'Internee' named to aviation hall of fame

Paul Fattig / Medford Mail Tribune /


MEDFORD — As a youngster, Michael Emmens never particularly looked forward to the family’s vacation each summer.

“We would go to reunions of the Raiders — they had them every year,” he recalled. “I remember saying, ‘Do we have to do that again for our vacation?’”

His father, Robert Emmens, who was inducted Sunday into the Oregon Aviation Hall of Honor at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, was a co-pilot with the Doolittle Raiders, a group of 16 B-25 U.S. bomber crews led by then-Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle that successfully carried out a raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942.

“After my dad died (in 1992), my mom (Justine) wanted to continue going to the reunions — I would take her because she didn’t want to fly alone,” Michael said.

That was when he came to fully appreciate what the Raiders had done to buoy Americans’ spirits a mere five months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Over the past 20 years, he has looked forward to attending the reunion and plans to attend the final reunion in Ohio next month. His mother died in 2006.

“The Raiders bombed some oil refineries, which caused the Japanese to rethink their planned expansion in the Pacific,” said Michael, a retired registered nurse. “That caused them to bring some of their navy back to protect the homeland. And that set up the U.S. victory at Midway (Island).”

His father was a 1931 graduate of Medford Senior High School. He attended the University of Oregon from 1931 to 1934, later joining the U.S. Army Air Corps and became a bomber pilot.

Then a first lieutenant, co-pilot Emmens and his crew took off from the U.S. Hornet, an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean. Fifteen of the five-man crews either bailed out after the bombing raid or crash-landed on the China coast. Emmens’ plane, which had fuel problems, landed near Vladivostok in what was then the Soviet Union.

Emmens, who later wrote a book, “Guests of the Kremlin,” and his crew were held for 13 months before they escaped, eventually ending up in Iran. They were considered “internees,” not prisoners of war, Michael said.

“They were under house arrest,” he said. “But they were treated fairly well. Like the native Russians, they ate cabbage and bread — a lot.”

Russia had a nonaggression pact with Japan at the time and didn’t want to anger the Japanese at that point, he said.

“The Doolittle Raid was the outstanding feature of his military career,” said Michael, 66. “It defined his career, and his career defined him.”

Upon his retirement, Robert Emmens returned to his hometown, where he worked in real estate and also taught Japanese language courses at what is now Southern Oregon University in Ashland.

Robert Emmens would have been pleased to know he was inducted into the Oregon Aviation Hall of Honor, his son said.

“My dad would be very proud. He would have also been very humbled by the company of those honored,” Michael said.

“Something I’ve learned in going to these reunions is there is a lot of hero worship of the Raiders by the public,” he added. “But every Raider, every time someone called them heroes, said, ‘No, we are not heroes. We were just doing our job.’ That’s the way my dad felt, too.”

Also inducted on Sunday was Ashland resident Bill Phillips, 65, an internationally known aviation artist. Phillips was also a friend of Robert Emmens.