NO. 17549 • 8 June 1928 – 6 Apr 2001
Died in Dallas, TX
Interred in Oakwood Cemetery, Waco, TX
“Stand up straight,” the sergeant angrily commanded. “I am standing as tall as I can,” protested a resolute 2LT Emil Pohli. Since the sergeant trying to measure Emil was not at all convinced that a hunched over graduate from West Point could stand no taller, the clash between them grew louder and more intense. Hearing enough, an officer standing some distance away bellowed, “That man is six feet tall.” And that is how a determined Emil Pohli, who stood a full 6’2”, became an Air Force fighter pilot. This story is emblematic of the determination that Emil displayed at West Point, during his military career and all through his life.
Emil Austin Pohli was born in Vallejo, CA. At the time, his father was a career Navy man commanding a seagoing tug, USS Undaunted – a name both depictive and prescient of his newborn son. A year later, Emil’s brother Richard “Dick” was born. In 1930, his father was given shore duty in San Francisco, causing the family to move to Mill Valley.
His boyhood was sprinkled with camping trips, BB gun fights, swimming in a cold San Francisco Bay, and all the other things an energetic young boy would do. He was a popular leader among peers, athletically gifted, and a Boy Scout. He breezed through academics, skipping a semester in grade school and graduating from Tamalpias High School in three and one-half years. Although not yet 17 years old, he was the best high hurdler in the league. After high school, he enrolled in Rutherford’s Preparatory School in Long Beach, CA, to prepare for the competitive examination.
After scoring well on the examination, he found that his congressman did not have an available appointment to Annapolis but did have one to West Point. Emil took it, crushing his old navy-man father’s heart. Dick retrieved the family’s “honor” by going to the Naval Academy two years later.
At West Point Emil took the rigors of cadet life in stride, without letting stress affect his innate fun loving and easygoing attitude. Yet as one of his classmates observed, “Beneath an easygoing exterior he was more serious than the average cadet.” He was intent in excelling in all endeavors he deemed important. Leadership and maturity beyond his years were recognized by achieving the rank of cadet lieutenant his First Class year. He was an outstanding high hurdler on the track team and a member of the relay team that won the high hurdles in the Penn Relays.
After graduation, Emil attended pilot training at James Connally AFB in Waco, TX, where he met his future wife Marynada Hill. Advanced training in the F-80 at Williams AFB, AZ, followed. With a third of his class washing out, those were tense times. Yet one classmate observed that Emil “didn’t seem the least bit worried about the possibility, which says something about his confidence.”
After gunnery school at Luke AFB, he joined the 159th Fighter Bomber Squadron in Japan in November 1951. During June-December 1952, the unit was sent to Korea, becoming the 429th FBS. In Japan and Korea, Emil flew 75 missions in the F-84 and was awarded three air medals.
Back in the States, he served as an instructor in the 3645th Fighter Training Wing. Except for a few months at the Squadron Officers School, he remained in the 3645th until stricken with polio in the fall of 1955. He lost the use of his legs.
Emil retired (disabled) as a captain and was sent to a VA hospital in Oakland, CA, but that he didn’t take to invalid life is an understatement. After nearly a year in the hospital, he learned to drive with hand controls and left the facility. For the next two years he was employed in the purchasing department of Beckman Instruments in Richmond, CA.
Later, he moved to Dallas, TX, where he worked in the heavy construction equipment industry and held positions in sales and sales management for several companies. He was very successful. During his years in Texas, he was active in the West Point Society of North Texas and served terms as president and treasurer. He had a great reverence for West Point.
His feats as a paraplegic are legendary. A crowning achievement was designing, installing, and actually driving a jeep with hand controls that manually shifted gears. One hand operated the clutch, the other the gearshift, while somehow the car was steered. This vehicle allowed him to take his family and mother-in-law on fishing trips to the high mountains. For a while, he had a boat and lifted himself into it. From a camouflaged wheelchair, he hunted doves and ducks. He swam and worked out with weights. He had a full workshop in the garage where he built a desk and other furniture. If he could reach it, he could fix anything in the house. He cooked indoors and outdoors; his specialty was barbecued chicken in his own contrived sauce.
No one, not a family member, not a classmate, not an associate ever, ever, heard him complain or hint of self-pity. Instead, he joked about his condition. When his son was in Indian Guides, they called themselves “Little Running Feet” and “Big Rolling Seat.” He accepted what he couldn’t do and zestfully pursued all he could. One classmate said, in words that expressed the sentiments of all, “He had an irrepressible spirit and a cheerful, outgoing manner. Nothing seemed to intimidate him. His attitude was an inspiration to me.” His brother said that if only allowed two words to describe Emil, they are “character and guts.” His daughter said he was “fearless.”
Emil was a member of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration and a strong Christian with complete confidence in the Lord. He is survived by his brother Dick, daughter Anne, son Scott, and wife of 50 years, Marynada, who steadfastly stood by him in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. And so it is, as the Long Gray Line stretches farther, the footsteps grow faint.
- A roommate with contributions from family and graduates.