" . . . above and beyond the call of duty . . ."
It's the phrase that sets one decoration of valor apart from all the rest—the Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded for those acts of duty and selflessness that stand out so clearly, so conspicuously, against those expected of a volunteer army already willing to risk life and limb, that we reward it with the highest honor a member of our military can receive.
Often they are spontaneous acts, tapping into reservoirs of courage unknown to those who act on them until circumstances reveal them. But in some they are not so unpredictable. In some people, from their earliest years, a willingness, even a need, can be seen, to go farther, do more, to take risks that others don’t. To go above and beyond.
In the vein of Michael and Jeff Shaara (The Killer Angels, Gods and Generals), Above and Beyond, the debut novel from Clint Hayes, tells the story of two such men, men whose upbringings were starkly different but who from childhood showed an equal ambition to excel. Jay Zeamer, Jr., the first of four children born to a world-traveling leather exporter and a society mother, is raised in well-to-do Orange, New Jersey, and summers in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Joe Sarnoski comes from a family of eventually seventeen, the fifth child of a miner and housewife who hunt and grow much of their own food in the coal fields of Pennsylvania.
And yet in each of their rooms hang the models of their passion, wooden airplanes they've made themselves. And even then, they are drawing their own lines and crossing them. At age ten, Zeamer has built his own boat from the scrap lumber around the Boothbay docks; by fourteen he’s made Eagle Scout. At twelve, Sarnoski has learned the accordion and is in a popular band, playing weddings and other events.
By the time world war finds them together in the Southwest Pacific, the roles have switched, Sarnoski the respected squadron bombardier of an untested bomb squadron, Zeamer a combat veteran languishing in the right seat of a bomber he can’t seem to conquer to make command pilot. Yet the ambitions remain, Zeamer intent on leading a crew of his own willing to lean forward, even bend the rules when necessary, when that’s what achieving the mission entails; Sarnoski to serve with the best of the best and sink five ships before returning home to his wife.
“There’s always a way,” says Zeamer, and as he has so many times already, he finds one in the vast, hot prairies of Australia. Together, thrown together by fate and will, two men who have always set their own high standards see their ambitions coalesce, and put together a crew to fulfill them.
A crew that will become known as Zeamer’s Eager Beavers for its commander’s constant volunteering for missions.
A crew that will gain a reputation for its extra mile of preparedness, and coming back against improbable odds.
A crew that will become the most highly decorated air combat crew in American history, with the most highly decorated mission in American history, because they were led by two men who from the very start went above and beyond.
Hayes brings this incredible, untold true story to life with unparalleled authenticity and intimacy. Based on interviews with the Eager Beavers themselves and their squadron mates, as well as extensive interviews of over twenty family members of the crew, Above and Beyond is the most comprehensive and authoritative account not only of the story of the Eager Beavers, but of their war. Literally the polar opposite of the war in Europe, it is the tale of men at the end of the line, at the edges of civilization, where dust and disease are as deadly as the enemy. Yet it is these nomadic bombers, a handful at time, flying unescorted through the most violent storms on Earth over hundreds of miles of shark-infested waters, who helped stop the Japanese juggernaut and save Australia from invasion.
That is the backdrop for the thrilling and inspiring story of the Eager Beavers, and the men who brought them together. Heroes in the finest of the American tradition, they show us all what "above and beyond the call of duty" truly means.
Excerpts from the Novel
From the Prologue:
The boy knew that it should. He’d spent the spring and early summer of his tenth year designing and building it himself. He had made himself a fixture around the Boothbay docks, begging scrap lumber and advice from the shipbuilders. He had searched the wisdom of the fishermen who early on took a fancy to him, the quiet mop-headed boy with the far gaze who knew the Indian trail along Linekin Bay like the walk to his front porch. They had taken him in, and out to sea—taught him to find his way by the sun and stars, how to find the mackerel in the bay and the bluefin beyond Damariscove. He had listened to them with the ear of a child intent, and applied their lessons exactly. The sides were cedar and the planks were oak. The mold was notched to clear the chines, the stem lengthened to butt up against the first bottom plank. He’d countersunk his screws, angled his nails, caulked with cotton wicking, drilled out the knots and filled them with plugs.
But it still surprised him that it floated.
It was a simple thing, flat-bottomed and white, as wide as his elbows stuck out, a yard longer than his outstretched legs. His mother had reminded him all along that he would stick to the harbor’s edge, but they both knew better. Already his eyes carried across the harbor, to the tall-masted relics from the Great War, the schooners of the old merchant marine. From their high rigging he’d be able to see clear to the horizon. His slight vessel seemed to sit on the water more than float, but it would get him there, and the lobstermen at the Cove would sing his praises.
“I wish Pop was here to see it.”
“He’ll see it when he’s home. You’ll be an old sea dog by then.”
“Where is he now?”
“His last cable was from Rome.”
He gazed out at the slot where the harbor met the Atlantic. He tried to imagine all the water between there and Rome.
“Oh, I forgot to mention,” his mother said. “Your new airplane kit arrived.”
The boy’s head jerked to her with excitement, but immediately he remembered why he was here. Attention returned to the boat.
“It will be there when you get home,” she said. “Now are you going to give it a maiden voyage or not?”
He flashed his quirky smile at her and went to it. He carefully stepped in, holding the side, getting his balance. He untied and pushed away with his hand, only then sliding his oars out from under the seat. Fitting them into the locks, he checked from side to side as he pulled away. He glanced about the interior, looking for water seeping. He could see none.
He looked up at his mother. She stood there smiling—proud, but knowing. She waved a small wave.
“Remember, Jay—” she called after him, half-heartedly.
“Keep to the shore!” he yelled back, already far enough away his voice was smaller. He was all senses as he looked around to check his position, and then heaved again on the oars.
She knew he would.
From the First Chapter:
The twin-engine bomber roared through the soft sea air, its U. S. Army green pale under the white tropical sun. With its long pointed nose and two large engines tucked in close on the high wings, the B-26 Marauder reeked speed and agility, a fighter grown up to be a bomber. Two thousand feet below, the southwest Pacific sparkled blue and white. Beyond the plane’s wingtips the ocean stretched endlessly, but ahead was broken by the random gray outcroppings of the Barrier Reef. Farther ahead, the Australian coast lay dull green on the horizon.
Terry Doyle had been operations officer of the 19th Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group, for two months, three weeks, and a day. He knew this not because he hated the job, but because he was made for it. It was no surprise when it had been assigned to him. As he retrieved the 9x12 envelope containing the next month’s orders, he doubted he’d see any change on his front. With practiced ease Doyle spun off the string holding the envelope shut—a fine callous on the inside of his index finger now aided this—and dropped the contents into his hand. He scanned the names and military shorthand and smiled. He’d be keeping his callous for another month.
His head cocked as a sound drifted in the open-ended canvas tent that was his office. Framed with wooden posts and lashed to the surrounding eucalyptus trees, what it lacked in amenities it made up for in breeze. It was that breeze that now carried the faint but distinctive growl of the B-26’s Pratt & Whitney engines.
Doyle dropped the orders on the table and hurried to the end of the tent, glancing through the scattered trees at the runway. He sighed in exasperation. Loitering on and around the dirt runway was a loose collection of cattle.
Doyle snatched the keys hanging on the corner pole of the tent, wrangled the old motorcycle parked outside, and in seconds was speeding away through the knee-high tan grass and the scrawny trees, spurting dirt behind him. In seconds, livestock were scattering away from the raucous machine.
It was not an unscenic spot for an air base. The sun rose over an impressive green ridge line a few miles to the northeast that fell to flatland straight east, and set in the west behind the modest, irregular foothills of the Hervey Range. The valley itself was a liberal mix of prairie grass and eucalyptus woods, with a number of streams winding across it. Two lonely highways formed a sideways “T” in the middle of the valley, one running mostly east toward the coast, the other running north and south and paralleled by the Great Northern Railroad, an ancient narrow-gauge with a stop in Woodstock, the tiny collection of homes and stores across the highway and track from the base and from which it took its name. Twenty miles north along that route lay Townsville, a sleepy coastal rail hub on Australia’s northern shoulder. Small as it was, it was metropolitan compared to Woodstock, and was already swelling with an importance to the Allies far beyond its capacity.
The base itself was fit into the southeast corner of the junction of the two highways, which formed its western and northern boundaries. There were three runways, one adjacent and parallel to each of the highways, and a third running east-northeast from the southern end of the north-south runway, forming a large, leaning V. Winding dirt service roads connected the airstrips with one another, snaking for miles through the woods and underbrush, with dozens of cleared pockets, called revetments, interspersed along their edges for parking aircraft.
. . .
The B-17 Flying Fortress was small but distinct against the vast blue sky. Low-winged with four engines, strength in motion, it was near enough to make out its lines, but high enough for its powerful drone to drift across the emptiness.
The slim figure in khaki, shirt and pants with a belt, stood in the middle of the wide dirt service road, staring straight up, hand to his eyes, his gaze following the B-17 as it crossed the sky. The baby face and sleepy blue eyes could have made him look younger than his twenty-four years, but the levelness of the gaze and set of his mouth belied any pretense of that.
“What will Dixie think?”
Jay Zeamer started at the voice to his left and looked. Walt Krell was walking towards him from the trees. Zeamer smiled and looked back up at the shrinking plane.
“She knows I’m a kept man,” he replied in his surprisingly deep, measured cadence.
Krell looked at the B-17. “Lot more of those these days.”
“There do seem to be.” The plane was lost to the tall trees. Zeamer turned and began walking down the dispersal lane. Krell followed alongside.
“They’ve made a few changes to it since we saw them at Langley,” he said. “That’s the new ‘F,’ isn’t it?”
“I think so,” Zeamer replied. “I’d like to see what else they’ve done to it.” The sound of a 6x6 transport truck grew louder. They moved to the side as the truck rounded a corner and passed them. A man in the back yelled as they passed by.
“Hey, Krell, you in for cards later?”
“I’ll be there!” He and Zeamer resumed their walking. “I have to be. I want that ten bucks back. You headed to the plane?”
Jay nodded. “I like to look it over myself after a flight.”
Krell smiled to himself. “Spoken like a command pilot.” Zeamer said nothing. The two men approached a revetment.
“Doug Shepherd passed his check ride with Hatch this morning.”
“He’s due,” Zeamer said. “He’s a fine pilot, though maybe a little stuffy.”
“He’s a hot shot like so many of ’em. Somehow they’re always better than the ones who came before. At least he can walk the talk more than most.”
Dixie appeared beyond the trees as the two men arrived at the revetment. They headed for the plane.
“You could take another whack it yourself, Jay. It’s been a while.”
“I could. Anyone you’re mad at?” Walt laughed. The two men arrived at the plane’s left landing gear. Jay inspected the assembly. “I think the opinion is I’ve tilted at that windmill enough times now.”
Krell watched Jay run his hand over a section of the tire. “So what’s your opinion?”
Jay’s hand paused on a spot, testing it. “I think it’s about time to replace this tire,” he said.