A retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who died Feb. 4 was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy best known as the commander of the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea during the mid-1970s before retiring in Lewis and Clark County.
Gen. Henry Everett “The Gunfighter” Emerson, 89, known to his friends as Hank, was born in Washington, D.C. in 1925. He served as a combat commander in the Korean War, the Dominican Republic and the Vietnam War. He became one of the most decorated officers in the history of the U.S. Army. He was involved in an airborne operation in Montana with the JFK Special Warfare Center in the early 1970s, and told his first sergeant that he would retire here. Shortly after retiring in 1977, he relocated to Helena, and then moved out to Canyon Ferry Reservoir.
Emerson died in the Florida Keys. Friends say it took years to convince him to leave Montana during the tough winters. Even when he did, he waited until January and usually returned in March to spend his days fishing and hunting.
Emerson was the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when his aide-de-camp was Jeff Elliot’s father’s best friend. Elliot and his older brother joined the commanding general on a fishing trip, and became hooked. Elliot, now a soldier with the Army for more than two decades, now calls himself Emerson’s “surrogate son.”
“My parents divorced when I was five and Hank filled the father figure role for me from a very young age,” Elliot said of Emerson, who married once for less than six months and never had a son of his own. “He told everyone that I was the closest thing he ever had to a son. He talked about adopting me several times, as recently as just a few years ago.”
Elliot found a home in Helena. He remembered yearning to see Emerson in Lewis and Clark County, especially after his deployments.
“The peace, the beauty and visiting Hank always was my touchstone,” Elliot said. “Hank knew this and he loved how much I loved Montana.”
Emerson taught Elliot how to fish, hunt and cook. Even though Emerson retired in 1977, he never stopped living the military life. Everything was a military term or a plan of action. Every minute of every day he made a military reference or used a military acronym.
“To say he was born to lead soldiers is an understatement,” Elliot said. “The military was ingrained in his DNA, the way he talked, thought and planned every day was just like he was on the front lines in Korea or Vietnam. He and I shared that military bond, and I was honored.”
Friends say Emerson was funny and sarcastic, and both soft-spoken and loud.
Former U.S. secretary of state and retired four-star general Colin Powell served under Emerson as a battalion commander during the 1970s. In "Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul," Powell described Emerson as “…tall, rangy, with a great eagle’s beak of a nose, craggy features, a hot-eyed gaze and a booming voice.”
“He had earned his nickname in Vietnam by carrying a cowboy-style shooter rather than a regulation forty-five caliber pistol,” Powell wrote. “I was also aware that he had won a reputation there as a fierce fighter.”
Powell went on to write that while serving under Emerson, AWOLs in the division dropped by more than 50 percent, reenlistments jumped by nearly 200 percent and “while impetuous youths might occasionally punch each other out, racially related brawling practically disappeared. He had an instinct for knowing what gave soldiers pride, especially the rank and file who had rarely tasted any in their lives.”
Emerson lived along Canyon Ferry Reservoir and aptly named his residence “Fadeaway,” taken from Gen. MacArthur’s farewell address to Congress in 1951, when he recalled a barrack ballad that proclaimed: “… old soldiers never die; they just fade away. And like the soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty."
Emerson named his deck overlooking the lake “Fiddlers’ Green,” after “the mythical place that old soldiers and cavalrymen go” in a poem by the same name, Elliot said. “Halfway down the trail to Hell in a shady meadow green, are the souls of all dead troopers camped near a good old-time canteen, and this eternal resting place is known as Fiddlers’ Green,” the poem reads.
“There are so many people that Hank touched and helped in Helena,” Elliot said. “He was this larger-than-life military hero who lived among them and never asked for any special treatment, but they gave it because they recognized how special he was. While I always worried while I was deployed, I had the comfort of knowing all of Hank’s close friends and neighbors would look after him. I have such a debt of gratitude to all the people of Helena that have helped Hank over the years.”