Emerson was a 1947 graduate of the United States Military Academy. Emerson gained recognition during the Vietnam War for his tactical ability on the battlefield. His tactics, as a commander were novel.
He conceived aerial reconnaissance and combat methods that were employed effectively against the Viet Congress.
These included a checkerboard concept that involves small groups covering grid squares to seek out an enemy, jitterbug tactics which are complex maneuvers using helicopters to surround an enemy. To the unitiated this would seem jittery like the dance, and Eagle Flights which were helicopters loaded with local soldiers and flown in quickly to assist foreign troops in certain situations.
He demonstrated that American soldiers could effectively "out-guerrilla" the Viet Congress. Emerson also developed the "seal-and-pile-on technique" (the rapid build-up of combat power to surround and destroy an enemy force).
These highly complex tactics shattered many large enemy units.
Emerson was known for his somewhat eccentric personality, from his training methods to carrying a cowboy-style revolver in place of a regulation M1911 semi-automatic pistol. He was a believer in reverse-cycle training, during which troops trained at night and slept during the day. He also required that they watch the television film Brian"s Song, to promote racial harmony.
Colin Powell, who would later go on to become the United States. Secretary of State, has stated that they were very close and that what set Emerson apart was his great love of his soldiers and concern for their welfare.
When Powell wrote his autobiography "My American Journey", he dedicated an entire chapter to Emerson. In many instances when he was the XVIII Airborne Corps commander he would turn in the tag numbers of excessively speeding vehicles.
The next morning, the violator(s) would be escorted by the company and battalion commanders from their unit and a verbal reprimand would be delivered by the brigade commander. Emerson suffered severe burns after his helicopter was shot down in the Mekong Delta.
He had commanded forces during the Vietnam War prior to being stationed in South of Korea.
He later served as commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, from July 1975 to June 1977. He died at the age of 89 on February 4, 2015.