"They took me by surprise — I had no idea," said William Isaacson, who was greeted last week by a throng of family, friends and well-wishers in a long-overdue salute for his distinguished service as a Marine Corps pilot in the Vietnam War.

Isaacson was returning home from his winter home in Florida, as he always does the first week of May in time for the walleye fishing opener on Lake Vermilion, where he grew up.

His wife, Chrysmarie, with the aid of the Yellow Ribbon Alliance of the Lower St. Croix Valley, a group of volunteers from five neighboring communities who aid service members and their families, began planning the event weeks ago.

"We've never done a 'welcome home' event like this before," said Randy Kopesky, co-chairman of the alliance and mayor of Lakeland Shores. "Who is better deserving than Willie Isaacson?"

Isaacson, now 70 and battling Parkinson's disease, always dreamed of being a pilot, and ended up spending most of his life in the air.

He flew 150 combat missions in Vietnam in the F-4 Phantom jet, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medals and other top military honors. He would go on to a career as a pilot for Northwest Airlines.

But like so many Vietnam veterans, his service was scarcely acknowledged when he returned from a war that sharply divided the nation. The only person who greeted him in 1967, he said, was his brother.

Things were decidedly different last Wednesday.

It was proclaimed "William Isaacson Day." When Isaacson was in Lakeland, approaching Afton, a squadron of about 60 motorcycles and a fire truck waited to escort him the final few miles to Afton, and the road was lined with greeters, cheering and waving flags.

Dignitaries included Maj. Gen. Rick Nash of the Minnesota National Guard. Proclamations were read from the Minnesota House and Senate, along with the Washington County Board.

"I couldn't stop tearing up," Isaacson said.

Kopesky said he was pleased with a turnout he estimated at more than 200.

"We've been looking forward to this day, really," he said. "It was kind of like planning a wedding."

Emotions ran high in the crowd as well, he said, especially for other veterans who share Isaacson's bond of combat service.

"He finally got his parade," he said.