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The passing of heroes

Nearly two weeks ago we lost another hero — the last of 80 heroes who took a chance and did the “impossible.”

Lt. Dick Cole, last of the Doolittle Raiders, passed away April 9 at age 103.

The Doolittle Raiders were named for Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, who had conceived their daring mission. The men flew 16 B-25 bombers off the deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet April 18, 1942, and headed for a successful bombing raid on Tokyo. What some called a “suicide mission” was an attempt to raise the morale of American citizens whose confidence was being severely tested just four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the country into World War II.

Although Cole was the last of the 80 Raiders to die, as copilot to Jimmy Doolittle he flew in the first bomber to leave the ship.

The passing of Cole immediately brings back memories of Medford’s own Doolittle Raider, Lt. Robert “Bob” Emmens. Emmens was copilot of the eighth bomber to leave the Hornet. After bombing Tokyo and low on fuel, his airplane was forced into an emergency landing in the Soviet Union. There, authorities recovered the crew and held them as unwilling “house guests” for 13 months.

Not one of these men was forced to risk his life, and each had the chance to back out — but none did.

We’ll never know what encourages a man or woman to become a hero, but we can try to follow a few steps in their life that led them to their moment.

Bob Emmens was born July 22, 1914, the son of Dr. Jocelyn and Fannie Emmens. Dr. Emmens came to Medford in 1911 from Philadelphia after spending six months in Portland.

From an early age, Bob Emmens was a musician. When he was 13, his piano playing at a recital of nearly 20 students in the Emmens home was one of his earliest mentions in the newspaper.

In high school, he helped form the Melody Boys, five student musicians who were noted for their “peppy jazz renditions” at school and other community functions. After graduation in 1931, Bob followed his older brother, Tom, to the University of Oregon, where he studied music.

During summer 1935, he took flying lessons at the Medford airport and surprised his instructor by flying solo after just three hours of instruction. “A remarkable student,” said the instructor. “You never have to tell him anything twice.”

In 1936, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was sent to Randolph Field, California, and then Kelly Field, Texas, for military flight instruction. In February 1938, he received his wings and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant.

Over the next few years, while flying training missions between Washington and his base in California, Emmens was able to make a number of landings in Medford for a family visit. It was here, in October 1939, he married Justine Miller, whom he had met at the university.

Emmens and the other Raiders received orders in February 1942 to report to Eglin Army Air Field, Florida, for unspecified training. Here, Top Secret instruction taught him how to take a heavy bomber into the air over an extremely short distance. Within weeks he was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 650 miles from Tokyo, and about to begin his heroic moment.

Bob Emmens died April 2, 1992, and is buried with Justine in Medford’s Eastwood/IOOF Cemetery.

He and the rest of the Doolittle Raiders brought hope when hope seemed so very far away.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.