It is a story of the Eager Beavers—but it’s definitely not the real one
(For those interested in a short summary of some of the issues with Lucky 666, see my Amazon review here. If you find it helpful, I’d appreciate clicking the appropriate button at the end of the review.)
Lucky 666 raises an interesting question: However well written a nonfiction book might be—and Lucky 666 is a brisk, well-written book, if a little overearnest in parts—how many mistakes, large and small, and outright inventions, can it make before it loses its value as a work of nonfiction? How different can a biography of a subject be from the actual life story before it loses its value as a biography?
The book purports to tell the genuinely incredible true story of Jay Zeamer and his crew, the Eager Beavers. I happen to know something about this story. I’ve been researching and writing about the crew for over twenty years, first in a feature screenplay, later in a website dedicated to the crew, and now in an historical novel of my own to be published next year. I had the decided advantage, which Clavin and Drury did not have, of interviewing members of the Eager Beavers and their closest squadron mates before they passed away. Now obviously bad timing can’t be held against the authors, but a failure to make use of available research—or even all the research material you have—can, and that’s where ultimately the failures of Lucky 666 occur.
The book does do a nice job of giving a pre-war account of Zeamer and Joe Sarnoski, his bombardier. Having interviewed some of the same family members for both men, we share much of the same research on that score. It’s when their narrative shifts to the war that it ventures into alternative history.
Consider: The authors get the crew itself wrong, leaving an important regular crew member almost completely out of the book and adding a regular crew member who wasn’t one (among other mistakes). They badly mangle Zeamer’s and Sarnoski’s timelines and connections in the Southwest Pacific, in the process totally missing the defining event in their teaming up as well as other significant events in the story of the crew. They seem to invent a mission they claim marked a pivotal moment in the men’s combat history; confuse and exaggerate the story of the plane which gives the book its name; continue the false “screwups, misfits, and renegades” narrative about the crew despite evidence they present in the book itself; and finally—based on my own conversations with his crew members, squadron mates, and conversations with his wife spanning fifteen years—misunderstand the character of Jay Zeamer himself.
That’s the version for the “too long, didn’t read” folks. For those wanting a fuller explanation of the above and more, read on, but please don’t complain about the length. It’s not my fault there’s so much ground to cover.
Starting with the first, yes, the authors fundamentally misunderstand who comprised the regular Eager Beavers crew. Forrest Dillman, the 65th armaments chief (a fact the authors don’t indicate they’re aware of), is elevated to a full-fledged regular crew member, complete with a description of how and why he was brought onto the crew. Except he never was a regular crew member. He flew only once with the crew, on the historic 16 June 1943 mission, as a substitute for assistant flight engineer and belly turret gunner Johnnie Able, Jr. “Old 666 needed a belly turret gunner,” we’re told. No it didn’t. Johnnie Able, Jr., was the belly turret gunner.
Also note that “assistant” flight engineer. The far more egregious mistake where the crew is concerned is the promotion of Johnnie Able to flight engineer at the expense of the crew’s actual flight engineer, Emil F. “Bud” Thues, whose name is mentioned exactly once in the book (with his first name misspelled), and is described as the crew navigator. A good friend of Kendrick and Able, having been in the 8th Photo Recon Squadron with them since the States and transferring into Zeamer’s 403rd Bombardment Squadron together with them, it was Thues, not Able, whose engineering acumen went into swapping and souping up the engines on “Old 666” (a name the crew itself never used at the time; “Lucky 666” is the authors’ invention). Zeamer had a close relationship with Thues, who shared his reserved demeanor and thoughtful personality—Zeamer recommended him for officer training more than once—as well as, in fact, Zeamer’s flying experience: Thues was also, like Zeamer, a licensed pilot before the war. This not only increased their camaraderie, it made Thues, not Able, as the authors conclude, the most likely candidate for flying the plane when relief was needed.
Because of this confusion, Drury and Clavin mistakenly have Ruby Johnston acting as merely a substitute for “navigator” Thues on the Medal of Honor mission after Thues contracts malaria. In fact Johnston was the crew’s second (and last) regular navigator, having joined the crew almost two months before that mission. The crew’s actual original navigator was Charles “Rocky” Stone, also rendered a virtual asterisk in Lucky 666. This is surprising considering Stone was a legend in his own right in the 403rd Bomb Squadron, and a good friend of Sarnoski’s, both having been with the squadron since its inception as the 13th Reconnaissance Squadron. Stone came onto Zeamer’s crew with Sarnoski when their pilot, squadron commander Major Thomas “Nick” Charles, went MIA on November 29, 1942, as an observer on a mission with another crew.
Such important and basic oversights are dismaying in a book about a specific aircrew, but curiously and incredibly, the authors not only place Charles’ disappearance two months later in late January 1943, but write that he was lost “with his entire B-17 crew”—clearly not realizing that would have included Sarnoski and Stone. As best as I can tell, the authors are unaware that Sarnoski was a member of Charles’ crew.
This compounded mistake explains why Drury and Clavin completely miss the defining event—Charles’ crew being orphaned—in the origin of the Eager Beavers. But for the loss of Major Charles, Jay Zeamer likely never would have flown with Joe Sarnoski and we may or may not have been telling the story of Zeamer’s Eager Beavers seventy years on. What makes this mistake so surprising to me is that Zeamer himself mentions this necessary event in numerous versions of his story over the years, in documents the authors list in their source materials.
But that’s just the beginning of the unraveling of the narrative Drury and Clavin present in their book. Actually, not quite. Thanks to the 403rd Bomb Squadron’s official history/diary, a surprising omission in the authors’ list of sources, we know that the beginning takes place a couple of months before that, in September 1943—10:30 a.m., September 22, according to the invaluable squadron morning reports, which the authors also don’t appear to have consulted. That’s when Zeamer actually joined the 403rd, and thus would have had his fateful reunion with Joe Sarnoski.
In the Lucky 666 telling, that reunion doesn’t happen for another four months, in late January 1943, despite the fact that Sarnoski had already flown with Zeamer by then and in fact sunk his first ship as Zeamer’s bombardier. (It was also the first combat mission for co-pilot Hank Dyminski, fresh from the States, even though the authors imply that Dyminski had been flying combat for some time.)
This highlights another defining flaw in the Lucky 666 narrative, this time on Sarnoski’s side. Drury and Clavin weave a compelling tale of Sarnoski’s impatient waiting to get into combat, which he is finally able to do after joining Zeamer’s crew, during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in early March 1943. Nice story, but it would be hard to be more incorrect. Sarnoski was certainly impatient to get into combat, as the authors point out, but as the 403rd diary and morning reports show, his wait ended in October 1942, three months before his first flight with Zeamer, five months prior to the Bismarck Sea. (More on that Bismarck Sea “mission” later.)
Indeed, the timeline is all over the place, with events moved forward in time, backward, or not really placed at all, seemingly in an attempt to weave a narrative either of their own making or simply out of a misunderstanding of the real chain of events. That’s fine to a degree for a novel or screenplay, but in an ostensibly nonfiction book?
Again, in doing so, the authors miss significant parts of the story that acted as major motivating factors for both Zeamer and Sarnoski. They have Zeamer transfer straight from the 22nd Bomb Group in Australia to the 43rd Bomb Group at Port Moresby, New Guinea. He didn’t, because he couldn’t. As already shown, the official records reveal he went almost directly into the 403rd BS, but even if he hadn’t, no squadron of the 43rd was at Port Moresby yet; they wouldn’t be for another four months. First the 403rd had to move to Iron Range, in the far north of Queensland, and then to Milne Bay, New Guinea, where rampant disease prompted a return later to Mareeba, Australia.
Some may wonder why this matters, that it’s all so much inside baseball, but in missing this train of events, the authors miss two more significant events in Zeamer’s wartime history. First there was the month-long flying sabbatical Zeamer endured fresh off the excitement of his first combat mission in the B-17 as command pilot (for which he received his first Silver Star). While the rest of the 403rd moved up to New Guinea, the only 43rd squadron that close to the combat zone at that time, Zeamer was ordered to stay in Iron Range leading what Zeamer’s friend Walt Krell describes as a service detail, likely a victim of his own success and his engineering background.
So instead of finally being able to put a crew together and get busy, Zeamer had to deal with the immediate suspension of his goal yet again, as well as wondering what was happening with Charles’ crew—including his friend Sarnoski—up in Milne Bay. Sarnoski, on the other hand, having been marooned after flying with the squadron commander, would have been desperate to get with an experienced pilot he trusted in a squadron where all such pilots by then would have been taken—except, at least, for Zeamer, who was stuck at Iron Range.
None of these facts or their consequent significance to their subjects is mentioned in Lucky 666 even as an aside. Second, Drury and Clavin omit entirely—it’s in Zeamer’s flight log (and Dyminski’s) and described in the squadron diary—the month and a half of inactivity following the return to Australia at the end of January ’43. Again, this happens right after a success, in this case most of the original crew’s first missions together, including the sinking of that first ship as a crew.
The omission leads to one of the stranger episodes in the book. Because they miss that mission as Sarnoski’s actual first bombing mission with Zeamer—indeed, aren’t aware of his combat missions the previous fall—the authors have to find another mission to be his first with Zeamer and his “trial by fire.” Yet instead of using the actual next missions, memorable ones that the authors do portray, they opt to move those a few weeks later, from Valentine’s Day till March, after a mission they say Zeamer and Sarnoski grabbed with the 65th BS during the momentous Battle of the Bismarck Sea. That’s strange enough, but even stranger is that there’s no record of such a mission either in Zeamer’s own meticulous flight log, which even includes trivial test hops and transport flights, or the 403rd morning reports, which show the two men never leaving Australia during that time.
The more important hit, though, is to the overall narrative, with once again the authors missing a major motivating event in Zeamer’s combat history. That lengthy inactivity is very likely what prompted Zeamer’s attachment to his good friend Ken McCullar’s 64th Squadron based in Port Moresby, New Guinea, at the end of March, making his transfer to the 65th Squadron soon after—also in Port Moresby—rather too coincidental to be chance. Especially knowing Zeamer’s history and personality.
Which raises the question, how well do we get to know Zeamer himself? Can it at least be said we get an accurate portrait of the principals themselves? I would argue only superficially, though better in Sarnoski’s case. The man we meet in Lucky 666 (and especially in the interviews Drury and Clavin have been giving) is an exaggerated aspect of the man I’ve come to know over my decades-long research.
“Jay Zeamer Jr.’s parents suspected early on that their oldest child was a born renegade,” the first chapter begins, the first of numerous times the authors use the word to describe Zeamer. Only if the definition of the word has changed: “a deserter from one faith, cause, or allegiance to another; an individual who rejects lawful or conventional behavior.”
Jay Zeamer was neither. I certainly doubt he considered himself one. Zeamer was always very loyal to the institutions he served, whether school or military, and while he certainly had a maverick streak—that part of him Drury and Clavin play up—he didn’t as a rule reject lawful or conventional behavior. He could never have served long in the military had he done so. His own brother says that Jay took easily to military life and that it suited him. Some renegade. Going your own way sometimes in spite of the rules does not a renegade make. A bit of a maverick, yes. Renegade, no. Words have meaning.
Nor was Zeamer “cavalier,” which the authors use in reference to Zeamer’s attitude when they claim, again erroneously, that he was “dismissed” from the 22nd Bomb Group. First, addressing the supposed dismissal, Zeamer said repeatedly that he sought the transfer to the 43rd himself, as Drury’s and Clavin’s own sources show, and Zeamer’s close friend in the 22nd, Walt Krell, confirmed to me. As for the description, no one I have ever spoken to about Jay Zeamer, even those who weren’t fans of his aggressive flying, ever described him in any terms resembling “cavalier.” It was always the opposite: cool, thoughtful, pensive, methodical. He was, as the authors well know, an engineer and a Boy Scout, neither of which are particularly known for their cavalier temperaments, and Zeamer represented the traditional qualities of both even more exceptionally than most.
Unlike in the interviews they’ve been giving, the authors fortunately don’t indulge the “daredevil” trope with regard to Zeamer in the book, though I find the disconnect awfully curious. Why there but not in the book? Even ignoring the real-world “daredevil” claims and sticking to the descriptions in the book, if the authors really think of Zeamer in such terms, it’s hard to believe they dug very deeply into the man.
But while we’re on it, let’s look at the “daredevil” claim. A daredevil is one who takes unnecessary risks, is careless. That could fairly be said of Sarnoski at times, who liked to race and even stand up on his Indian motorcycle, but that was the antithesis of Jay Zeamer. While it’s true I have the advantage of his own crew’s and squadron mates’ rejection of the notion, the authors should know it from their own biography of Zeamer. Zeamer was an engineer and a Boy Scout. He wanted to understand machines and to be prepared. It was his nature to test and understand, in his methodical and unruffled way, then use that knowledge to his advantage. He was comfortable flying the B-17 to its limits because he understood better than most what those limits were. He was well used to overcoming challenges at that point in his life, and already a tested combat veteran by the time he finally was flying left seat in the B-17. All of this combined into a comfort in combat and in the aircraft beyond most of his peers in the war. It’s no surprise, then, that some who flew with him, like William Eaton, the belly turret gunner who told Zeamer he would never fly with him again after having the hatch sucked off his belly turret on a mission with Jay, felt he took unnecessary risks. But it wasn’t their opinions that mattered. It was Zeamer’s, who was quite sure of what he was doing. That was also the opinion of his own crew, and those pilots who knew and flew with him. To a person they all rejected the daredevil and “hot” pilot descriptions, and more than one described Zeamer as one of the best pilots they ever knew.
Perhaps the greatest indication that the authors never really got their principal subject, however, is the claim in a longer interview that Zeamer’s motivation for the “impossible” mission (which none of them considered “impossible”) as needing to prove something to the brass and other pilots. Ignoring the fact that he’d already proved his bravery and exceptional piloting skills to anyone who cared long before that, proving himself to others was never a concern to Jay Zeamer, Jr. That would require an insecurity that anyone with even a casual understanding of Jay Zeamer would know he never had. If he felt the need to prove himself to anyone, it was himself, and even then, it was less about proving he could do it than simply the satisfaction of the achievement itself. Drury and Clavin should know this. Zeamer was overcoming personal and external challenges from childhood, and the authors document them (mostly) but don’t seem to understand the meaning behind them. As imperturbable as he was on the outside, Zeamer was driven by a fierce need to excel, to be the best he could be at whatever he chose to do. His motto “there’s always a way,” the title of his article for American magazine in January 1945, isn’t an end itself; it’s an approach for overcoming challenges. Jay Zeamer’s motivation came squarely from within, from his own innate need for excellence; the high standards he set for his crew he set for himself first. Some may say this is all speculation at this point; unlike the factual record above, it’s merely a competing impression of the man based on the same evidence. To some degree that’s true, but I at least know that my understanding better matches what I was told by his crew and the squadron mates who knew him best, and received an unequivocal confirmation from Zeamer’s wife.
The same criticism of misunderstanding their subjects applies in an odd way to the authors’ repetition of easily debunked claims of Zeamer’s crew being “screw-offs,” “renegades,” and “misfits.” First off, they were unequivocally no such thing. The description comes originally from author Martin Caidin in his book Flying Forts, quoting Zeamer’s friend Walt Krell about the crew in 1963, twenty years after the fact. It’s tough to know whether the authors actually know who Krell actually was, or if he was just useful, as his quotes from Caidin’s book appear in various places throughout the book like a stock player playing multiple parts in a school play. First he’s a fellow pilot in Zeamer’s B-26 squadron in the 22nd, then an unnamed flight commander in an unidentified bomb group, a squadron commander in the 43rd BG, and finally, unless I missed one, a “fellow bomber pilot,” presumably in the 65th considering the context. So it’s possible that they’re simply unaware that Krell never served with Zeamer’s crew, much less knew them personally, and in some cases was relating events which had happened months before even at the time he first heard about them. I spoke to Krell in 1994 and he regretted his off-the-cuff remarks—he was unaware he was being recorded by Caidin—and walked back his embellished description of the crew. “I wouldn’t say ‘renegades’,” he told me. “I never even met his crew.”
The authors didn’t need Walt Krell to tell them, though. Common sense alone should suffice. It defies logic that men with such high standards as Zeamer and Sarnoski, who would need a crew that would follow their orders, would handpick a bunch of screw-offs and renegades to crew their aircraft. And if that’s not enough, there are the crew’s families, not to mention the official record, both of which quickly reveal how much Krell’s understanding of the crew and events as portrayed in Caidin’s book was off, through no fault of his own. This might explain why Drury and Clavin themselves don’t actually portray the men in such terms in Lucky 666. Indeed, to the authors’ credit in this case, the rest of the crew—save the unjustly forgotten Bud Thues and diminished Rocky Stone—are described when we meet them largely as I’ve come to know them myself from their crew mates and family members: level-headed professionals at their jobs who weren’t afraid to fly with Zeamer because they trusted his approach and ability. No evidence is given that they didn’t fit in with their respective squadrons, or were rebels or troublemakers, before, during, or after their service with Zeamer. Several of the crew were promoted and decorated repeatedly during their service with him, and served in more important capacities after their service with Zeamer.
These clearly aren’t the histories of “screw-offs,” “renegades,” and “misfits.” And yet even as Drury and Clavin describe the men individually relatively accurately, they still rely on quotes to that effect for color in the book. They quote Krell from Caidin at the end of Chapter 19: “[Zeamer] recruited a crew of renegades and screwoffs . . .” Their chapter about the formation of the crew is titled “‘A Motley Collection of Outcasts’,” from another quote. And then they themselves repeat the assertion, ending their chapter about the “impossible” mission with “Not bad for a bunch of screwups and misfits.” Despite never giving any evidence for such claims in the book. The effect is jarring. Again, why the disconnect? Is it simply a marketing ploy?
Amazingly, there is more, significant and not, too much to catalog. The “impossible” mission warrants special attention, but I’ll leave it to those who are interested to read the version available on my website if they want to see a more definitive account that doesn’t get the sequence of events wrong, put one crewman’s words in another’s mouth, or give the copilot an injury he never received or an exaggerated landing he didn’t make. The effect, for someone not familiar with the details, is simply not knowing whether what one is reading is the real story or not.
Because of its centrality to the lore concerning this crew, I’ll conclude with the treatment of the plane of the book’s title, ‘666, since it sums up so many of the issues of the book as a whole. We’re told that while in the 65th BS in March 1942, Zeamer’s photographer George Kendrick found “the hulk of a spavined Flying Fortress”—which “may have resembled nothing so much as the rotting carcass of an immense raptor”—with its cameras intact, at the end of the runway at 7-Mile Strip; that Zeamer then asked the 43rd group commander for permission to fix it up; upon receiving it had his crew “restore” the plane from its derelict status before then stripping it of unnecessary weight, replacing and souping up the engines, and arming it with, by the count described in the book, nineteen mounted .50 cal machine guns. Finally, the authors describe how the crew removes the name “Lucy” from the nose, painted on there for a previous crew, its origins “lost to the mists of time.”
Well—barely. The crew couldn’t have fixed up ‘666 in March 1943 in Port Moresby as part of the 65th because they weren’t there. They were still in the 403rd Bomb Squadron in Mareeba, Australia. Nor could they have restored the plane to flight status, since by the time Zeamer and the crew worked on it in late May, it had already been flying for a month with the 8th Photo Recon Squadron. Someone else had done that work. What really happened, according to the same sources the authors have as well as those that they didn’t obtain, Zeamer and then the crew—likely once again by Zeamer’s own finagling—transferred to the 65th in late March/early April (not January ’43 as Zeamer sometimes misremembered and the authors write), and in mid-May 1943, the 8th Photo Recon happily pawned off ‘666 to the 65th. Zeamer, by then squadron operations officer for the 65th, requisitioned the aircraft himself, at which point the crew did “soup up,” in Zeamer’s words, #41-2666 with new engines and stripped it of around 2000 pounds of weight. They did increase the armament, but to 16 .50s, according to Zeamer’s own flight log and the squadron morning reports, with probably three spares on board. They flew the aircraft on only two combat missions before the 16 June 1943 Medal of Honor action, and then two days before that, Zeamer himself had the name “Lucy” painted underneath the enlarged port nose window, after a young lady, Lucile Christmas, who he had dated at Langley.
So once again we get some essential truth, but not all of it, and in a narrative of almost pure invention—which is the overall criticism of Lucky 666 in a nutshell. There are elements of truth. Drury and Clavin do capture the general spirit of the relationship between the crew and Zeamer. They do a good job of describing the nature of life in the theater for the bomb groups stationed there. They give a rough idea of Zeamer’s personality and motivations. For those new to the subject, they do an admirable job of describing the challenges in the command structure, as well as the strategy leading up to the 16 June 1943 mission, though experts in the latter area would strongly challenge some of their assertions about the specific plans concerning Bougainville and the Solomon Islands in general. The overall effect is of a rush job, with the well-established macro-level history fairly solid, but the crew-level narrative full of mistakes borne perhaps of time constraints and strongly suggesting a preconceived notion of the story.
If that’s all a reader is looking for—the authors’ preferred version of the story shaped, by mistake or by design, to a “Dirty Dozen” narrative that doesn’t actually apply—then Lucky 666 will serve that need. But if the reader is expecting the real story of how Jay Zeamer, as he really was, went from an undistinguished bomber copilot, unable to check out as command pilot in his assigned bomber, to the leader of the most highly decorated air crew in U.S. history, he won’t find it here. By relying too much on Zeamer’s unfortunately inconsistent memory and reticence about certain episodes in his time in theater, without consulting the most pertinent official records, the authors miss what I have long found to be the more compelling true story of this fascinating crew.
Some may say I have a vested interest in running down Drury and Clavin’s book since I have my own novel coming out next year, that this is simply sour grapes that they got to the story first. To that I can only recommend they search for this story online and see how long it takes for my name to come up. I’ve been correcting the record on this crew for fifteen years. I would be writing this review whether I had my own book coming out or not. Besides that, the presence of their book and its exposure should only help mine, which is why I’ve looked at theirs as an opportunity, not a threat. As Tom Clavin himself said when he contacted me about their project last year, a rising tide lifts all boats. My only concern has ever been that the real story get told, not the myths and misconceptions that have been hanging like an anchor on this crew for decades. I have no control over what others write about them, but I will correct them if they get it wrong.
Except that’s not entirely the true in this case, considering I did send Mr. Clavin the crew statements that provide many of the “you are there” mission details they include in their account of the Medal of Honor “impossible mission” when I was told they didn’t have them. This is why you’ll find my name in their acknowledgements.