How many babies did you kill today? No, that’s not a slogan from a present-day anti-abortion protester; it’s one of the cruel questions hurled at Viet Nam veterans returning home from the war in the early seventies.
Highland Village resident and retired Army Colonel Ernie Isbell remembers those days as one of the most difficult eras in the history of our country. When he and thousands of his fellow servicemen arrived home, on the soil of their beloved country, a country they had fought for with honor and courage, they were subjected to abuse from those who, in my opinion, weren’t worthy of shining their boots. But, this is America, and those maggots at the airports had the right to display their obnoxious behavior; a right that 58,000 soldiers sacrificed their lives to protect. Colonel Isbell is much too sophisticated to put it that way, but I’m not as classy as he is.
Born in Paducah, Texas in 1941, Ernie married Linda, his high-school sweetheart, in 1959. Six weeks later he enlisted in the Army, applied to officer candidate school and was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia. At the ripe young age of 19, he graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Infantry. The transport and delivery techniques of infantrymen to engage in battle include marching, mechanized transport, airborne (by parachute), air assault (by helicopter), and amphibious support. Ernie Isbell became a helicopter pilot, rising to the rank of Major in command of a support services team. In addition, Isbell graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Business Administration, and holds a Master of Science Degree in Counseling and Guidance. He served three tours in Vietnam, flying over 1500 hours during some of the bloodiest battles in that Southeast Asian country.
Although he was never wounded, he remembers a time when the seat in his chopper was hit by bullets and a couple of people in the back seat were struck. However, one of the most memorable moments of the war came on June 21, 1972. Major Isbell was on the ground commanding the support services in the vicinity of the village of Tan Khai. Suddenly, the fearful message “Missile – Missile – Missile” was heard over the VHF radio. “I looked to my left front and saw a very large puff of white smoke at the tree line (about 500 meters) and a thin stream of the same smoke going over our heads,” Isbell said. “I followed the smoke stream and saw the tail boom of a Cobra (helicopter) falling.” The craft, being operated by Captains Mike Brown and Marco Cordon, had been hit by a shoulder-fired SA-7 missile while flying at an altitude of about 4000 feet.
“Next to come into view was the slowly turning and descending body of the aircraft. It appeared to be in a partially controlled autorotation. It was at about 2000 feet when it came into view, and it was plunging fast. We were picking up the South Vietnam Army Airborne Brigade, and my company, B/229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, was the first in to make a pickup. The Cobras were providing cover for us during the loading and withdrawal. I got the call that my number 5 aircraft was ‘up’ and that meant our flight was loaded. We took off and turned in the direction where the Cobra had crashed.” The chopper had landed atop a thick grove of trees, which stopped the out-of-control spin of the powerless craft, and helped cushion the blow of the fall. The pilot had tried to jettison the remaining fuel and other combustibles before impact, but, since the wing store jettison circuit breakers and electrical power is located in the forward portion of the tail boom, he had no control over the falling craft. Yet, by some stroke of luck, and the cushioned landing in the trees, there was no fire on impact.
“I directed my number 5 aircraft to go check for survivors. We found Captains Brown and Cordon out of the Cobra and walking about in an area covered by jungle. With no clear place to land, the rescue commander decided to lower his helicopter into the trees like a large lawn mower. This maneuver damaged the main rotor blades, but it allowed him to get low enough for the 2 pilots to climb onto the Cobra fuselage, grasp the skids of the craft, and pull themselves aboard. They were flown to safety at a friendly base named Lai Khe.” It’s significant to mention that no other helicopter pilots have ever survived an SA-7 missile strike. The rescue pilots received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their heroic act.
After 31 years of active service, Ernie Isbell retired in 1990 as a full-bird colonel. He was too humble to mention it during our interview, but I looked up his record. I don’t have room in this article to cite them all, but he’s a sample: 3 Legion of Merit awards, 2 Distinguished Flying Cross Medals for heroism in combat, 2 Bronze Stars, 22 Air Medal Awards, of which 5 were for heroism, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, National Defense Service Medal, etc., etc. Shortly thereafter, he established the firm of LPL Financial Services of Flower Mound.
On April 1st, around noon, Colonel Isbell will have a ceremony at his office, 2904 Corporate Circle, Flower Mound, in which he will be reunited with retired Captains Brown and Cordon, who are traveling here for the event. It’s open to the public. I’m looking forward with great anticipation to seeing these brave veterans together again, more than 40 years after their death-defying experience on the other side of the world.
Bob Weir is a long-time Flower Mound resident and former local newspaper editor. In addition, Bob has 7 published books that include “Murder in Black and White,” “City to Die For,” “Powers that Be,” “Ruthie’s Kids,” “Deadly to Love,” “Short Stories of Life and Death” and “Out of Sight,” all of which can be found on Amazon.com and other major online bookstores.