Jay Zeamer, Jr.
"There's Always a Way"
Jay Zeamer, Jr., was born July 25, 1918, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to Jay and Margery Zeamer. He was the descendant of old Cumberland County families through both his mother and father, with roots dating back to the pre-Revolutionary era. His mother came from a line of respected German farmers, the Hermans, who had come originally to the area in 1771; his grand-uncle on her side had been an eminent judge and politician in Carlisle. The Zeamers—who had only recently changed the spelling of their name from Ziemer—came in 1840. His paternal grandfather Jeremiah was a teacher, lawyer, and bank cashier until he bought the American Volunteer newspaper in Carlisle in 1878, which he edited for twenty-two years before moving on to historical writing.
Jay Zeamer Sr. was thirty-eight when Jay was born. A 1901 graduate of Dickinson College, he had been a stenographer and clerk in Puerto Rico and then Mexico before moving on to Charles A. Schieren Company, a global leather exporter, where by the early 1930s he would rise to vice-president with patents in his name. He then became a representative for Graton & Knight, a global leather belting company based in Worcester, Massachusetts. The job would take him to countries around the world for long periods of time, leaving Jay’s mother Margery to raise their three children and Jay a stack of picture postcards of exotic ports-of-call.
Margery had Jay when she was thirty-six. Also from Carlisle, she too attended Dickinson. After she graduated there in 1913, she moved to Greenville, N.C., where she taught at East Carolina Teachers Training College for four years. In 1917, she married Jay Sr. after meeting him on a train, and by 1918 they were both back in Carlisle, where Jay was born. After the family moved to Orange, New Jersey, when Jay was two, putting Jay Sr. closer to his company’s headquarters near the Brooklyn Bridge, Margery began joining numerous groups and women’s organizations, including a film federation dedicated to creating educational films for adults and children and raising motion picture standards. She would eventually serve as president and regent of several of these groups.
At two, Jay was already displaying his curiosity and adventurousness, wandering away from home to see the town and getting lost, even climbing out the windows onto the porch roof. A year later a brother was born, Richard Jeremiah, who went by both Dick and Jere (pronounced “Jerry.”) In short order he had two sisters as well, Isabel and Anne. By this time he was in grade school, and his engineering side had already begun to blossom. He had learned to make many of his own toys, especially the mechanical ones. Like so many boys, he had his own idea of what constituted a “pet”: He had a collection of pet white mice in the basement, until one day he found them gone. Apparently someone didn’t share his fondness. And like most children at that time he suffered through a bout of chickenpox, as well as scarlet fever, but otherwise was, and remained, in excellent physical health.
In 1925, the family—minus Jay’s father since he was usually traveling on business—began summering at Boothbay Harbor in Maine. A friend of Jay’s mother owned a house there and had told her about it, so Margery decided to rent a house there herself. Jay and his brother would sleep on the screened porch since it was so cool.
To eight-year-old Jay, it was a truly life-changing event. Boothbay was a new world. The house was nestled in the trees at the top of a hill in the Mt. Pisgah section, down which Jay would ride his bike either to the rocky shore on one side, where he could follow an old Indian trail on Linegan Bay, or to the docks and fishing wharves on the other, where he would make the acquaintance of the longshoremen and fishermen. They enjoyed the young boy with the tousled hair and sailor outfit, and in time were taking him with them on their fishing expeditions. It was the beginning of his interest in navigation, and especially sailing.
In no time he was wanting his own boat. He began collecting the scrap lumber from the shipyards around him and eventually built his own little flat-bottom rowboat. It wasn’t much, but it let him explore the edges of Boothbay Harbor, and then venture into the harbor itself. Before long he was crossing the harbor to the tall-masted schooners of the old Merchant Marine from the Great War. Mother Zeamer wrote that Jay never tired of climbing onto them and up into the rigging to look out to sea. Then one summer his seafaring, and he, nearly came to an end. His Aunt Maud, sister of his father, came to visit, and upon arriving told his mother about the sad sight she’d seen, a small boy in his small boat, rowing as fast as he could to make shore before it sank. Of course it was Jay, and while she was telling the story, he came home, soaking wet and missing his boat. The next day his mother bought him a brand-new rowboat.
There was one dream, though, that his mother couldn’t help him with, and that was flying. Back in Orange, his room came to be adorned with numerous model airplanes, “impressive,” writes his brother, “for their quality and complexity.” It would be a dozen years before he could pursue flying the way he was able with sailing, but it never left his mind.
Also back home Zeamer pursued another keen interest: Boy Scouts. As was becoming typical for him, once he determined what was required of him, he pursued each task in turn with extreme prejudice until it was perfected. His drive and dedication to excel resulted in his becoming an Eagle Scout in November 1932 at age fourteen, and the youngest patrol leader that Troop 5 had had. Since a fourteen-year-old leading juniors and seniors could ruffle too many high school egos, Zeamer was put in charge of the younger boys. It didn’t keep Jay from training them, on weekend afternoons, the way he’d trained himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his young charges not only matched their older cohorts in competition, but often beat them.
His summers in Boothbay showed his increasing confidence. He had graduated from rowboats to sailboats, and his excursions grew longer and bolder. In one instance, he and two companions sailed beyond the last lookout station only to find themselves becalmed. Day turned to night as they used their single oar to row home; search parties were even sent out. Eventually around midnight they made shore at home. Still another time Jay and some friends had the boat flipped over in a squall and had to be rescued. Fortunately nothing was hurt but their pride.
It was a remarkably storied life for a boy who had only just left junior high, spending his freshman year at Orange High School. He spent only a year there, however, before unceremoniously being enrolled by his father in Culver Military Academy in Culver, Illinois. According to Zeamer’s wife Barbara, the elder Jay, perhaps feeling his son’s lackluster grades were a result of too many extracurricular activities, told his son on a Friday that he would begin at the academy the following Monday. And so it was that Jay Zeamer found himself at fourteen traveling alone by train to Indiana, to a turning point in his life.
Military life at Culver was an easy fit for Zeamer. He was used to the respect for the authority and appreciated the order. Perhaps it was the mechanical engineer in him. If so, it was that inner engineer that likely again caused his grades to suffer.
Early one spring he bought a Twenties-era Ford jalopy, a “jeep” his mother called it but likely a sedan. It was in terrible shape but had a good engine. He managed to store it in the motorized equipment unit garage where it was discovered soon enough by a faculty member. This prompted, his mother wrote, a “rather excited session by U.S. mail,” but ultimately he was allowed to keep it, and in his spare time did a complete rebuild, repairing or replacing parts as needed. (He did this under the tutelage of motor instructor Hugh Harper, who in 1940 would write a glowing recommendation for Zeamer’s regular army commission and, later, never tire of telling his classes the story of his former student’s Medal of Honor action. The two became lifelong friends.) By summer he was able to drive his pet project home with several vacationing friends aboard, surprising his father, who for once was not traveling, in Maine. As it happened, neither of his parents drove and didn’t own a car; his father’s vision was too poor and his mother had been able to get by without one. So Jay took it upon himself to teach his mother, who was in her fifties, to drive. (By all accounts, the results were mixed at best.) He did the same with his sister. Jay Zeamer always seemed to need a project.
He also seemed always to need to compete. In his three years at the Academy, Zeamer managed to fit in two years of both football and track, and even one season as a boxer. His real talent, though, was his marksmanship. He won his letter on his company’s rifle team his first year, holding records for over a hundred shots without missing the 2” targets, and quickly advanced to the varsity squad. He was awarded medals as both an expert and instructor on rifles, and for his last two years served on the Culver Rifles Color Guard, initially as a rifle bearer and then as the senior color sergeant.
Those extracurricular activities, however, took their toll. While well-liked and respected by faculty and students alike—the “pride and joy” of Company A, according to a school newspaper columnist—Zeamer graduated Culver Academy at the bottom of the Class of 1936. His counselors went so far as to suggest he pursue a trade rather than a profession. But that’s not what Jay Zeamer had in mind.
He had his sights trained now on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. True to his engineering mind, he sought a degree in civil engineering, specializing in structural engineering; years later he would tell his daughter his goal was to be able to design and build bridges of his own. His record at Culver, however, clearly wasn’t sufficient for such a respected school.
Zeamer was undeterred. For the first time, starting with the 1936-37 school year, Culver itself was offering a junior college. Jay persuaded the Director of Admissions at M.I.T. to let him attend junior college at Culver, taking sophomore-level classes like physics and science, followed by summer school classes on-campus at M.I.T., so that he could start there the next fall as a second-year student.
It was a serious commitment, but that wasn’t all. A month after his graduation from Culver, before he came back to start junior college there in the fall, Zeamer was in Fort Devans, Massachusetts, completing his Senior R.O.T.C. advanced training and working with the Corps of Engineers. He had completed his basic R.O.T.C. training as part of his normal Culver education. After Fort Devans, he had a certificate ensuring his eligibility to obtain his commission in the infantry reserves when he turned twenty-one.
Zeamer did fulfill his prodigious academic pledge, and in the fall of 1937, amidst the school’s 75th anniversary celebrations, enrolled at M.I.T. as a sophomore. Zeamer must have learned something about himself, certainly from his experience at Culver, for he didn’t repeat his performance at Culver, even at a school known for being tough. Nor did he indulge in the kinds of distractions he did at Culver. He did join a couple of professional engineering societies, one for civil—his major—and the other aeronautical. The latter revealed his swelling interest in the one distraction he did allow himself while at M.I.T.
During his sophomore year, Zeamer’s best friend Bud (not the Bud Thues who would later fly with him) took Jay for a ride in one of the J-2 Cubs operated by the M.I.T. Flying Club. Set up just a few years before, the club operated through Wiggins Airways at nearby Norwood Airport. The boy who had decorated his room with model airplanes was thrilled by the experience, and in 1938 joined the club himself. Within a year he was not only licensed himself with 107 hours of solo time to his name, but also manager of the club. Now instead of driving home to New Jersey, he could fly, and did a number of times, using the opportunity to give family members their first flying experience. It also changed the path of his military service. In June, a month before he’d finally gain his commission in the Army Infantry Reserves, he applied for the Navy flight training program.
In a surprising turn, he was rejected; his vision without glasses wasn’t strong enough. It made a busy summer busier. For between turning twenty-one in July and doing surveying work in Machias, Maine, Zeamer visited a Dr. Peppard in New York City to see what he could do about his eyes. It could never be said Jay Zeamer was one to accept fate. He wanted to fly in the military, which meant no glasses. Peppard recommended the Bates method—controversial even at the time—of strengthening the eyes through relaxation, on the premise that the eyeball changes shape to maintain focus. Ophthalmology has shown that not to be the case, but all that mattered for Zeamer is that he believed it would. And so over the summer, he put Bates’ relaxation and visualization techniques to work with his typical determination.
On August 16, Jay received his appointment in the Army Officer’s Reserve Corps as a second lieutenant in the 312th Infantry Reserves, 78th Division. Two weeks later he was sworn in by the postmaster of Machias, Maine. In doing so, he joined an ancestral uncle on his mother’s side, who served with General Washington from Valley Forge to Yorktown. Also like that distant uncle, Jay’s joining was not an inconsequential act: The day before, to blaring headlines across the world, Germany had invaded Poland.
Mirroring the rest of the country, the prospect of war had been on the minds of students and staff during the entire course of Zeamer’s time at M.I.T. There had been debates over compulsory or voluntary R.O.T.C., surveys of student attitudes on isolationism and defense, and the establishment of a peace federation.
As for Jay himself, if he had any doubts, he didn’t show them. Instead, near the end of October, Zeamer and his friend Bud applied for pilot training again, this time with the Army Air Corps. Zeamer’s turn with the application board came at three p.m. the last day of November. They wouldn’t get the results until late December. In the meantime, Zeamer focused on school, which now included instructing infantry drills. When the results arrived just before the holidays, they were an early Christmas present: Of the twenty M.I.T. students who took the examinations, only four, including Jay and Bud, passed them all—including the eye exams. Zeamer’s “there’s always a way” philosophy had proved true yet again.
In May 1940, Jay applied for his commission in the regular Army. He received glowing endorsements in support. From the head of the R.O.T.C. at Culver: “Mr. Zeamer impressed me with his earnestness and desire to learn. He was at all times courteous, honest, and morally upright. I recommend him without hesitation . . .” One of his civil engineering professors at M.I.T. declared him “a young man of excellent character and high integrity . . . willing to extend his best efforts to the accomplishment of his assigned work.” But perhaps the most proud, and prescient, came from Zeamer’s friend and beloved head of the automotive mechanics program at Culver, Hugh Harper. “I have known Mr. Zeamer for the past seven years,” Harper wrote. “He is a young man of high ideals and a gentleman at all times. I feel he would serve his country with distinction and credit. It gives me great pleasure to recommend him unqualifiedly.” He surely didn’t expect Zeamer to do so with such distinction as he did.
With such endorsements acceptance with his commission seemed inevitable. It started auspiciously enough, but there was a hitch. While his preliminary exam found “his personal character above reproach” and “his fitness for Military Service . . . SUPERIOR,” it also found Zeamer was ten pounds underweight. At almost six feet tall, he weighed a scarecrow 133 lbs. He was informed that he needed to “correct the defect by proper medical treatment” before his final examination on his birthday, July 25.
First, though, came graduation. In early June, Jay Zeamer graduated with the rest of M.I.T.’s class of 1940 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Whether he actually did plan to design and build bridges, or if it was even his choice—Zeamer told his wife it was his father’s idea, that he would have preferred to be a doctor—soon became irrelevant, for what he most wanted to do at the time was fly, and that opportunity came soon enough.
He had only a couple of weeks to celebrate his accomplishment before starting two weeks of active duty training at Fort Dix in New Jersey in late June. While there he received a waiver for his “physical defect”: He’d gained five of the required ten pounds—he was now at a hefty 138—and that was seen as sufficient for Army purposes.
After his training he celebrated his twenty-second birthday, on which he had his final examination for his Army commission. It’s a fair question how much his heart was in it, since just a week later he enlisted as a flying cadet in the Air Corps, and two days after that was in Glenview, Illinois, beginning ten weeks of primary flight training at the Chicago School of Aeronautics. Whatever the case, he was informed the day he left Glenview that his scores weren’t sufficient among his group to warrant a commission in the Infantry. Solid “B”s in military law and administration as well as map and aerial photo reading—a bit of foreshadowing there, perhaps—weren’t enough to make up for lower scores in other areas. They were the scores of someone whose focus was elsewhere, which is why they likely had little effect on Zeamer, who knew full well he had effectively resigned his infantry commission by enlisting as a flight cadet. He lost two years in grade, but gained what he most wanted: to fly.
On October 14, Zeamer began basic flight training at Maxwell Field in Alabama. Not much is known of Zeamer’s time at Glenview or at Maxwell, but what is known highlights perfectly two of the most distinctive aspects of his personality. One is that he was made Captain of Cadets of his class SE-41-B. The easy likability and integrity that had made him a class favorite at Culver was obviously still apparent.
Second is that he attempted to fly outside loops in the PT-13 Stearman trainers used at Glenview. We know this courtesy of a friend from the class after Jay’s, Walter Krell, who would remain one of Zeamer’s closest friends for the next two years and followed him as Captain of Cadets. Krell roomed with Zeamer at Glenview, and at night Zeamer would describe his attempts at pushing the trainer over the top of the loop. Krell expressed his concerns to his friend, who he greatly admired, worrying that the biplane wasn’t stressed for such a maneuver, which certainly wasn’t part of their curricular training. Krell also knew that with his mechanical knowledge, Zeamer was well aware that the Lycoming engine on the Stearman, having a float-type carburetor, would quit when inverted. Unthwarted, Zeamer continued trying, excitedly reporting one night that he’d almost got it over. Out of simple curiosity Krell had had to attempt the feat himself, failing quickly. When Krell asked him how he’d almost done it, Zeamer replied that he’d simply put his foot on the stick and jammed it forward.
Fifty years later Krell was still impressed and baffled at his friend’s exploits, impressed at Zeamer’s bravery and calmness in the attempts, baffled as to the reason why. Zeamer was no thrill-seeker, after all. In the first place, he was probably bored, having already a hundred hours under his belt as a solo pilot prior to entering the Air Corps. He knew the basics well. Beyond that, there was the engineer and pilot in him, curious about the capabilities of the machine in his command, eager to know the limits of his plane. Be prepared, the Eagle Scout had learned. It was a lesson he took to heart.
If he wasn’t bored, it sure appeared so in his flight grades, earning D’s—“Up to the minimum standard”—as his final grade in both the PT-13 and the more advanced BT-13 Valiant trainers. Fortunately his ground school grades were solid enough to make up for it, and he and fourteen others out of the forty-seven member class, including his friend Bud, moved on to advanced training at Maxwell. This began the week before Christmas, 1940. He applied for a commission in the Air Corps in January 1941, and on March 14, he received it. He was now 2nd Lt. Jay Zeamer, United States Army Air Corps.
He graduated flight school and was placed on active duty in the Air Reserves the very next day, having improved his overall flying grade to a “C” and his ground school grades to a solid “A.” He even gave lectures on various types of military aviation, experience that no doubt proved helpful later on his speaking tours. Zeamer requested pursuit pilot, but was deemed too tall and assigned to the 96th Bomb Squadron, 2nd Bomb Group, at Langley Field in Virginia.
“Langley Field before the war was a good life,” Zeamer wrote, with a buffet of different aircraft for the newly minted pilots to fly. Besides the PT-13s they’d been flying, there were the twin-engine B-12 and B-18 bombers from Martin and Douglas. Though they were already obsolete, they were a step up from the trainers. Much more exciting was the tough but agile North American B-25, which would become a classic mainstay of the Allied air forces in the war. There was even a PB2Y, the awesome float plane from Consolidated. Zeamer got to fly them all. There were two aircraft at Langley that he didn’t get to fly. One was the hot, new B-26 Marauder being tested by the 22nd Bomb Group at Langley, which sparked plenty of conversation among the new pilots with its reputation as the “Flying Coffin” and “Widow Maker.” Then there was the B-17 Flying Fortress, the character opposite of the B-26 with its broad wings and graceful lines. Already it was becoming known for its ruggedness. There were a few at Langley, but the only one available to the 2nd Bomb Group was reserved for majors. Zeamer could only admire its sleek lines from outside, and wonder.
His flying scores reflected the wider variety. Bored no more, he received a “Very Satisfactory” for his single-engine work and “Excellent” in the two-engine bombers. Other duties at Langley ran the expected Air Corps gamut, “from flying to running the mess hall,” as Zeamer told his brother. Jay himself was made assistant engineering officer, helping to supervise squadron aircraft maintenance.
In May, he got orders switching him from the 2nd to the 43rd, a heavy bomber group so new it had no heavy bombers to fly. Jay could only continue to practice in B-25s and the other aircraft. He continued to shine in them, rating scores of “Excellent” across the board. His marks on the ground mirrored them. Jay had landed in the 63rd Bomb Squadron, where based on his experience he was immediately made squadron engineering officer—no mere assistant this time. In his first efficiency report on Zeamer, the commanding officer of the 63rd, Major John Fowler, rated him excellent to superior in every respect, from physical abilities to initiative to leadership qualities. He was an “eager and very intelligent officer” who Fowler considered “an outstanding officer,” so much so that he recommended Zeamer as a good representative for any civilian contacts the Army required.
While they had no planes, the 43rd could train in other ways. The entire group received gunnery training from the 13th Reconnaissance Squadron, a squadron attached to the 43rd. The staff sergeant leading the gunnery training was a genial but thorough Pennsylvanian who made sure his charges knew their weapons inside and out. He was also squadron bombardier, a distinction made even more uncommon by his being a non-com, part of a new Air Corps program of selecting highly capable high school graduates to be enlisted bombardiers. It certainly worked in this case: Recognized as one of the top two in the Army Air Corps, he was lead bombardier in bombing demonstrations for the Washington brass. Jay sensed the similar drive and high expectations and quickly hit it off with this kindred spirit, who happily indulged Zeamer’s interest in his job and how to work the Norden bombsight. The sergeant’s name was Joe Sarnoski.
It wasn’t all work for the handsome young flight cadet. Zeamer began dating occasionally, using the planes at his disposal to fly to Massachusetts, where his sister Isabel would find him dates with Wellesley girls. He also dated a young woman from Littleton, Massachusetts, whose parents he liked enough that he would visit them while she was at school. But it was a young college student named Lucile Christmas who seemed to capture his fancy the most. The daughter of then-Lt. Col. John K. Christmas, one of the Army’s premier tank experts, she was finishing her first year at Sweet Briar College. It’s unknown how the two met. Sweet Briar was three hours west of Langley, but as the daughter of a lieutenant colonel stationed in Maryland and Washington, D.C., it’s possible she might have attended one of Sarnoski’s bombing demonstrations with her father. However it happened, she and Zeamer dated until Jay was transferred to Patterson Field in Ohio.
Some confusion exists as to the timing and nature of the transfer. Zeamer himself writes that it happened in June, when “all of a sudden, they rounded up all of the new second lieutenant pilots and sent them to Wright Field to Service Test the new Martin B-26 medium bombers . . .” It is true that service testing on the Marauder was being done at Patterson Field (not Wright) in Ohio over the summer, but efficiency reports show Jay still in the 43rd Bomb Group at Langley. It could be that the transfer wasn’t an official one until later; Zeamer writes that “[a]t the end of the summer of 1941, all pilots who had any experience in B-26s, were assigned to the 22nd Bombardment Group (M), at Langley Field . . .” That certainly was the case where Zeamer was concerned: Official records show him in the 19th Bomb Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group, by August.
The fall of 1941 was a busy one for the 22nd. Despite its initial reputation, the B-26 was quickly establishing itself as a superior bomber, tough and very fast. While flying maneuvers first in Louisiana and then the Carolinas and Georgia, Zeamer writes, “we found out that a B-26 could outrun a Curtiss P-40 pursuit plane.” It was obvious that the B-26 was going to be one of the Air Corps’ best weapons. With the prospect of war building by the week, that meant business for the 22nd. Back at Langley, they installed armor plating on their planes and in November began intensive training, with six four-hour shifts per day of flying, bombing, gunnery practice, skeet shooting, Link training, and ground school, with four-hour periods to sleep.
Still, there was time—had to be time—for recreation. There were of course all the amenities of a modern air base, especially one situated next to Hampton and Newport News, Virginia. On some weekends, the men practiced what they called “navigational training,” which consisted of flying a planeload of Bostoners home in one of the old B-18s.
At the end of one of these trips, the weekenders stopped at Mitchell Field on Long Island on the way back to Langley to pick up ammunition. En route from there to Langley that afternoon, aboard their bomber over the East Coast, they learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
By the time they landed at Langley, their lives had been transformed. Those who lived off-base, like Zeamer, got in their cars and began to leave but were stopped at the gate and told to return to their squadron hangars. Any equipment that had been removed for peacetime training they were ordered to reinstall, and to load whatever spare equipment they could safely transport. They were to be ready for a permanent change of station at 5:00 a.m. the next morning.
Zeamer and his fellow crews worked till around midnight and then went home to bed, though it’s a question how well any of them slept. The phone rang at 3:00: Be at the hangar in an hour. Zeamer drove to the field with all his belongings in his car. He left it all—car and belongings—in the parking lot; Zeamer’s younger brother Jere would retrieve it weeks later to take it back to New Jersey. At 5:00 a.m.—less than fifteen hours after news of the attack had broken—the group headed for California.
Their destination was Muroc Dry Lake, about fifty miles east and over the mountains from Riverside. It was a ramshackle, desolate location—training, though unbeknownst to them at the time, for their eventual stations in Australia and New Guinea. The trip to Muroc from Langley was notable for a number of reasons, but two especially. First was that as they flew across the Mississippi, they listened to the President of the United States declare war on Japan. Second was that it was the occasion for the first casualty of the war for the group. The group commander was killed in an accident on take-off on the last leg to Muroc.
The group began anti-submarine patrols up and down the California coast, from San Diego to San Francisco. It was touchy, subjective work, considering there had been forays by Japanese subs along the coast, but identifying a submarine from the air was less than scientific work. Occasionally they would bomb underwater objects just in case, but were worried they were only whales.
All of this happened with Zeamer in the right seat as copilot. While he’d done superbly in the other bombers, he couldn’t seem to adjust to the aggressive needs of the B-26, surprising his old friend from primary, Walt Krell. Krell had been sent to the 22nd early on and had become a first-rate Marauder pilot, but neither he nor anyone else had been able to check Zeamer out as first pilot in the bomber. The issue, Krell said, was essentially Zeamer’s personality. What made him a great leader and example on the ground—his unhurried, steady, methodical manner—hurt him in the Twenty-Six, particularly on final approach. The B-26 landed faster than some aircraft cruised, and with its short, slanted wings, needed to be put on the ground, not allowed to float in. Doing so could cause it to stall. More than once pilots trying to check Zeamer out had to frantically grab the controls when he would let the plane get “soft and mushy,” as Krell put it, over the runway. Despite repeated attempts, Zeamer failed to master the technique, and so continued stuck in his role as copilot.
By the end of December heavy rains turned Muroc Dry Lake into anything but, so a move to March Field in Riverside was made. More anti-sub work and general reconnaissance followed, but at the end of January new orders came through. Their real war was about to start: They were heading for Australia. While their planes were disassembled and crated up in Sacramento to be shipped to Hawaii, the men travelled by train to San Francisco. The ground echelon left in early February for Melbourne, but the air echelons headed for Hawaii on a blacked-out naval transport called the Grant. The men of the 22nd enjoyed a pleasant two island weeks while their planes were reassembled, though Zeamer considered it a waste of valuable time, considering nose fuel tanks would have allowed them to fly to Hawaii rather than be shipped. They would be flying to Australia, after all. In any event, once the planes were ready, the 19th Bomb Squadron began island-hopping the vast Pacific, landing mostly on atolls not much wider than the runways they housed. Of the fifty-seven planes that left Hawaii, fifty-four made it safely to Brisbane, Australia, in late March. Zeamer’s 19th squadron lost none. It was the first such deployment across large expanses of ocean. That they accomplished it in aircraft with only a compass, drift meter, and sextant—and not a little dead reckoning—is nothing short of incredible.
Little time was wasted after arriving in Australia. From Brisbane, halfway up Australia’s east coast, the 19th squadron moved north along the coast, settling down for combat operations in the small coastal town of Townsville. Less than two weeks after they arrived Down Under, on April 5, 1942, they were flying their first mission.
It was the first combat the B-26 would see in the war. Because of the sheer size of the theater, the absolute superiority the Japanese had in the air, and the frequent tropical storms, simply getting to the target and back was more than half the battle. The squadron first had to fly to Port Moresby on the southwestern coast of New Guinea—the single Allied stronghold, and the best, on the huge island, the second largest in the world. They would land at the primitive strip, quite literally Gilligan’s Island in its condition at the time, at dusk to avoid interception by the Japanese. They would then get a few hours of sleep while the heroic ground crews permanently stationed there would retrieve the gasoline and bombs stored in the tall grass—to avoid easy targets for the daily Japanese raids—and restock the aircraft. Or the crews would have to do it themselves, which required hand-pumping a thousand gallons into wing tanks above their heads from ten to twenty fifty-five-gallon drums.
They would wake around midnight to fly to the actual target, trying to arrive at dawn, just late enough to see the target, early enough to hopefully catch the enemy sleeping. In the beginning their target was usually Rabaul, the most fortified Japanese harbor in the Pacific, home to both a Japanese bomber and fighter strip, well-trained and plentiful anti-aircraft crews, and a harbor always brimming with ships capable of firing back at their attackers. If there were no storms, which was unusual, they could get there in four to five hours. Once through with their bomb runs, they had to navigate almost certain attack by Zeros. If successful with all of that, they simply had to repeat the entire trip in reverse to get home. The process could take a day and a half to two days.
Zeamer did this twelve times with the 19th Bomb Squadron, mostly in April and May, which occasioned his becoming a witness, though not a participant, to the Battle of the Coral Sea. Flying with Robert Hatch, his normal pilot, likely in Hatch’s normal plane, the B-26 “Daisy,” the crew had a mission to the Deboyne Islands to hit shipping. After mixed results at their target, they flew over the main Coral Sea battle in progress, watching through breaks in the clouds as the ships fired at each other. One of the momentous battles of the war, it was especially consequential for those stationed in the theater at the time. For the inability of the Japanese to take Port Moresby and thus threaten Australia directly led to Japan’s decision to try taking Moresby by land in the coming months. The lives of all the Allied soldiers in the theater would be affected for months by the battle they saw through the clouds that day.
In all of these missions, Zeamer was still copilot. He’d been promoted to first lieutenant in April, but little attempt was made at this point to transition him to command pilot. It was what it was. No doubt Zeamer didn’t care for the circumstance, and as intent as ever to have his own crew to lead his way, with the extra preparation and training that had worked so well for him all his life.
Even if he had his own crew, however, such preparation and training would have been hard to manage. Losses over Rabaul caused command to restrict B-26 flights to the north shore of New Guinea and points closer, relatively speaking at least, to their home base, which itself moved on July 4 to Woodstock, a lonely railroad outpost twenty miles south of Townsville. A period of rest ensued, almost four weeks, for the 19th. It was just as well, as its planes were increasingly suffering from wear, the dusty, humid environment, and being at the end of the end of the supply line. It was all a potent combination. He never showed it—Krell said Jay “was pensive, calm and collected . . . never raised his voice, lost his temper, swore, criticized, or found fault with the situation”—but Jay Zeamer was getting bored.
He was also getting passed to the command seat by pilots younger than he. It was on a mission to Lae, according to Krell, that Zeamer was right seat to one of these freshly minted pilots, Duncan Seffern. Going into the bomb run, Zeamer’s plane fell back from Krell’s plane instead of maintaining position, potentially screwing up the bomb run. When Krell put Seffern on the carpet back at Woodstock, he was told that Zeamer, who as copilot was in charge of maintaining proper speed on the bomb run, had fallen asleep. Seffern reportedly had to slap Zeamer across the chest to wake him up, at which point Zeamer awoke and performed his duty—and then fell back asleep.
The story comes to us from “Mission Over Buka,” the first chapter in Martin Caidin’s Flying Forts. Caidin’s account is riddled with inaccuracies, and Walt Krell says he was never told he was being recorded by Caidin when he contacted Krell two decades after the events in question. But while Krell was at pains in an interview to ensure Zeamer himself was portrayed the way Krell knew him, and that his troubles in the B-26 were understood in the proper context, he confirmed the story of Zeamer’s catnap was basically correct. When asked if she believed it possible, Zeamer’s wife Barbara said she wouldn’t be surprised; Jay could sleep anywhere. Zeamer himself never commented on the story. It’s only speculation, but it’s not a leap to believe that, like his grades at Culver and flight scores in primary, left unchallenged or insufficiently interested, Zeamer’s attention simply drifted into boredom and detachment.
While explicable, Zeamer’s actions weren’t excusable, and he almost surely faced a consequence for them. As a veteran officer in a combat zone, he was probably granted some leeway, but at least one Air Force researcher believes Zeamer was probably grounded for a time as a result. It would explain why, in an ironic twist of fate, Zeamer was not on “Daisy” the day his usual flight crew went down in the jungles of New Guinea. (Coincidentally, so did Duncan Seffern’s crew the same day. Both crews survived and weeks later found their way back to the squadron.) Grounded, with his crew missing and presumed dead, Zeamer was no doubt ready for a change.
It was around this time that a bomb group new to the theater began arriving, and a few weeks later, their planes, new B-17Es fresh from the factory. Zeamer would at least have seen them flying overhead, in and out of Mareeba, and probably on the ground in Townsville. He learned that this new group was his old group, the 43rd, and that its squadrons were spread out across northern Australia.
In mid-September, Zeamer’s 19th squadron sailed to a new base in the far north called Iron Range. They shared the voyage with an advance echelon of the 403rd squadron of the 43rd. It’s possible that Zeamer had already flown up to Iron Range three days earlier as copilot on one of the seven 19th planes involved in an upcoming mission on Lae. Morning reports for the 19th don’t answer that question; they only show Zeamer made it to Iron Range. If he did sail, it wouldn’t have taken him long to discover that this 403rd Bomb Squadron was the renamed 13th Reconnaissance Squadron from Langley, and for which his old friend Joe Sarnoski was still squadron bombardier, flying with the squadron commander.
However he found out about it, it was enough for Zeamer, especially now with the great loss of his friend Walt Krell in an accident that left his legs badly burned. Krell would be hospitalized in Australia for months. Zeamer put in for a transfer to his old group, presumably on the logic that he was never going to be command pilot in a B-26, and was taking up a right seat that other potential first pilots could be training in on their way to the left seat. It was a nonstandard request regardless of the logic, but he prevailed, and three days later he left Iron Range on an airplane not attached to the 19th Bomb Squadron. He probably hitched a ride on a flight to Mareeba, or maybe Townsville, from there working his way to Torrens Creek. But somehow Jay made it to Torrens Creek three days later, and at 10:30 in the morning on September 22, reported for duty to the 403rd.
Happy reunions surely followed, but he had little to do at first, being a fresh addition to a squadron with no planes at the moment, and in which he had no flying experience anyway. But of course Jay Zeamer never let such small obstacles get in his way. He did a little intelligence work, attended some briefings, even assumed command of the squadron for a day when all the more senior officers went to Mareeba. When the air echelon finally moved to Iron Range itself in early October, planes slowly began coming in, and Zeamer got to work scrounging flights, becoming what he called the “squadron errand boy.” Building on his growing experience, he moved finally from the right seat to the left.
A welcome change, but these were still only errands, not combat. In late October he swung a copilot seat on some combat missions with a different bomb group also flying out of Port Moresby. In the middle of that he grabbed the navigator’s seat on a mission flown by another old acquaintance, Ken McCullar of the 63rd, Jay’s original squadron in the 43rd. Zeamer got to see first-hand why McCullar was already becoming a legend for his aggressive approach with the B-17. The plane could be flown. It was another lesson not lost on Jay.
Finally in late November Jay got his chance to fly as a command pilot for the first time, once again by talking his way into the position. It was an auspicious but dramatic start, involving getting attacked by Zeros over two different enemy airfields while completing his stated mission, and led to his being recommended for his first Silver Star. It also took care of any check rides in the B-17. Zeamer was officially considered confirmed as a command pilot in the Flying Fortress.
Unfortunately it would be a month before he could put his long-sought status to use. The 403rd had finally finished moving to Milne Bay, on the southern tip of New Guinea, but a contingent of seventy to eighty men, mostly corporals and privates with a few sergeants, were left behind at Iron Range, with 1st Lt. Jay Zeamer as the only officer in command and no flights out, at least for Zeamer, for four weeks. The exact purpose is unknown, but it has the hallmarks of a detached assignment, the question being what kind. It has been speculated that it was a maintenance section, perhaps working on bringing precious aircraft left behind back to flight status. Walt Krell gives credence to this theory with his memory of Zeamer transferring into a service depot trying to be started at Iron Range, “because they had some pretty shot-up aircraft.” Now the timing of Zeamer’s transfer into the 403rd is a matter of official record; that happened in September. But Krell was remembering a story told to him by Zeamer months after the fact, from the distance of twenty years. That in 1963 he might have ended up conflating two different stories told to him by Zeamer in 1943 about something that happened in 1942 would be completely understandable. Hence the conclusion that Zeamer, due to his executive and engineering experience, was probably in charge of a detached service detail for most of December.
When he did make it up to Milne Bay, he lost no time making up for lost time. In his absence, the squadron commander had gone missing with an entire crew as an observer on a mission. His crew, including Sarnoski and squadron navigator “Rocky” Stone, was up for grabs, already being pulled apart to be put on separate crews. Zeamer asked them to be on a crew he was putting together and they agreed. With Sarnoski’s help, Zeamer set about finally finding a crew to fit his approach. He knew he wanted professionals, responsible men he could count on. He’d brook no drunks, or carousing in flight, or cursing over the interphone; to the quiet, imperturbable Zeamer, that wasn’t courage. Even more, though, he wanted men willing and unafraid to go the extra mile, whether in getting the job done or being prepared to get the job done. Jay Zeamer wanted to fly as much as possible, and he wanted to go home, and he didn’t believe they were exclusive goals. “I never felt I was confronted with death,” he said later. “I fully intended to survive.” The key was minimizing risk by maximizing preparation and ability. He and Joe Sarnoski were in full agreement on that, and set to putting together a crew to do it.
They found it mostly in veterans of the 8th Photo Recon Squadron and of the 19th Bomb Group who had recently come into the 403rd. The 8th Photo men—Kendrick, Thues, and Able—seem to have transferred in with one of the B-17s acquired by the 403rd from the 8th. The two from the 19th, Vaughan and Pugh, came in as much of the old guard of the 19th were going home and the newer recruits found themselves transferred into a new bomb group. A few of them Zeamer had already flown with or knew from the detached assignment in Iron Range. The outlier was his copilot, Dyminski, who was fresh from the States. His first combat mission would be over Rabaul with Zeamer and mostly this crew.
That mission came on the night of January 16, after a few mostly reconnaissance missions in late December and early January that Zeamer snagged as they came available. (The practice would become his reputation.) It was quite the debut, with the crew sinking an 8,000-ton transport. They would all receive Air Medals for it. Unfortunately once again a promising start led to an abrupt stop. The next day, before the crew even returned to base, Milne Bay was bombed severely by the Japanese. Between that and a third of the squadron being out sick from months of exposure to jungle diseases, bomber command sent the 403rd packing back to Australia, to the small but pleasant coastal outpost of Mareeba.
Thus commenced almost two months of non-combat for the crew, save for a lively two-night show over Rabaul starting Valentine’s night. After misrepresenting the real purpose of a flight to get fresh produce for the squadron, Zeamer was ordered to fly the plane that night as part of a large, joint operation against Rabaul. The catch was that since the plane was used for transport, it had been stripped of all of its weaponry and armor plating. At first his crew balked, but since the mission was at night, the crew agreed on the condition they could take 2,000 pounds of bombs that could be thrown out by hand. Zeamer acquiesced. The mission was to bomb the Rabaul town hotel where command had learned Japanese brass were staying, but it meant killing the civilian geishas there. Catholic Sarnoski refused to do it, so directed their bombs towards a fuel dump. Command ordered them out a second night with the same objective, and again Sarnoski directed them elsewhere, this time lighting up an ammunition dump. They were not told to go out again.
That was it for another five weeks. They split their time mostly between Mareeba and Cairns, passing the time with squadron business, movies, cards, letters home, and sickness, both actual and homesickness. That was the danger of too much downtime in a war. Breaks are critical, but too long a break makes it too hard to go back, to keep the focus. Undoubtedly Zeamer was aware of this. It didn’t help that the other 43rd squadrons still at Port Moresby were busy making history with victories like the Bismarck Sea battle. Finally Zeamer took matters into his own hands again.
In late March the crew flew several missions attached to another 43rd squadron, the 64th, now ably commanded by Zeamer’s friend and now truly legendary Ken McCullar. It’s not known if Zeamer instigated the arrangement himself, but as the 403rd’s newly appointed assistant operations officer with a friend in charge of the 64th, it wouldn’t be surprising. What can’t be a coincidence is Zeamer’s sudden transfer into the 65th on March 20 while flying with his friend’s squadron. McCullar would have been instrumental in helping to make that happen. Once Jay was in, he was able to bring the rest of his crew in a week later, save one—Rocky Stone elected to stay in the squadron that had been his home for two years. Joe had a similar history, but wanted to be where the action was even more. He got his wish. For the first time in over two months, they were back in the combat zone.
Zeamer couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to his new squadron: On April 6 he was awarded the Silver Star for his November 20 mission, on the 9th was promoted to captain, and on the 13th was made squadron operations officer. Within a week of having his crew he’d grabbed them three bombing missions. This was what Jay had had in mind all along. What he didn’t expect, right in the middle of it, was to lose McCullar, who was killed with his entire crew in a freak accident on take-off in the early hours of the 13th. McCullar was a man of his kind; if anything could have been a wake-up call for Jay, that would have been it. But war is war, and the next day they were back at work.
In his position as ops officer, Zeamer could volunteer for whatever missions he wished, and did. The crew took to calling themselves the Eager Beavers, and had already formed an uncommon loyalty to their soft-spoken but fearless pilot. They flew without a navigator for a few missions; Zeamer could dead reckon to the familiar targets and was a competent navigator in his own right. In May, though, with missions picking up and targets farther afield, Zeamer found a new one, Johnston, who would be with them till the end.
Some time in April, Zeamer and the crew were approached about a volunteer mapping mission to Bougainville Island in the Solomons chain. The explanation given to them was that maps of the island’s west coast were of vital importance to an invasion crucial to the overall operation to isolate Rabaul. The Beavers had been as far before, but it was an extended mapping run, over twenty minutes, which involved straight and level flight for the duration of the mapping. Definitely risky, but they knew they could handle it. The crew volunteered on the basis of Zeamer flying it. Zeamer volunteered for it because it was another mission. Mapping, however, required rather specific conditions—enough daylight for the proper camera exposure but not enough heat to generate clouds. Unfortunately for the next two months, weather postponed the mission.
Zeamer himself was nearly sidelined, showing signs in April and then again in May of having malaria. Both times he had brief stays in the station hospital in Port Moresby, but because no parasites were found, he was never actually diagnosed with malaria. Consequently he was never treated with quinine or, the preferred preventative and treatment in the theater, atabrine. The cause remained a mystery.
In the meantime, he was returned to duty, where he continued to make his mark. On two different reconnaissance missions they returned at night almost out of gas, one during a thunderstorm in which the crew had to use flares to determine their altitude above the ocean’s surface; Zeamer landed in fog without ever seeing the ground. Their most notable mission to date came at the end of May, a bombing run on Wewak at night, when Zeamer, leading the mission, bucked orders and performed a low-altitude strafing run on the searchlights to ensure a safe bombing run for the bombers behind him. Zeamer was threatened with a court-martial, but the press ate it up. The favorable reaction caused command to lay off.
As if May wasn’t notable enough for him, early that month Jay was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his participation in the first combat mission of the B-26 a year before. Later in the month he received an Oak Leaf Cluster to his D.F.C., recognizing 200 hours of operational flight missions in theater through January, as well as his Air Medal for the sinking of the merchant ship at Rabaul in January. In the middle of the month, he was made squadron executive officer.
Around that same time, the 65th took delivery of a B-17E, #41-2666, specially equipped for mapping work, from the 8th Photo Recon Squadron. Considered a “Hard Luck Hattie” for its constant issues—it had been shot up to the point of salvaging in December but was spared for its specialized configuration—it seemed to live up to its “666” serial number. Zeamer didn’t care. More mapping meant more flying, and now the squadron had a plane he could somewhat call his own to do it in.
They had a busy combat schedule, but during their downtime Zeamer had the crew work on updating it for mapping work. New engines and stripping it of unnecessary weight made it faster, and several additional guns made it easier to defend. Zeamer had the radio and both waist positions converted to twin fifties, and took a page out of Ken McCullar’s playbook and had a single, fixed .50 mounted in the nose that he could fire himself from the control wheel.
Combat and mapping missions in ’666 followed, but the Bougainville mapping still hung. Finally on June 15 weather allowed the 8th Photo Recon Squadron a chance. When its cameras fouled, Zeamer was contacted. Zeamer had the crew prep ’666 that day, and on June 16, 1943, the crew—with two substitutions due to Dyminski and Thues being grounded for malaria—made its own attempt.
The previous night and again that morning, bomber command ordered Zeamer to add a reconnaissance of the Japanese airstrip on Buka Island, just off the northern tip of Buka, to the mapping mission. Zeamer rejected it forcefully both times, understanding the danger of rousing a hostile airstrip prior to sustained straight and level flight for mapping. Arriving over their start point early, however, the crew elected to do the Buka recon. They obtained the needed photos of Buka airstrip but at the cost of the very enemy interception Zeamer feared. The forty-minute air battle that ensued at the tail end of the Bougainville mapping—their primary mission that day—with Zeamer continuing the mapping despite the threat, and, despite grievous wounds, expertly avoiding any further extensive damage after the first terrible attack with the aggressive techniques he learned in the 22nd and from Ken McCullar—cost Joe Sarnoski his life and Jay Zeamer nearly his.
(Read a fuller account of the Eager Beavers story and the 16 June 1943 mission here.)
Zeamer’s injuries were extensive. His left leg was broken both above and below the knee, each with comminuted and compound fractures, meaning that the bone was broken into multiple pieces as well as piercing the skin. Shrapnel had torn multiple, severe gashes in his left leg above his knee and in his right wrist, and numerous pieces were embedded in both. His blood loss during the forty-minute battle and three-hour flight to the advance base at Dobodura was such that he lapsed in and out of consciousness on the return flight—though he never surrendered command of the aircraft—and was thought dead initially by the medics boarding the plane. Ironically, it was the same blood loss that almost killed him that saved his leg, for amputation was out of the question with so much blood already lost. Instead, the staff at the 15th Portable Surgical Hospital gave him as much plasma as was available, removed as much of the shrapnel as they could find as well as the damaged tissue, gave him sulfanilamide to kill the bacteria, and finally put a toe-to-thigh cast on the leg.
He and the rest of the crew were returned to Port Moresby the following day, where Zeamer was stabilized with blood mostly from his friend and flight surgeon Milton Gusack in a direct transfusion, and spent the next couple of weeks in the 10th Evacuation Hospital. In August he was transferred to Australia, first to the 12th Station Hospital in Townsville and finally to the 105th General in Gatton, about 50 miles west of Brisbane. Fortunately, after the harrowing experience of receiving his death notice only to have it reversed in a telegram the next day, his mother received regular updates during this time on his “normal improvement.”
While he was in the hospital in Port Moresby, Jay was awarded the Purple Heart for the 16th June mission, as well as two Oak Leaf Clusters, one to his Silver Star for a mission to Rabaul on April 12 and one to his D.F.C. for a hundred operational flight hours in the theater since February. He was even promoted to major. But movement was already afoot for something bigger—much bigger.
On July 17, the Fifth Air Force chief of staff, Colonel Merian C. Cooper—the same Merian Cooper who produced King Kong—recommended Zeamer for the Congressional Medal of Honor. “I have only twice before in my military career recommended anyone for the Medal of Honor . . . . I consider Captain Zeamer’s feat, above and beyond the call of duty comparable to that of Lt. Frank Luke who stands with Captain Rickenbacker as one of the leading flying officers of exceptional courage and daring during the last world war.”
The very next day the deputy commander of Fifth Air Force, Major General Ennis C. Whitehead, passed along his own recommendation. It was composed of a three-page summary of the mission and Zeamer’s actions, and he closed: “I have full knowledge of the heroism necessary to be displayed in order to be worthy of the highest of all American military honors, and, with this in mind, without reservation I recommend the Congressional Medal of Honor for this very gallant leader and soldier.”
Crew statements were gathered about the mission as support for the Medal, and were summed up nicely by S/Sgt. Able, normally their belly turret gunner but that day top turret, substituting for the sick Bud Thues. “In regard to the mapping run and our continuing on it after the enemy planes had left,” Able wrote, “it was taken for granted and understood among the crew – knowing Capt. Zeamer as we did and flying with him as we have flown – that we would continue our work until it was no longer possible. Only when it became absolutely impossible to go on would we stop anything like that. It has always, and so long as we fly with Capt. Zeamer, will always be like that. As Capt. Zeamer’s crew, we thought so much of him and had such absolute trust in him and his ability, that frankly we didn’t give a damn where we went, just so long as he wanted to go there. Anything okey [sic] by him was okey [sic] by us.” It was that dedication by his crew, and their own actions that day, that resulted in those on the Bougainville/Buka mission each being awarded that same month the Distinguished Service Cross. By that time Joe Sarnoski, who lost his life that day, had also already been recommended for the Medal of Honor. When his and Zeamer’s Medals of Honor were approved, it made the 16 June 1943 mission over Bougainville and Buka the most highly decorated mission, and Zeamer’s regular crew the most highly decorated air crew, in American history.
Meanwhile, Jay Zeamer was still in the hospital, and would be for months. He was re-operated on in Australia in August for osteomyelitis of his left femur. It must have gone well, for on August 11 he was approved for the first available water transport back to the States for further treatment. By the end of September he had arrived in San Francisco—met on the pier by Ken McCullar’s father Dalton—and was staying at Letterman General Hospital at the Presidio. He was then assigned to the Army Air Forces Replacement Pool at Lowry Field, Colorado, but was transferred as a patient to Winter General Hospital in Topeka on October 2. His leg was healing better, but his physical therapy at Winter was only partially successful. While his fractures had united, he had swelling around his left knee, a cavity on the top of his left tibia, and his leg motion was limited to about 30°. At the end of December he was transferred to Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C. for more intensive therapy.
In November, Douglas MacArthur himself had passed along his recommendation for Jay’s Medal of Honor to the War Department Chief of Staff, where it was accepted and ordered printed. All that was left was to present it to Zeamer himself. The adjutant general inquired as to Zeamer’s condition in hopes of determining where the medal could be presented to him, prompting a call to Zeamer himself. He recalled getting the phone call while in his bed at Walter Reed, asking whether he would like his medal presented there in Washington, D.C., or at home. Zeamer, genuinely confused, asked which medal the caller was referring to. When told it was the Medal of Honor, he dropped the phone.
On December 15, a letter was sent to President Roosevelt by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, asking for “a date and hour convenient to you” for the president to present now-Major Zeamer with his Medal of Honor at the White House, since Zeamer was capable of travel at that point. For whatever reason, Roosevelt opted to have “an appropriate officer in the field” present the medal. That date and hour finally arrived at 8:45 a.m. on January 6, 1944, when Zeamer, using a cane and flanked by both his mother and father, was presented his Medal of Honor in the Army Air Forces conference room at the Pentagon by General Henry “Hap” Arnold. As commanding general of the Army Air Forces, instructed in flight by the Wright brothers themselves, he was a most appropriate choice to do the honors.
Thus began Jay Zeamer’s life in the public eye and military public relations, and in his mind speaking for those who more truly deserved such an honor. The public recognition began that same month, with Liberty magazine running an article in its January edition about Zeamer and his Eager Beavers by famed sportswriter and press correspondent (and later screenwriter) Art Cohn. Titled “Z Is for Zeamer,” the article was the first long treatment of the crew, and with its mix of fact and fiction began many of the enduring myths and misconceptions about the crew and its experiences. This was followed in February with a gala in his honor in his home town of Orange, where the mayor gave him a medal in front of an audience of two hundred, and he received a portable record player from Orange retailers. It was the most activity he’d had since before leaving New Guinea.
Fortunately Walter Reed had been having much more success in treating his leg. By March 1944 he was fit for nonstrenuous duty, with the sinus in his knee healed and movement around the knee almost 90°. Surgery was still a possibility if he didn’t gain more flexibility, but wasn’t expected. Based on the diagnosis, he was released from Walter Reed, the end of nine months of continuous hospitalization, with a recommendation of limited temporary service that wouldn’t strain his leg.
Initially that came in the form of the Army Air Force Redistribution Station #1 in Atlantic City, but while he was en route he was reassigned to the Office of the Air Inspector, first at Army Air Forces headquarters in Washington, D.C., for temporary duty, with Mitchel Field on Long Island his permanent station.
That is where Zeamer reported for duty on March 20, 1944. At first he had been suspended from flying duties due to his knee, but the Air Surgeon’s Office cleared him for flight so long as it was in dual-controlled aircraft with a qualified pilot accompanying him. At the end of March, Zeamer was at the controls of an airplane again, albeit as a copilot, for the first time since the Bougainville mission. It was just a couple of local flights, the first in the workhorse B-18 Bolo, the second a sightseeing tour around Long Island in the five-seater C-78 Bobcat, but the pilot was back in the air.
He was also on the air, doing an interview in May with radio station WNEW for the Air Force newsreel, where he was introduced as Major Jay Zeamer. What they didn’t know was that he’d been promoted to lieutenant colonel in April. It reflected his continued popularity with his fellow officers. His superior officer at Mitchel Field would remark on his efficiency report in June that Zeamer was “greatly respected and liked by officers and men, very modest and unassuming, but not lacking in strength.”
Except in his injured knee. As much as Jay wanted in the left seat again, it would have to wait until after a stay in an AAF Convalescent Center in Pawling, N.Y., beginning May 7. His limp had worsened and his knee was hurting again enough to warrant further treatment. Beyond that, he was diagnosed with mononucleosis. At Pawling he was treated for the mono, and they found he’d lost almost thirty degrees of flex in the knee joint and his entire left leg had marked atrophy. He was put on an intensive rehab program including orthopedic swimming, heat and massage, and resistive exercises, as well as light sports like golf and badminton. They were able to get him back to 75-80 degrees of flexibility and strengthen his quadriceps to help hold the knee. It was enough to allow him to walk and even run with little pain in his knee joint—which was enough for Jay. He was ready to get back to work.
Back at Mitchel Field, Jay continued with restricted duties in the air inspector’s office, and on June 16—exactly a year since lifting ’666 off in the dark from Port Moresby toward Bougainville—he was in the pilot seat again. That day he checked out in a Lockheed Ventura, a twin-engine used for coastal patrols, and the day after that he was checked out in the larger Lockheed Lodestar transport. He capped the check flights off with two flights on the 18th, to Chicago and back, ferrying furloughed soldiers and reviewing his navigation skills.
They would be the final entries in his flight log. In August he was able to attend a Wings Club dinner in which he spoke to the gathering about his experiences in the Southwest Pacific, but already he was losing flexibility in his leg again. Once more, in September, he was admitted to Pawling. X-rays revealed damage to the tibia that couldn’t be undone, and small pieces of shrapnel still embedded deep in his leg. It was determined that little more could be done for him through hospitalization, and that he should appear before the Army retiring board.
He did on October 5, 1944, after taking a thirty-day sick leave. The conclusion was austere: Jay was incapacitated for active service, as a result of his service, with the incapacity being permanent. Zeamer was asked if he desired to be retired from service of the United States.
“That is hard for me to answer yes or no,” Zeamer replied, according to a transcript of the proceedings. “If it is a matter of choice, if I can’t have full duty, I would prefer retirement, rather than limited duty in the continental United States.” When asked if he desired limited duty, Jay said he did not.
Even in such a somber setting, however, the charm which had made Zeamer perpetually popular with his fellow soldiers and squadron mates came through. When he was asked the cause of his disability, he answered, “I stopped a twenty millimeter cannon shell.”
Ultimately it was the board’s recommendation that Zeamer be relieved from active duty. There was synchronicity in the event: The war had begun for him after leaving Mitchel Field on December 7, 1941, and it was ending for him at Mitchel as well. Jay officially retired with disability the following January.
The year 1945 marked the end of Zeamer’s active military career but began his career bringing his experience as pilot together with his keen engineering mind. He immediately re-enrolled at M.I.T., pursuing a Master’s in aeronautical engineering. As modest as ever, he lived in the M.I.T. dorms, but needless to say, he wasn’t just another student this time. In January, an article he wrote about his experiences in the war and his attitude toward life, “There’s Always a Way,” was published in American magazine. That March he gave a talk at the school about his experiences during the early war in the Pacific; in April graced “Pictures with Stories” in the Boston Herald alongside the likes of Jack Benny, Cary Grant, and Tyrone Power; and in September gave another speech at M.I.T. prior to a vote to create a veterans organization at M.I.T.
Jay completed his master's in June 1946, and immediately took a job in the Pratt & Whitney division of United Aircraft in East Hartford, Connecticut, working in its experimental flight test laboratory. He was profiled in an article of Pratt & Whitney’s magazine The Bee-Hive, which described him as “the promising young engineer with the prematurely gray hair, the pleasant grin, the [Medal of Honor] rosette in his lapel—and the quiet manner.”
“Quiet” largely describes Zeamer’s life for the next couple of years. He exchanged letters with his former crew members, did interviews, and was an active member in various organizations he’d joined: the Wings Club, the Adventurer’s Club of New York, the VFW, and the American Legion, for which he served as vice-commander of Air Service Post No. 501. A notable exception to this mild-mannered life was an Air Force Association reunion held in Madison Square Garden and televised on CBS in October 1948. It was a starry affair with the likes of Bob Hope, Joe E. Brown, and Margaret O’Brien appearing, and infamous: the renowned stripper Gypsy Rose Lee caused cameras to cut to the CBS logo during her performance. But the loudest applause was saved for Zeamer and the other seven Air Force Medal of Honor recipients recognized on stage, introduced by fellow Air Force pilot Jimmy Stewart. (Zeamer and Stewart would meet again many years later in an elevator in Las Vegas.)
Then in early 1949, he was on a flight to Chicago with Ed Granville, one of the famous brothers of air racing legend, that was rerouted to Minneapolis due to a snowstorm. Because there were no flights due to the weather, the two men had to take a train. While they waited in the club car for a berth, a young lady wearing a black suit and a little black hat entered with her parents. She caught Jay’s attention, and after watching her for a bit, he calmly told his traveling companion: “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”
Her name was Barbara Ferner, a student at the University of Southern California. When her father asked for a fourth at bridge, Jay offered, despite having never played the game before; he’d played whist with his mother and her club members and hoped they were similar enough. When he trumped her ace, she wasn’t sure she knew how to play. When he passed, she knew for sure. But he did know how to look at her, and that was enough for her.
While their train was stuck in a blizzard for twenty-seven hours, they continued playing and visiting. When they were stuck in Seattle over the weekend, they went on their first date. Back in California, Barbara already had two suitors pressing her, but then her father called to say some flowers had arrived for her from Jay. Soon he surprised her with a visit—all the way from New England. That would be date number two. The third would happen when Zeamer stopped in South Bend, Indiana, on a flight back to Hartford, and took a train to visit Barbara.
He came back in March to give her a wedding ring. Jay’s mother protested at the idea of his marrying a girl he met on a train, until he pointed out to her that that was precisely how she had met his father. Jay saw Barbara again in April for Easter—he talked someone flying to Virginia into flying him to Chicago first—and on June 4, 1949, they were married in Indiana. His father didn’t make it; he was in South America, but Jay's old automotive mechanics instructor Hugh Harper and his wife were there.
The first two years were a whirlwind for the newlyweds. In early 1950, an expectant Barbara found out through their neighbor that Jay had bought a little two-story house with an acre of land, out in the country twenty minutes from Hartford. Their first daughter, Marcia, was born in April. Less than a year later, Jay drove Barbara even farther out in the country to a huge empty house, a four-bed colonial sitting on a hundred acres. It had a five-room caretaker cottage behind it as well as tall chicken houses and a large barn. Jay had just bought it. With the Korean war starting, he wanted his family to be self-sufficient. They rented the caretaker house out, bought five hundred day-old chicks for the three-story chicken houses, and set to work fixing up the house.
Not long after, Pratt & Whitney informed Zeamer he was being transferred to Fort Worth, Texas. The Zeamers spent six months there. While they enjoyed riding the two palominos they bought during their stay—one for Barbara named Melinda, the other a four-year-old show horse named Lady Wanda—they weren’t fond of "Cowtown.” Barbara, expecting again, wished to have their child back home, so Jay took the family and horses back to Hartford and returned to Texas alone.
After their arrival back in Connecticut, Jay suffered a serious but ultimately serendipitous accident. Putting their new horses in the old barn, he fell through some rotting boards, badly re-injuring his left leg. After passing out from the pain, he crawled to the house. He was on crutches for months, but found when he got off them that his leg now had far more flexibility than before. The fall had broken up the fused cartilage and bones around his knee joint, giving him more movement than he’d had since the hospital treatments in 1944.
While waiting for Jay to return for good, Barbara sold the farm in Hartford. Shortly before moving their family to Manchester, she had Jacque, their second daughter. Jay rejoined them, and there they stayed for about a year, until Pratt & Whitney transferred him again, this time to California in 1952.
The family rented a house at first, with Jay’s office in Beverly Hills. Now working in the company’s Installation Engineering Department, Zeamer was tasked with designing the parts necessary for installing Pratt & Whitney engines in modern aircraft, as well as supervising their in-flight testing. He also began pursuing an MBA at UCLA, studying in the evenings till midnight. He still made sure he made time for his family, often roller skating with his daughters down the neighborhood streets, a host of their friends behind them, like a modern-day Pied Piper.
Zeamer’s work had him consulting with a number of aircraft companies, including Hughes Aircraft. Tired of being transferred, Zeamer moved to Hughes. His last job for Pratt & Whitney was likely the most bittersweet, for it involved piloting one of his beloved B-17s from Kingman, Arizona—where thousands of Fortresses and other WWII aircraft were sent to be scrapped—to the Boeing factory in Seattle. The purpose was to design and install a turboprop engine, a new technology at the time, in a B-17 as a testbed. Zeamer eagerly took the job, which consisted of moving the Fortress cockpit back four feet and then designing a ten-foot engine mount in the nose. The engine fit perfectly and the test was a complete success. It was the last time Zeamer would ever fly a B-17.
Jay began working at Hughes and the family moved to a large, lovely house in Santa Monica, where the last three of the Zeamer daughters were born. They were tumultuous years for Jay. They celebrated the birth of their third daughter, Jayne, in 1953, but the next year, his mother, who had raised him almost completely on her own and who he revered, was dying of cancer. Jay used his entire vacation time to visit her in the hospital, rarely leaving her side. She died that same year. The very next year he lost his father. Jay missed the initial service in New Jersey when the military flight he’d grabbed—Medal of Honor recipients were afforded complimentary flights on military aircraft—flew west across the country instead of south as he was told it would, but he did make the main funeral in Pennsylvania, where his father was best known.
Another daughter, Susan, was born in 1955, followed by Sandra in 1957. She would be their last, and Jay graduated from UCLA two days before she was born. Looking forward, Jay and Barbara had talked about returning to New England, to the point of Jay taking interviews with companies like General Electric based there. Ultimately, though, they decided to stay in California.
That is, until Zeamer received a phone call from a college friend. His classmate had told Percy Spencer, the renowned Raytheon scientist credited with inventing the microwave oven, about Jay, and he wanted a meeting. Zeamer took the meeting, and the job—he would be a marketing engineer, developing and designing new ideas for and then proposing them to commercial airlines—starting in January 1959, with Barbara again staying behind to sell their house. It was a complicated move, but by the following January, the Zeamer’s were settled in Groton, having moved into a house perfect for a large family—a fifteen-room former stagecoach stop with four fireplaces, a huge kitchen, and forty acres of land.
It would be their home, a true home, for the next eight years. Jay spent a whole winter putting three coats of paint on forty-four new windows that he installed himself. During the famous New England blackout of 1965, he built a riding ring for the girls by moonlight. He built beautiful stalls in the garage for their horses, which the girls showed themselves in competition. Jay also bought cows for two of the girls to raise and show. And with a suitcase full of two thousand seeds, the family even started a Christmas tree farm on their land. It was a bucolic setting, and a rich experience for their growing girls.
Those girls, however, knew nothing about their father’s heroic exploits in the war. To them he was simply their quiet, reserved, incredibly patient father, and that was how he wanted it. Zeamer had always felt that Sarnoski alone deserved the Medal of Honor; it still pained him enough that he’d failed to bring back his friend back alive that he didn’t like even to talk about Joe. So even though throughout their childhood Zeamer had been attending Air Force and Medal of Honor reunions, his children were none the wiser.
That changed in May 1963. A teacher at the older girls’ school expressed her surprise that their father was a Medal of Honor recipient. She’d seen the news on television about him being in Washington, D.C., with other Medal recipients for an annual military reception with President Kennedy. Marcia and Jacque, now in junior high, were equally surprised. All they knew was that their mother and father had gone out out of town again. When Jay and Barbara returned, his daughters asked their father about it. Thus confronted, Zeamer acknowledged it, showing them the Medal in his desk drawer.
In 1907, a shipbuilder built a white, three-story house on a rise overlooking his company’s docks on Boothbay Harbor in Maine. In 1968, Jay moved his family into the house, fulfilling his dream of one day living in the quaint town where he had spent so many wonderful childhood summers. Once again he was able to row the harbor of his youth.
Zeamer had always been in remarkably good shape, thanks to a lifelong healthy lifestyle. Likely spurred by his mother’s interest in healthy cooking, he made blended health drinks for himself. In addition to daily workouts with barbells, he loved playing tennis and was also an avid cyclist, building his own six-speed bicycle after they settled in Boothbay.
By the mid-‘70s, the five Zeamer daughters had either graduated from high school or were about to. Zeamer had been involved in their education from an early age, first reading Uncle Piggly books to them, later teaching them vocabulary words before dessert. As they got older his lessons became more about practical skills. In Groton they had learned the lessons of rural life. As they each reached driving age, he made them learn how to change their own tires and oil before he would let them drive. Jay Zeamer had always been self-sufficient and sure of whatever course he took, and made sure his daughters knew how to be as well.
In 1975, he quit Raytheon after fifteen years. In retirement he continued what he had always enjoyed doing—rowing, bicycling, attending functions as a Medal of Honor recipient. In the 1980s, he began attending annual reunions of the growing 43rd Bomb Group Association, sharing memories of long-past days in Australian prairies and New Guinea jungles with comrades from his days in the Southwest Pacific. He also visited the school where his military career had begun, Culver Military Academy. While there, he reunited with his elderly friend and motor teacher from Culver, Hugh Harper, who remembered Zeamer’s abysmal grades there. “The dumb kid,” Harper commented affectionately to the school newspaper. “I’m so proud of him.”
In the late ’80s the Zeamers traveled through Florida on vacation and took a fancy to the state. They would have winter residences there for the rest of Jay’s life, first in Pompano Beach and later in Bonita Springs. On another trip, this time to New Mexico with Jay’s sister and her husband, they fell in love with Albuquerque and bought a condo there as well.
Still they had their home of almost twenty-five years on Commercial Street in Boothbay. Unfortunately it was increasingly difficult for Jay, now in his seventies, to handle the steps and stairs there, so he began building a house adjacent to theirs with ramps indoors and out and put the original house on the market. They called the new house their “treehouse” for the large tree that Jay designed the house around, growing up through three levels of patio and decks.
On June 16, 1993, fifty years to the day after the Medal of Honor mission to Buka and Bougainville, Zeamer was honored by the state of Maine and Boothbay Harbor for his service and his historic mission. Proclaimed Jay Zeamer Day by the governor himself, Jay was feted by government officials, old friends—he was astonished to see his copilot from that fateful mission—and had letters of appreciation read from the likes of former President Bush. His own daughter Susan gave a dramatic retelling of the mission itself. He was even presented a flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol that Memorial Day. It was a thrilling if a little embarrassing day for the modest man who never believed he deserved the honor himself. “I represent all those who got no recognition . . . It’ll take me a long time to recover from this,” he told the Boothbay newspaper.
Two years later, Jay and Barbara went to Hawaii to attend the presidential ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the victory over Japan. It was a gala event in which they met and dined with President Clinton and the first lady and other luminaries over successive days. The most memorable, and certainly emotional, event for Zeamer himself, though, was the discovery of Joe Sarnoski’s grave in the national cemetery there. He hadn’t known that Joe’s remains had been moved there from Port Moresby where he was originally buried.
Not long after moving into their “treehouse,” disaster struck: The house caught fire, burning most of it. With the original house next door now sold, the Zeamers began dividing their time between their Florida and New Mexico homes. Before long, however, Jay’s declining health—he suffered a series of minor strokes throughout the Nineties—forced a move back north. This time they moved to Eliot, Maine, to be near their daughter Jacque. By 2005, Zeamer’s health had deteriorated enough to warrant a move to a retirement village in Boothbay.
It was there, on March 22, 2007, that he passed away. Zeamer was the last living Air Force Medal of Honor recipient from World War II. The American Legion Post #36 in Boothbay hosted a celebration of his life days later, attended by hundreds. The governor of Maine directed that flags be flown at half-mast on the day of his funeral. He was laid to rest with full military honors on March 26, 2007, at Arlington National Cemetery.
Jay Zeamer lived his life by the motto, “There’s always a way.” Always his own toughest critic and hardest coach, he repeatedly accepted challenges—or set them for himself—and conquered them. It was not for adulation, but because of an innate desire to excel. It was that standard of excellence that led him to go above and beyond, not just in the skies over Bougainville in June 1943, but in everything he did.