WWII Hero, 1st Commander of the MBAF Base
by Melissa LaScaleia
The picturesque neighborhood of Emmens Preserve straddles either side of Coventry Boulevard in the Market Common. It was named after the very first commander of the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.
Colonel Robert Emmens was born in Medford, Oregon on June, 22 1914. After schooling in his home state, he joined the United States Air Force, and became a pilot in 1938. He was assigned to the 17th Bomb Squadron.
Emmens was co-pilot for a B-25 aircraft on the Doolittle Raid, the famous counter-attack by the United States against Japan, for that country’s bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II.
On April 18, 1942, Emmens’ plane successfully hit target in Japan, but made an emergency landing in a field in Russia, as the plane was consuming fuel much too quickly. The detour prevented him from reaching his final destination in China. He and his crew were found by the Soviets, who despite not being at war with Japan, held them captive during those tense times. For 13 months they subsisted on the same diet as the rest of the Soviet people, black bread and cabbage, before they hatched an escape plan.
They were being held in Ashkhabad, near the Persian border. They were thousands of miles from Vladivostok, where they had first landed, when they found a Soviet officer who was sympathetic to their plight. The man introduced them to an Afghan smuggler who supplied the officers with better food and other black market items. They paid the smuggler $250 (won in a poker game the night before the mission) to lead them to a British embassy in Iran. With the help of British diplomats in Mashhad, they made their way to India and got a flight to the United States.
The B-25 aircraft that they flew into Russian territory was kept by the Soviets; it was scrapped later— in the 1950s.
After the war, Emmens served in Europe and Japan on intelligence assignments. He was promoted to colonel. And in June 1955, he was assigned to supervise the construction efforts at the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, which was newly being built.
He later served as the commander of the 342nd Fighter-Day Wing, the first host unit at Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, and later as vice-commander of the 354th Fighter-Day Wing, which replaced the 342nd as the base’s permanent host unit.
Colonel Emmens’ decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross; Chinese Army, Navy, Air Corps Medal Class A, 1st Grade; and the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure.
After his retirement, Robert Emmens returned to his hometown in Oregon, and worked in the investment and real estate businesses.