What do you get when you combine a cursed bomber, an ex-infantryman pilot, a renegade crew of misfits and a whole lot of enemy resistance? A bloody good story and two Medals of Honor, it would seem.
Such was the case in World War II, when then-Captain Jay Zeamer Jr. -due to disciplinary issues- was having trouble getting a bomber for his crew at an airfield in Papua New Guinea.
A former Eagle Scout and Infantry officer, Zeamer was anything but a clean cut officer- and neither was his crew. Known for their rowdiness and general lack of military bearing, Zeamer’s “Eager Beavers” (due to their willingness to take any assignment to get off the ground) were usually at the bottom of the list when it came time to assign crews to planes.
Desperate to get his men into the air, Zeamer decided it was time to get creative. Going off of a tip from a war photographer, the bellicose Captain found a reconnaissance B-17E -tail number 41-2666- languishing in a nearby “boneyard” of parts aircraft. Heavily damaged and apparently cursed, the photographer told zeamer that no one would fly ‘666 due to the fact that “every time it goes out, it gets shot to hell.”
Unfazed by the idea of flying a damned aircraft, Zeamer and his men towed the crippled plane from the line and began fixing her up- and by fixing her up, we mean “making her way cooler.”
In terms of guns, a B-17 usually has about thirteen guns, ranging from the lighter .30 caliber to the heavy .50 caliber guns featured on everything from tanks to fighter planes. Not satisfied with a mere thirteen guns, Zeamer outfitted “Old 666” with nineteen .50 caliber guns, including one he could fire from the cockpit. In addition, several .50 cals were stowed in the plane in case one of the many guns went down. Where single barrels once sat, double barrels often took its place. Where there was no room for ammo, they (somehow) added more. When something didn’t work, it was replaced. Ever the opportunist for a wider variety of missions, the crew kept the onboard panoramic camera, just in case a recon mission was in order.
By the time the crew got around to finishing the bomber, it hadn’t occurred to them that they had forgotten to paint any “nose art” on the aircraft. Then again, with a tail number like “666,” who needs nose art?
When 666 took off for the first time since her refit, she was the most heavily armed aircraft in the Pacific, and she would maintain her unlucky streak on her first mission (and many missions after), always returning full of holes and missing large chunks of her fuselage, wings and tail.
While the B-17 is maneuverable for a bomber, it doesn’t exactly built like a fighter plane. Nonetheless, Zeamer and his crew would scream a mere fifty feet above the ocean’s waves in order to attempt “skip” bombing a Japanese Aircraft carrier. On another mission, 666 flew so low that they scraped trees and houses.
Zeamer was a daredevil pilot with a daredevil crew that trusted him immensely. When confronted with searchlights that sent other bombers scattering, Zeamer would put his bomber into a dive and knock out the lights with a barrage of machine gun fire.
While 666 would always be one flight away from becoming a grave, there was no more harrowing instance than on June 16th, 1943.
Slated for a photo recon mission, Old 666 and her crew took to the sky in order to conduct a photo-mapping mission of the west coast of Bougainville, getting accurate information on enemy defenses and terrain prior to a Marine landing.
Completely voluntary, the mission required a straight run deep in enemy territory- a perceived eternity of pure terror and vulnerability against anything that the enemy could send up.
As the crew conducted the mission, their worst fears were realized- Seventeen Japanese Zero fighters were spotted, heading straight towards them.
“I should have just broke out and headed for home,” Zeamer recalled in his later years. “To hell with the mapping. But having been in the infantry and knowing that they were scheduled to go in November 1st on a landing, the importance of doing a mapping hit me.”
Committed to what seemed like a fatal mission, Zeamer and the Eager Beavers continued on, despite being surrounded by menacing Zeroes, who encircled the lone B-17 like sharks.
Old 666 continued on her flight path as three of the 17 Zeroes pushed head-on for a disorienting attack. Not realizing 666 was essentially a flying gun truck, One Zero fell victim to Zeamer’s personal machine gun. Following on his pilot’s cue, Master Sergeant Joe Sarnoski let loose from the bombardier’s section, downing yet another Zero.
Though initially feeling triumphant, 666’s crew would suddenly go from joy to terror as cannon fire tore into the nose and cockpit, sending shrapnel into Zeamer’s body and mortally wounding Sarnoski, who at the time struggled for both life and revenge- reportedly focusing all of his remaining energy to crawl up to his gun as Zeroes (as well as a twin-engined Ki-46) swooped in for the final kill.
Not one to go out in any other way than that of a warrior, Sarnoski lined his sights on the Ki-46, tearing it to shred with his .50’s before slumping over and drawing his last breath.
With his bombardier dead, his front guns down and blood spurting from his own wrists, Zeamer fought to stay conscious as his crippled plane struggled to stay in the air. With the oxygen system destroyed, rudder damaged and control systems about as responsive as a brick with wings, Zeamer put 666 into a dive in order to avoid losing consciousness in the thin air found at high altitude.
Knowing that time was running out, Zeamer rolled the giant B-17 over with the nose straight down, plummeting three miles in forty seconds. With 14 fighters on their tail, the crew of 666 watched in horror as the remaining fighters zipped down to attack them from the front.
Pushing his plane to its limits, Zeamer maneuvered the Flying Fortress like a fighter, enduring a total of 45 horrifying minutes of enemy fire before the Japanese planes peeled for him in order to avoid running out of fuel. Their mission complete and the threat diminished, Zeamer collapsed in his seat while co-pilot 1st Lieutenant J.T. Britton (who would later retire as a Lieutenant Colonel) took over.
“I don’t know how he did it,” Britton recalled. “But he did it.”
Limping to a nearby airfield, Britton seamlessly set the crippled bomber on the runway.
“I’ve made a lot of landings since then,” he laughed. “But I’ve never made one like that. Just slipper her in.”
On the ground, the true toll of the mission would be visible to all who bore witness. Sarnoski was dead and Zeamer was written off as a corpse.
“We told ‘em to get Jay first,” Britton said. “Somebody said, ‘he’s gone.”
Only thing was, Zeamer wasn’t dead.
“I was too weak to respond to that,” he said later. “I wanted to lift my head and tell him he was full of shit.”
When all was said and done, Old 666 was riddled with 187 bullets and five cannon shells, with 2/3 of the 9 man crew sustaining wounds.
For his actions in keeping the crew alive, Zeamer was awarded the Medal of Honor. Likewise, Sarnoski was posthumously promoted to Second Lieutenant and awarded the Medal of Honor for taking the fight to the enemy until the bitter end. For Britton and the rest of the crew, their efforts did not go unrewarded- every single one of them earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest award in the US military.
By Old 666’s final mission, B-24 Liberators were replacing B-17s in the Pacific theatre. Her missions at an end, she -like many other famous warbirds- was unceremoniously turned into razor blades and Coke cans at war’s end.
A changed man, Zeamer would be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, spending over fifteen months in recovery and working a desk job until he was medically retired in 1945. When all was said and done, he would sport the Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, two Distinguished Flying/Service Crosses, a Purple Heart and two Air Medals.
After the war, Zeamer would work as an aeronautical engineer, hopping all over the country and raising five daughters- a challenge as daunting as fighting the Japanese Army.
His wife, Barbara Zeamer, said that her husband rarely talked about the war, particularly the loss of his close friend, Sarnoski.
“I think he didn’t feel he deserved it,” she said, referring to his Medal of Honor. “He was so close to his bombardier and he felt terrible about his being killed.”
The last Army Air Forces Medal of Honor recipient to pass away, Zeamer died at the age of 88 in 2007. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.