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Medford WWII aviator inducted into Hall of Honor

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. The group of 16 B-25 U.S. bomber crews led by then Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle successfully carried out a daring 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 Raiders' reunion and plans to attend the final reunion in Ohio early next month. Justine Emmens 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 to become a bomber pilot.

Then a first lieutenant, co-pilot Emmens and his crew took off from the U.S. Hornet, an aircraft carrier out 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 beginning 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's father, J.J. Emmens, was a medical doctor who arrived in Medford in the 1890s.

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 as well as Doolittle.

A 1972 graduate of what is now SOU, Phillips has held art shows throughout the United States and Europe. His first major exhibit was a one-man show at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1987. At the time, he was only the second artist to have had a one-man show at the Smithsonian. His work also has been on millions of postage stamps.

"Through his work, Bill has helped promote the history and the significance of the raid," Michael said, noting he was happy to see Phillips included.

Meanwhile, Michael, who attended the Raiders' reunion in Florida last year, will be at their final reunion, scheduled for Nov. 9. The event will be at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, the hometown of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright.

The final three Raiders and all the families will gather for one last time, Michael said, adding a fourth Raider is too ill with Alzheimer's to attend.

"Jimmy Doolittle provided a bottle of brandy from the year of his birth — 1896 — to be opened by the last two Raiders to toast all the Raiders who have gone before," he said.

The reunion is being held now to ensure at least two of the Raiders will be there, he noted.

"It will be very bittersweet," Michael said. "While growing up, I became friends of the kids of all the other Raiders. All these years we have gotten together. This will be the end of it."Correction: The subhead has been updated to show the correct plane Emmens piloted.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Medford WWII aviator inducted into Hall of Honor