Jay Zeamer: Pilot of the “Old 666” Who Flew Straight
After being asked in an interview about how he flew his B-17 on a suicidal mission in the Pacific, Jay Zeamer recalled the situation:
The dumbest thing you can do with a B-17, when you’re under attack against fighters, is to hold it straight and level. Everyone I know who did that (against two fighters) got shot down. But here are five coming in five different directions. I thought, ‘My gosh, if I maneuver against one, I’ll make myself better game to the others.’ That, coupled with the fact that the mapping was important, I kept going straight.
That is what Captain Jay Zeamer did as he piloted his unescorted but heavily armed bomber over Buka, New Guinea, in June 1943. Although the mission was a success, the bomber was attacked by five Japanese fighters, which severely wounded Zeamer and killed his bombardier, Joseph Sarnoski. When the bullet-riddled bomber landed, Zeamer was so badly wounded that the co-pilot told the ground crew, “Get the pilot last, he’s dead!” The mission would earn him and his bombardier a Congressional Medal of Honor and every other member of the flight crew a Distinguished Service Cross.
Jay Zeamer wasborn in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on July 25, 1918. Although he grew up in Orange, New Jersey, he was very fond of Boothbay Harbor in Maine. According to an article in the “Boston Globe”, “He spent many summers in Boothbay Harbor, where he enjoyed rowing his homemade boat in the harbor.” To the detriment of his school grades, he treasured the outdoors and became an Eagle Scout at the age of 13.
To improve his education, his father enrolled Zeamer in the Culver Military Academy in Indiana, which fueled his desire to serve his country. He turned things around and eventually attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as an officer candidate in the ROTC program. He graduated in 1940 and was assigned to Fort Dix, New Jersey, as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve. But his interest in aviation continued to be strong, so he enlisted in the Regular Army and completed primary and advanced flight training by March 1941.
That summer, Zeamer flew as a co-pilot in the B-26 Marauders of the 19th Bombardment Squadron based at Langley Field in Virginia. A fellow pilot Lieutenant Walt Krell recalled his memories of Zeamer: “Jay as a pilot had the kind of very relaxed attitude that I liked. When you got right down to it he was the most relaxed main in an airplane I ever knew. Nothing ever seemed to bother him. No emergency could shake him.” Unfortunately, his complacency had created problems when it came to the possibility of promotion out of the co-pilot’s seat and into his own command. According to Krell:
You just had to do your best to get him into the left seat, where everyone felt he belonged. Well, the way he’d come into the (runway) would turn your hair white. We’d go outand slow the airplane down to about 130 and you’d feel it get washy, soft and mushy on the controls…you’d turn back to Zeamer and say: ‘Jay, you know what you did wrong that time?
After being constantly turned down for promotion, Zeamer’s motivation also decreased dramatically. Even after he was sent to New Guinea for combat missions, his role as a co-pilot had turned to boredom. Krell stated, “When enemy flak and Japanese fighters turned on the incoming bombers over Lei, Zeamer had awakened long enough to put on his Mae West and World War I helmet, and then went back to sleep. I belted him on the chest to wake him up…but he was sound asleep.” Predictably, he was transferred out of the squadron and into the 43rd Bombardment Group. This move turned out to be a blessing in disguise for it had a fleet of B-17s.
Unfortunately, his reputation followed him and his welcome into the 43rd was not a happy one. He became the “catch-all”, which was the man who took the random assignments and filled in only when a spot opened. He persisted and filled in, but never as a pilot. In November of 1942, Zeamer had filled in as an Intelligence Officer during a busy time for the Allied offensive. After receiving information about a Japanese buildup at Rabaul, New Guinea, reconnaissance photographs were needed to access the buildup. According to Home of Heroes, “For three consecutive days reconnaissance missions were flown unsuccessfully due to heavy cloud cover. On the fourth day, the pilot was grounded…so Zeamer volunteered to fly the mission (despite the fact that he was not an official pilot on a B-17). By that time, no one seemed to care…and soon Zeamer was flying in the left seat of a “Flying Fortress.” By May of 1943, Zeamer seemed better suited as a pilot as he was awarded two Silver Stars on two different missions in addition to an Air Medal for sinking an 8,000-ton ship.
After Zeamer was finally promoted to captain, he was urged to form a crew even though an aircraft was not promised to him. He searched through the 43rd’s rosters for men who were not wanted. Krell recalled, “Zeamer went through the outfit and recruited a crew from a bunch of renegades. They were the worst of the 43rd…but they made a hell of a crew.” Then they waited for an aircraft.
Then a badly damaged B-17E with the tail number 41-2666 was flown in. Not for Zeamer but for the sole purpose of salvaging its parts. Zeamer immediately claimed it as his “new” aircraft. According to Home of Heroes:
Zeamer’s crew went to work on what would normally have been an impossible task. They cleaned it up, patched the holes, fixed its engines, and modified it to their liking. Jay had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted in the nose so he could fire from the cockpit like a fighter pilot. 30-caliber flexible guns normally manned by the bombardier and navigator were replaced with swivel-mounted 50-caliber machine guns. The crew put guns where they didn’t even need guns.
Naturally, the other flight crews who had ridiculed the crew had become envious of the aircraft’s firepower. Krell recalled, “They loaded their 50 calibers and they told everyone to stay the hell away, and Zeamer and his crew even slept in that damn airplane for fear someone would try to take it away from them!” Without time to officially name the plane, the bomber lacked the traditional nose art but instead, it was called “Old 666” for its tail number. The crew was also nicknamed “The Eager Beavers” because they had volunteered for every unwanted assignment.
On June 16, 1943, Zeamer and his crew volunteered to fly an unescorted reconnaissance mission to photograph and map Japanese installations at Buka. The photo portion went without a problem, but as Zeamer’s crew reported 20 fighters taking off from Buka airfield, they knew they were in trouble. Despite the threat, Zeamer held steady at an altitude of 25,000 feet. Within minutes, the aircraft was surrounded by five Japanese planes coming in five directions. After Zeamer shot down one plane with his nose-mounted gun, a 20-mm cannon shell exploded in the nose of the B-17 wounding the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Joseph Sarnoski. As recalled by Home of Heroes, “The enemy cannon had ripped huge holes in the floor of the cockpit. Air screamed in through the holes in the floor and Zeamer watched as blood flowed from the bombardier’s neck. ‘I’m all right, don’t worry about me,’ Sarnoski announced. Slowly, Sarnoski dragged his body across a torn catwalk that was now slick with his own blood.” He forced himself up long enough to shoot down a twin-engine aircraft before he slumped over his machine gun and died.
Then another attack shattered Zeamer’s feet and paralyzed his legs. Zeamer recalled, “I never felt so much pain in my life…It ripped off my rudder pedals, tore gobs of flesh from my legs, and shattered my left knee. Blood from my ruptured wrist was spurting across my lap every time my heart pumped.”
For 45 minutes more, 17 more fighters attacked the damaged B-17 with two more shot down. Despite the terrible pain, Zeamer refused first aid for his wounds and flew until the fighters broke off their attack. Without a hydraulic system, brakes or flaps, the B-17 made an emergency landing at an Allied fighter landing strip at Dobodura, New Guinea. The rescue crews were surprised by what they saw: 187 bullet holes, five gaping holes made by 20mm cannons, six crew members wounded with two presumed dead.
Zeamer was unconscious and prematurely pronounced dead on arrival due to the massive amount of blood loss. He had actually survived the ordeal despite a 15-month recovery and was awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony on Jan. 16, 1944. Sarnoski received a posthumous award.
Zeamer eventually returned to active duty but retired in 1945. As a civilian, he earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from MIT and had a second career as an aerospace engineer until he retired in 1968. After retirement, he returned to what made him happy: rowing in the handmade boat in Boothbay Harbor and spent his years there as well as Albuquerque, New Mexico. He died on March 21, 2007 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The day of the funeral, John Baldacci, the Governor of Maine, ordered that all flags throughout the state would be flown at half-mast. Rightfully so.