on instant obedience, but he didn't ask you to do anything he wasn't willing to do. If he said, 'Take that hill,' he was right up front."

Lieutenants were rewarded with ceremonial nips from the captain's bottle of Chivas, Moore says. Lt. North always got a swig. "He burned inside; he was a zealot."

He had little time for those who weren't. As a foxhole radio blared accounts of the moon landing, Moore recalls musing "how far we'd advanced" to still be fighting jungle wars. What did North think? "He said, 'You're weird for even thinking that.' His philosophy was simply 'the mission.' "

North preferred a clique of gung-ho academy types, usually above his rank, to questioners like Moore. "Some of us wondered, 'If we're pulling out, why are we marching back up the hill to kill our men?' " Moore says. "But to Ollie, it was always, 'Let's sweep this ridge, take this hill.' "

Those who had managed to beat the reaper were allowed to hang back on the last two or three weeks of their tours. In North's company, few did. "His damn people would go right out with his platoon until their last day in-country," says Lloyd Banta, the company gunnery sergeant.

Zealot or no, he had a wartime wit. At a farewell party where a captain toasted departees with a bare posterior, North quipped, "You've just seen his best side." And once, when fighting lulled, he headed for the makeshift officers' club -- a tent with a hot tin roof -- and peppered it with rocks. Finding his pals face down inside, fearful of a fragging, he convulsed in laughter.

About 102,000 marines were killed or wounded in Vietnam, a few officers at the hands of their men, but no one ever tried to frag North. "You figured he'd live through it," laughs Herrod. "I'd follow him anywhere."

"He had eyes in the back of his head," says Banta. "Whenever anything tough came up, the captain always sent North." That included at least one other cross-border foray, Banta says, to fetch a wounded NVA soldier.

But bravado nearly cost North his life. "He said, 'Let's go see if we can flush some NVA from the bunkers,' and we grabbed frag grenades," says gunny Banta. Only North's "hit a branch, bounced back" and blew up, shrapnel tearing his hand.

"Hey, don't tell the captain it was my grenade," North asked. Says Banta: "He didn't want Goodwin thinking he was careless."

'He Had a Talent for Making Himself Noticed'

After his Vietnam tour ended, North went home to teach what he'd learned. In the fall of 1969, he hit Quantico, Va., as an instructor at the Marines' Basic School.

A fast-track officer selected early for promotion to both captain and major, he rose over the years on a fine combat record, 19-hour work days and a knack for pleasing the brass. "Apple-polishing," as one Quantico colleague put it, cost him among some peers, who refer to his current troubles as "Ollie's Follies."

"That's not his modus operandi," counters Lt. Col. Peter Stenner, a Quantico instructor and longtime North friend. "He's more dedicated to telling it like it is than [kissing up to the brass]."

"He just had a talent for making himself noticed," says former colleague David Evans, 42, a retired Marine officer who heads Business Executives for National Security, a Washington-based advocacy group. "It was a manifestation of his ambition."

In 1971, North fired off a strongly worded letter, signed by two colleagues as well, to William F. Buckley Jr., protesting press treatment of U.S. military conduct after disclosure of the massacre at My Lai. He was invited onto "Firing Line," where he made an impassioned case for the war.

At Quantico, he taught patrolling and guerrilla warfare and brought down the house. He hopped on a desk and opened fire with an M16 loaded with blanks. He donned colorful jungle gear.

"He played the role to the hilt," sniffs a fellow instructor. "You can just see Ollie with his bush hat on, [camouflage] paint as perfect as if Hollywood had done it, two bandoliers of ammo strapped across his chest, four weapons, three knives. It was as if he'd walked into Sunny's Surplus, bought all he could find and strapped it on at one time."

Students ate it up. His antics kept them awake after lunch, and in the rolling Virginia countryside they honed the warrior's art of small squad tactics. Aloof with his troops, North played "tough but fair," says one.

"He was a varsity player, simply the best," says John Lieno, 37, a Washington attorney and ex-Marine officer who learned jungle warfare from North. "He taught us, 'If you screw up, you die.' "

"What are you going to tell your dead troops?" North liked to sneer. " 'I'm terribly sorry'?"

Even a detractor applauds him as "one of the more effective instructors. He invented 'Rambo' before 'Rambo' was a movie."

How tall was he?

"I'm 6 foot 1," says Lieno, "and he was taller than me."

North stands 5-foot-9, Lieno is told.

"No kidding? Is that all?"

A man with a larger-than-life image, it seems North didn't mind massaging his myth. But details about his record remain hard to pin down.

Take his war wounds, for example. One friend says North counts four wounds from Vietnam. Last year, as a character witness in the New York securities fraud trial of an NSC colleague, Thomas Reed (who was acquitted), North testified that his war decorations included "several" Purple Hearts. How many are "several"? Marine Corps records show two.

"If he got a few more shrapnel scrapes that he didn't feel worthy of reporting and maybe slapped a Band-Aid on, I have no way of knowing that," says Lt. Col. John Shotwell, a Marine Corps spokesman.

Says Herrod: "He got wounded more times than he got medals for. I know one night, he caught some shrapnel and didn't put in for it. A lot of officers cut their finger and put in for a Purple Heart."

During his one-year hitch in Vietnam, from December 1968 until November 1969, he served as a platoon commander of about 40 men. "What were your duties in Vietnam?" he was asked under oath at the Reed trial.

"I was an infantry platoon and company commander in the Special Operations Force, team commander," said North, perhaps suggesting operations in a shadowy outfit for which there is no record -- and which Marine officials say they cannot recall existing.

By some accounts, it was during such counterinsurgency work that he met Richard Secord and John Singlaub, both now retired major generals identified with the contra funding effort. Andrew Messing of Alexandria -- a Vietnam veteran and conservative activist who has become an outspoken champion of North -- says his friend talked about "classified missions" in Laos. Is there anything to rumors of a classified decoration, which North denied on television? Did he ever do any official covert work before the NSC?

"There's so much flat-out disinformation about Ollie," says a high-ranking Washington-based Marine officer. "So you try to track it down. Some say he's putting it out, but you don't know that, so you ask him sk,2 sw,-2 about the two rumored classified citations and he says they're not [classified]. Guys who know Ollie know he hasn't done anything that would get him a classified citation ..."

"I can't comment on what isn't there," Shotwell says. "If a portion of a record is classified, we say, 'We can't comment on that portion,' but there's no portion [of any North record] that's classified" -- nor any record of duty as a company commander in Vietnam, generally a captain's billet.

North also testified at the Reed trial that he was on active duty in Vietnam "from 1968 through the early part of 1970, and then again in 1971." There is no record of an extended or second tour.

But might he have slipped away from Quantico to Southeast Asia, perhaps on temporary duty, to do covert work behind the lines?

"We don't have a day-to-day record of everything an individual has done," Shotwell says. "He could have gone to the moon and it wouldn't be in the file. I'm just saying there's nothing that would verify that in his book."

'If He Had an 89 Average, You'd Give Him a 90'

He was born Oct. 7, 1943, in San Antonio, the oldest of four children raised by Ann and Oliver Clay North, an Army colonel who won a Silver Star in World War II for valor and remained in the reserves until Korea. One brother -- John, 41, a lieutenant colonel in the Army -- was decorated in Vietnam as well. There is a sister, Patricia Ann, 39, and a baby brother, Timothy, 24, a Navy ensign serving on a destroyer.

"I have a lot of heroes in my family," Ann North says.

After the war, the family settled in Philmont, N.Y. (pop. 1,600), a rural hamlet in the Hudson River Valley 30 miles south of Albany, where North's father joined a grandfather -- also named Oliver -- in a small family wool-combing mill. To keep things straight, Ollie was called by his middle name, Larry.

The Norths lived a modest, middle-class life in a yellow frame bungalow on Maple Avenue, attended Sacred Heart Catholic Church and enrolled their kids in Scout programs. After the mill fell victim to polyester, Ollie's father, a Wharton MBA, taught statistics at a community college nearby. He died two years ago. The family was close.

North inherited his father's patriotic fervor. "He instilled that in all the children," says Ann North, blood boiling, before she allows that her son has asked her not to talk. "He'd be appalled at some of the things being said today."

He was the all-American kid, polite, sincere. One pal, Peter Reiss, a commercial pilot, made friends after watching North prevail upon a class bully to lay off another student. In a lighter vein, another friend remembers a prank of plastic vomit drawing laughs. Caving was a hobby. North was science club president, on the student council, a member of the chorus, chess and drama clubs. He ran track. "He wasn't always a star, but he gave it his all," says classmate Larry Andrews, 43, a high school math teacher.

"He was the type of kid, if he had an 89 average, you'd give him a 90," says Bob Bowes, his history teacher. "Most people here think he's taking a shaft [on the Iran-contra affair], a fall guy."

Girls voted him "best looking," but he "wasn't out to score," says one friend. He was living an idyllic life in the slow lane, in an "I Like Ike" era of no booze and Chubby Checker -- tame even by "American Graffiti" standards.

"They raced cars [in the movie] and we didn't," says his former home-town sweetheart, Lynore (White) Carnes, 41, a Springfield mother of two. The scene was limited to local ball games, Cokes at a local hangout with a jukebox and school dances.

In 1961, he enrolled at the state college at Brockport as an English major -- not pre-med at Rochester, as he testified in the Reed trial -- ran cross-country, served as resident assistant in his freshman dorm, earned a solid B average (save for Ds in geometry and calculus), joined the Marine Reserves, spent a summer at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and came back a convert to the corps.

"That summer had a profound influence," says Gary Dross, 42, a New York state wine maker and a cross-country teammate at Brockport. North wore Marine Corps gear to work out, talking up "how good our system was and the military's role in preserving it, not 'I want to go blow up commies.' "

When a hunter raised his gun on the edge of the track field, Dross says, North took off like a jack rabbit and dressed him down.

"I spent this summer watching films about what weapons can do," he recalls North fuming. "That guy doesn't understand what he was doing, pointing a gun at people."

When North discovered that a teammate's father coached soccer at Annapolis, he confessed a secret: "I'd love to go to the Naval Academy." So Glenn Warner picked up the phone and called his Dad "about this terrific guy."

'Ollie Was a Friday-Night Fighter'

It was 1963 when he enrolled on the banks of the Severn. Before he'd really settled in, it seemed, there came a long weekend -- Washington's Birthday, 1964 -- and five classmates rented a car to drive home to Upstate New York. North was sitting in the back seat when the driver, a close friend, fell asleep and smashed head-on into an 18-wheeler on Route 15 outside Corning.

"We were all tired," recalls Tom Parker, 41, a classmate who didn't come to until three weeks later. The driver was killed. North wound up in the hospital with serious knee and back injuries.

There were two operations to remove cartilage in the right knee. "I was not optimistic," says Marshal K. Steele Jr., the surgeon. "But he put everything into getting well ... He wanted to be a marine."

North convalesced for three months, went home and returned in the fall of '64 -- as a plebe again, with the Class of '68. He walked and ran in combat boots with a limp and a knee brace, but took up boxing, sailing, gung-ho with a vengeance.

He made sure everyone knew he'd been to boot camp, recalls one classmate, retrieving his Marine active duty uniform from a seabag on summer cruise to show gawking plebes how to fold it properly.

With his insurance money, he bought a Ford muscle car, a 427-horsepower Shelby Cobra (in Marine Corps green, of course). Rather than ride the bus to check out Quantico with a group of seniors leaning toward the corps, a classmate recalls, North organized his own convoy, the Cobra leading the pack. But he ran out of gas and spent much of the outing phoning for help.

At 21, he was three years older than most in his class, driven and a bit aloof, and many were drawn to him for his maturity and charisma. He rose steadily in the leadership ranks and wound up as one of 36 company commanders for two semesters his senior year. He "fried" his share of plebes, but drew the line at hard-core hazing, friends say. "He wasn't a fanatic like some guys who made you eat bowls of ice cream until you passed out from the cold," recalls one former plebe.

North spent vacations earning jump wings at Fort Benning, Ga., and survival skills out west. He wore anticommunism on his sleeve -- studying South America, says classmate John Sinclair, because "he felt that's where communism was going to make a stand somewhere in the future."

His leathernecked ambition cost him at least two girlfriends.

For a while, he dated a speech therapist named Kathy Storm, now a Charlotte, N.C., housewife. "I was shocked," says Storm about tuning in "Good Morning America" the other day and seeing her old flame. "When something of national importance happens to someone you know ... You're an ordinary person. You drive a car pool. It throws you off."

North "wasn't the average midshipman," Storm says. "He knew what he wanted out of life. He treated you like a lady. He had impeccable manners. He opened doors, never used foul language. He had high moral standards."

So why did they break up? "I didn't want to be a widow," she says. "I knew he'd volunteer for the front lines."

She got a proposal from her steady and broke the news to North at the Army-Navy game. "If you accept, this will be our last date," he said. She broke into tears. He put his arm around her.

He got pinned to his home-town girl, then an English major at Smith. They talked marriage, "but not seriously," Carnes says. She thought hard about life as a military wife. "It takes a certain kind of person ..." She mailed back his pin. "I was very young ... I didn't want to be tied down." He wrote back, hurt.

Soon, North met Betsy Stuart. He married her in a formal military wedding shortly after graduation, between Quantico and Vietnam.

But all along, his injuries had threatened to keep him from a commission. He was determined to prove himself. As horrified classmates watched, he donned pads for a full-contact, company football game, the ritual Turkey Bowl.

"Ollie was the first to draw his gear; we tried to talk him out of it," recalls classmate Charlie Bolden, 40, an astronaut. "Guys would remind him what the docs had said, but he just shrugged it off."

He boxed at 147 pounds and trained night and day. After an undefeated sophomore year as an intramural champ, he punched his way into the finals in McDonough Hall as 2,500 screaming midshipmen howled for blood.

That night, he circled the ring against classmate James Webb, now the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, a highly decorated Marine combat veteran and bestselling novelist. The fight is an Annapolis legend to this day.

Both men were southpaws. Webb was considered the better boxer, but he was down in the dumps: The academy's coach, it seems, had been helping his opponent tune up.

Coach Emerson Smith feared North lacked the "right moves to work against another left-hander. I'd watched Jimmy spar and he looked sensational. I feel badly if he thinks I helped Oliver more than him ..."

Webb jabbed. North looked for an opening and jabbed back. The coach, who reviewed the films the other day, recalls the bout as "very close." Webb jabbed again. North countered, winning the first round by a point. They split the next round. North won the last round by a point, and with it the match and a varsity letter.

"Ollie was a Friday-night fighter," says Smith, "one of those guys who looks like a bum in the gym, then performs like hell on Friday night. When the chips were down, he performed. But I love both those men dearly. They were both fierce competitors."

North fans say the bout surely inspired the crushing defeat of Webb's hero in his moving academy novel, "A Sense of Honor." Webb scoffs at the idea. He lost his senior bout in the finals the next year as well, on a TKO that is more akin to the novel's stunning upset match.

His senior year, North retired from the ring to coach, pumping his intramural team with a killer pep talk. "Cheap crap," recalls Lt. Col. Vic Reston, 43, a classmate and Webb prote'ge' whose team was a target of the pitch. "He was saying, 'When you look across the ring, think to yourself, that guy has been [insulting] my mother. He's been calling my sister names.' This was amateur boxing and he was acting like we were going out with knives in our boots."

"It's like the Army-Navy rivalry," says a top Navy department staffer. "They still remember. There's a faction that's anti-Ollie because of that victory over Webb."

It came in handy, though. After graduation, North played the film of his victory for a review board that threatened to cashier him for his injuries.

"He made them look at that film," says Smith. "He said, 'This fella is getting a commission and I licked him, and if I licked him, I belong in the Marines.' I'll be darned if he didn't talk them into it."

'He Was a Bomb Waiting To Go Off'

A climber in the corps, North was a bona fide action junkie heading into an inevitable desk jockey phase -- a warrior without a war. "He was pumped up after Vietnam," says a friend. But another combat tour wasn't in the cards.

He was teaching at Quantico when a former marine in trouble half a world away, Randy Herrod, offered him a chance to pay back the man who saved his life -- and get back to the jungle as well.

As a squad leader with a marine unit other than North's, Herrod was charged with murdering 16 Vietnamese women and children at Son Thang, a village 30 miles south of Danang.

It was among the first war crimes court martials, and North rallied to Herrod's support. He fired off a letter, later introduced in court: sk,2 sw,-2 "On several occasions, Herrod was where he could have done harm to civilians and did not do so despite the fact the area was a so-called 'free fire zone.' This exercise of good judgment typified Herrod's conduct under my command."

Then North put in for leave, paid his own way to San Francisco and hopped military flights to Vietnam to roll up his sleeves for the defense. In Da Nang, he shared a tent with Herrod's Oklahoma lawyer Denzil Garrison and rose before dawn to iron his khakis.

Garrison deputized North to conduct a "scientific" poll -- part of his quest for a change of venue -- to measure Herrod's poor chances for a fair trial. North invaded the officers' club, pen in hand. He quizzed 30 officers. Only one believed a fair day in court was coming. One major at the club bristled at North's nerve.

"He had to back out the door to avoid a fist fight," says Garrison.

When the case dragged, North hustled down to the dispatcher to volunteer for "killer teams" heading into the bush on patrol. "We'd hear about it at the officers' club," says Garrison. "They'd be laughing, 'That damn Ollie North is going out to the boondocks hiding behind trees and slitting throats on his own time.' When we brought it up, he'd just shrug it off, but he didn't deny it. We were afraid we'd lose our best character witness before he had a chance to take the stand."

He joked about "fragging" the jury if it didn't deliver. It wasn't necessary. Herrod was acquitted; witnesses testified that the village was full of armed Vietcong, who fired first. And North went back to teaching war.

Over the next decade, he worked his way up the ladder from behind a desk, mostly in what insiders say is the normal career path for a Marine officer on the make.

He stayed at Quantico until late 1973, then it was on to Okinawa with the 3rd Marines, where he headed up the Northern Training Area, a basic Marine jungle prep school for recruits. It's a remote area of mountains, twisting ravines and thick undergrowth, and North took pride in seven-day workweeks, a schedule some say pushed him very close to burnout.

In one press account of his NSC biography, North claims to have run the "Special Operations Training Detachment" in Okinawa. No such unit, however, appears anywhere on his Marine Corps bio, and his former commanding officer there recalls no such outfit.

"He was a very impressive young fella," says retired Maj. Gen. Fred Haynes, "but his job was routine."

North supervised instructors who put more than 800 Marines a month through a course in rappelling, survival cuisine (wild vegetation, animals and insects) and small unit tactics. When top brass dropped in for demonstrations, North was a showman.

"A real hot-dogger," says Stanley Desmond, a retired sergeant who worked for North. "He was the officer in charge, but he'd rappel right in to see the generals."

"Somethink he's a great guy, but I'd call him a cowboy," says an officer who worked with him there. "The kind of guy who went off to do his own thing and 'I'll be damned with anyone else.' He's not the kind of guy I'd want on my flank."

North colorfully dubbed one rough terrain course "Disneyland East," and liked to trip a booby trap that sprayed red dye to make a deadly point. A banner dangled from his hut: "Lead, Follow or Get the Hell Out of the Way."

After Okinawa, he was scheduled for duty at the "high vis" Marine Barracks at 8th and I streets, but wound up in the manpower division at Marine Corps Headquarters. This tour lasted until June 1978. He worked long hours and got good reviews. But he tended to pour boundless energy into a task, making his job into more than it was perhaps designed to be.

"He was a highly aggressive, hard-working marine," says one officer. "But Ollie was capable of taking a six-hour job and expanding it into 18 hours of intense activity. It was all part of his ambition to stand out and get ahead of the crowd. He was a bomb waiting to go off."

One colleague bumped into him on a beautiful Sunday morning at the officers' club pool at Fort Myers. It was about 11:30 a.m. The sun was shining.

"I was taking my wife and kids to swim," he says, "and Ollie and his family were leaving. He had his office clothes on a hanger. He was going to work. I remember thinking, 'What's so important that you've got to waste such a beautiful day with your family? Shuffling paper?' "

Fans say it's just a symptom of his dedication.

In 1978, he drew a staff billet with a battalion on the sprawling Marine base at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Two years later he was off to the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., for a year of study in which he generally wowed his professors.

"A sharp guy," says Rich Carlson, a retired Marine who taught defense economics. "He held his opinions strongly and was prepared to defend them ... a delight to have in class. He was not a 'party line' guy."

But at least one classmate wasn't buying his act. "A sycophant and chronic name-dropper," says this Naval Academy grad who eyeballed him for a year.

North, he says, always sat on the front row when big names came to lecture. "When it was over and there was Q&A, one of the first three questions would always come from Ollie. He'd stand up, introduce himself" and pitch a flattering softball that praised the speaker's "brilliance."

"It was as if he was saying, 'Remember, I'm Major North.' Those of us who couldn't live with that kind of style felt like crawling under our chairs."

But North impressed the big guns at headquarters, and when it came time to fill the White House slot at the NSC, Ollie was the man.

"There was no question he had a good record, that he was good both in the field and on staff," says a retired general who had a hand in the choice.

"We didn't know what North was going to do there. We just picked someone who could handle the job."

Henry Allen, John Kennedy and Alex Stoll contributed to this article.