Spring City hero served twice in three wars
Editor’s Note: The following was submitted by Chester County Hall of Heroes. This is one of an occasional story
Emerson sat in the pilot’s seat of the huge EC-121 ‘Warning Star’ aircraft, preparing for the mission from Thailand. The aircraft was a military version of the Lockheed Super Constellation for Airborne early warning and control radar surveillance. Emerson had thousands of hours of experience. Scattered severe thunder storms were reported, but this was an important mission and it was to be his last combat mission.
Emerson was hoping his protégé Master Sergeant Butler, who was due to arrive, would join him on his last flight. Emerson received clearance and took off, but ran into a sudden violent storm.
Emerson Earl Heller was born on July 24, 1926 to William and Martha Heller. He was the second of 4 children, including William, Margrie and Kenneth.
Emerson graduated from Spring City High School in 1941, and continued his education at Ursinus College. He left before graduation to enlist in the Army Air Corps in August 1942 as an aviation cadet. Emerson was called into service on Jan. 30, 1943. He received primary and advance flight training as well as a 5 months of studies at Wittenburg College in Ohio, and was commissioned as a second Lieutenant on May 23, 1944. Emerson was trained to fly B-17 Flying Fortress Bombers and was sent to England in late 1944. He requested he be assigned to his brothers bomb squadron, the 359th Hell’s Angels”. He flew 31 combat missions before the war ended.
After the war Emerson was discharged, enlisted in the Reserves and married Theresa Guida from Rahway, N.J.. He enjoyed bowling, basketball and painting in his
Emerson was recalled to active duty in August 1947, to help organize the new Air Force which was separated from the Army as an independent branch of our Armed Forces. He served at several bases and positions including Spokane, Washington and Puerto Rico and received certification to fly B-29 Super Fortress Bombers. Emerson became interested in Air Sea Rescue and the potential of Rotary Winged Aircraft.
During the Korean War, Emerson served two tours of duty, 1951-52 and 1955-56. He served as the Commanding Officer of Detachment 1, 3rd ARS (Air Sea Rescue).
In May 1952 he staged a daring rescue of Captain Clarence Truxbury, a Marine Pilot flying a F4U Corsair who was shot down in the icy ocean off North Korea. The Amphibious rescue aircraft could not land due to the 15 foot waves and ice filled waters. Emerson came to the rescue flying a Sikorsky H-5 Helicopter. The Marine pilot’s hands were so numb he could not grasp the hoist cable. So Emerson violently maneuvered the helicopter to wrap the cable around the Truxbury to pull him up. And this was his second rescue in 4 days.
During his second tour Emerson donated and raised money to send his Korean Houseboy to college, to study physics and engineering.
After the Korean War, Emerson returned stateside for duty as Squadron Commander at McClellan AFB in California, and later assigned to Madrid, Spain from 1963-66.
Returning from Spain he received his final assignment as a pilot in the 554th “Batcats” Reconnaissance Squadron based at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base. The Batcats flew intelligence missions over Vietnam during the war.
On April 25, 1969 he flew his last combat mission before retiring. The severe
Storm forced the EC-121 down, Heller was only able to gain a few hundred feet of altitude after taking off. Emerson made a pretty good belly landing, but then they hit trees which broke up the aircraft and with a full load of fuel, and quickly caught fire.
Colonel Emerson Heller from Spring City was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Master Sergeant David Butler who hoped to join Emerson on that flight posted:
“Lt. Col. Emerson E. Heller was my Commanding Officer at the USAFE Madrid Flight Service Detachment, Madrid, Spain, 1963-1966. We were a small organization of about 20 Officers and Airmen total. He was very kind to a young Airman who at 18 was experiencing all the aspects of life first hand in a great city. More than once he had a fatherly talk with me and explained the error of my young ways and for this I will always be grateful. Three years latter when I was en route to my new base in Korat, Thailand to be aircrew with the 553rd Recon Wing “Batcat’s”, Lt.Col. Heller was working in the 553rd Command Post and saw my name on the new comers’ roster and was able to get hold of me in Jungle School in the Philippines. It was a great surprise to hear from him as he explained he was going on his last flight before retirement after thirty years of service in a few days. He said according to the schedule I would be coming in and I could join him on that last flight and I said I looked forward to it. As life will have it, I didn’t get out of Bangkok as planned and I reached Korat on the day he and his crew perished on take off.”
Lt. Col. Emerson E. Heller of Spring City in the cockpit during one of his tours.
Lt. Col. Emerson E. Heller