The Oregonians who flew
with the Doolittle raid on Tokyo
Robert S. Clever, Everett “Brick” Holstrom, Henry “Hank” Potter and Robert G. Emmens were four Oregon aviators who did the Beaver State proud in what seemed like a suicide mission over enemy territory.
By Finn J.D. John — April 26, 2015
Of the 80 American Army aviators who flew the Doolittle raid in April of 1942, at least seven were former Oregonians. Actually, with only one or two exceptions, all of them were former Oregonians, having been stationed at the Pendleton air base before preparations for the raid commenced; but for seven of them, the relationship with the Beaver State ran deeper than that.
This week, we’ll talk about four of them, and next week we’ll wrap up this topic with the other three, along with some finishing thoughts about the historic raid.
Col. Henry A. Potter:
Col. “Hank” Potter was originally from South Dakota, but attended the University of Oregon before entering the Army Air Corps in 1940. On the mission to bomb Japan, Potter was assigned to the lead plane — he was the navigator on the crew of Jimmy Doolittle himself.
Potter survived the raid; with his air crew, he bailed out over China, and encountered a group of Chinese nationalist guerillas, who took them into custody at gunpoint and were marching them toward their camp when they encountered a schoolteacher who could speak English.
“We were able to explain to him who we were,” Potter told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 1992. “He convinced his countrymen we were allies and he took us home and gave us breakfast.”
Potter went on to service in North Africa, and was then brought back to the U.S. to train pilots in heavy bombers. He retired at the rank of full colonel in March 1970. His awards and commendations include the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters, Army commendation medal, and the Chinese Army, Navy and Air Corps Medal.
Lt. Robert Stevenson Clever:
Clever was an Oregon native, born in Portland in 1914 and a graduate of Cleveland High School. He attended the University of Oregon for two years before leaving to go to aviation school just before Pearl Harbor.
Clever was, by all accounts, a cut-up, witty and fun to talk to. In the Tokyo raid, he served as bombardier on Crew 7. In an interview for his home-town Portland Morning Oregonian later, in August 1942, he told of watching as fishermen on the coast of Japan waved cheerfully at him as the planes roared overhead. “I looked at that guy, and I said to myself: Why, the darned old fool, he’s waving at us! It was our welcome to Japan, and we didn’t expect it, no sir. I didn’t wave back, though.”
But roughly a month later, Clever was killed in an airplane crash in Ohio. His flying career had lasted less than two years. In that short time, though, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Chinese Army, Navy, Air Corps Medal.
Colonel Robert G. Emmens
Emmens was born in Medford, graduated from Medford High and went on to the University of Oregon. Emmens was the co-pilot on Plane 8, which was the plane that made an emergency landing in Russia.
The Russians were not at war with Japan at the time, and although they probably would have liked to return the Americans to the U.S., they couldn’t do that without provoking war with Japan — something they could ill afford while fighting off the Germans in the west. So, ignoring the Japanese government’s strident demands that Emmens and his colleagues be turned over for trial, they kept them in internment camps for a year, after which time the Americans escaped with the help of an Afghan smuggler and presented themselves at the British embassy in Iran. (There are rumors that this escape was masterminded by the Russian secret police, the NKVD.)
Col. Emmens went on to serve in Europe and Japan during and after the war. His military awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross; the Air Cops Medal (Class A); the Chinese Army, Navy, Air Corps medal; and even the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure. He retired in 1965 and returned home to Medford, where he worked as a stockbroker and died in 1992. He’s buried in the local Odd Fellows cemetery, and you can visit his grave there.
Brigadier Gen. Everett W. “Brick” Holstrom
“Brick” Holstrom was the pilot of Plane 4. He was born in Cottage Grove, graduated from Pleasant Hill High School and attended Oregon State College (now OSU), majoring in Forestry, before entering military service; he was commissioned a second lieutenant a year later in 1940.
After the raid, Holstrom stayed in the China theater, commanding the 11th bomb squadron. After the war, he was assigned to Strategic Air Command, where he flew every multi-engine jet bomber the SAC deployed: B-45s, B-47s, B-52s and B-58s. He also commanded the 43rd Bomb Wing, the first supersonic bombardment group, before his retirement in 1969.
Holstrom died in 2000, one of the most decorated alumni in Oregon State University history. His awards include the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, five Air Medals and two Commendation Medals.
And on one of those Air Medals hangs an interesting tale. Holstrom is the pilot who, while stationed in Pendleton, bombed a target that may have been a Japanese submarine off the mouth of the Columbia River on Christmas Eve, 1941. According to the recommendation for the air medal, Holstrom came unexpectedly across a surfaced submarine while flying low over the water. Ordering his bombardier to get ready, he flew a low-level run over the sub, and the bombardier dropped three bombs on it. The resulting explosion obliterated the submarine and nearly knocked Holstrom’s B-25 out of the sky.
However, according to historian Bert Webber, Imperial Japanese Navy records after the war say nothing of this submarine. Its identity remains a mystery to this day.
We’ll talk about the other three Oregonians involved in the Doolittle raid in next week’s column.
(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian archives, 1942; doolittleraider.com; “Doolittle Raid Fact Sheet,” National Museum of the Air Force, 4-17-2015; Cain, Allan. “Pendleton Field,” Oregon History Project, ohs.org, 2005.)