Q & A
There have been many misconceptions and mistakes that have been a part of the Eager Beavers legend almost from the start, and persist even now in the most recent accounts. Here I address the most common mistakes, based on the best evidence we have at present.
The publication of Bob Drury and Tom Clavin's Lucky 666, their nonfiction account of the crew, renews a number of these enduring mistakes while introducing a raft of others in terms of its presentation of the history of the crew and in particular the characterization of Jay Zeamer. It warranted its own critique, which I've done as a blog post which you can find here. A summary of the issues can be found in my Amazon review; the full analysis of that summary can be found in the comments to the review.
Unequivocally no. This is the most enduring and pernicious myth of the entire story. If anything, Jay’s crew members were quite the opposite.
Finding its most recent manifestation in Bob Drury and Tom Clavin's Lucky 666, the characterization originally comes from “Mission Over Buka,” the first chapter of Martin Caidin’s Flying Forts: The B-17 in World War II. Caidin quotes extensively from Walter Krell, a good friend of Zeamer’s dating back to their flight school days in Glenview, IL.
I interviewed Walt Krell myself in 1994. He had been concerned for years about how his casual portrayal of Zeamer and the crew had come across—Krell was never told that he was being recorded—and was relieved at the chance to correct the record on that score. Krell made clear that he didn’t know the crew personally and had only pieced together the story from conversations he had with Zeamer months after the events in question. It's important to note that Martin Caidin never spoke with Jay Zeamer, his crew members, or anyone from Zeamer’s 43rd BG squadrons himself.
Krell stressed that Zeamer himself was certainly no screw-off, and that he was a “misfit” only in the sense that his personality and flying style was a mismatch for the B-26. He was quite well-liked by his cohorts in the 19th Bomb Squadron. “You couldn’t not like Jay,” he said. Krell stressed that numerous pilots never checked out as first pilot in the B-26, including the squadron commander. He went on to describe Zeamer in a letter as “pensive, calm and collected, imperturbable, unexcitable. He never raised his voice, lost his temper, swore, criticized, or found fault with the situation. In his easy-going way he simply accepted circumstances as they arose and met the conditions in his unhurried, deliberate manner. No one ever regarded Jay as not being up to anything but rather above and beyond it. Some kind of a misplaced saint.”
As for the rest of the crew, Krell in our interview said, “I don’t want to use the word ‘renegades.’ I never met his crew.” And indeed they weren’t. Joe Sarnoski and Charles “Rocky” Stone, the core of Zeamer’s initial crew, were the squadron bombardier and squadron navigator, respectively, of the 403rd, flying with the squadron commander until he was lost on a mission. Hank Dyminski was fresh from the States when Zeamer tapped him for his copilot; his first combat mission was with Zeamer. The rest of the crew transferred in from one of two places. Some came from the 8th Photo Recon Squadron as crews with B-17s that were transferred to Zeamer's 403rd Bomb Squadron, while the rest came from the 19th Bomb Group when it ceased operations. When that happened, its newer personnel were sent to other bomb groups where they were unattached to a particular crew until being assigned or selected for one. If that qualifies as “cast-offs” and “misfits,” then there were scores of them in the 43rd Bomb Group in late ’42.
Finally, according not only to their own squadron mates but each other, the men of the Eager Beavers were, by design, much like their pilot: quiet and reserved, good-natured, slow to anger, and tended to get visibly upset only at irresponsible mistakes. Few of them drank, none to excess, and none were carousers. They had their fun—Sarnoski was a bit of a prankster, and Zeamer described George Kendrick as the “spark plug” of the crew who “came up with all the crazy ideas”—but no more than any other servicemen. Certainly nothing to warrant the “screw-offs” characterization.
On the contrary, when Zeamer and Sarnoski were looking for potential crew members, it was the misfits and screw-offs they weeded out. Zeamer himself indicates this in a letter to Agnes Sarnoski in 1943, telling her they ignored those who were inexperienced or hadn't been through gunnery school. Ultimately, though, it's a matter of common sense. It would be the height of illogic that two men with such obvious high standards for themselves would allow "misfits," "screw-offs," and "renegades" on their crew. They were looking for trustworthy men with cool temperaments and a lean-forward attitude to match their own, and that's who they picked.
No and yes. The primary mission, which even General Kenney remembers incorrectly in his memoirs, was the mosaic photographing of the west coast of Bougainville Island, specifically Empress Augusta Bay, to generate the necessary topographical maps for a naval invasion later that year.
The reconnaissance of the airstrip on Buka Island—located just off the northern tip of Bougainville—was a separate mission that was added to Zeamer’s mapping mission at the last minute, first in a phone call Zeamer received the night before the mission, and then quite literally as the plane was taxiing to take off, when a jeep blocked its way to hand off written orders to the pilots. Zeamer ignored both, and only reconsidered the Buka recon when they arrived at the starting point of their mapping run half an hour early. Even then he only decided to do it after the crew assented to it.
It should be noted that Zeamer always considered this a failure of leadership on his part, since it was agreeing to the Buka recon that caused them to be spotted earlier, resulting both in the heavier fighter resistance they encountered and their being caught while still on the mapping run.
No, with an important caveat.
B-17E #41-2666 was not assigned to any particular crew. It was a camera plane and was used as necessary by whatever crew was assigned to use it. Usually this was by the 8th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, and often by the same crews who were experienced at such work. Zeamer only piloted 41-2666 five times, two of which were test hops. There are conflicting reports—Jim McEwan of the 8th Photo said that 666 came to the South Pacific with the 8th’s “A” flight—but official indications are that it originally came over with the 19th Bomb Group and was soon after transferred to the 8th PRS. Either way, it was with the 8th that it was flown by different crews before and after Zeamer came across it sometime in the spring of 1943. The plane had indeed been badly shot up in December 1942 on a mission to Kavieng, after which it sat for some time being used for spare parts. When Zeamer flew it for the first time, though, 666 had already been brought back to flight status and was being flown by the 8th PRS for mapping and recon missions
Now the crew did feel some ownership of 666 considering the work they personally did on it in May and June of ’43 to upgrade it for their needs and for the special hazards of mapping work. But they didn't "rebuild" the aircraft, much less from the ground up. According to Zeamer, the only major maintenance work they did on the aircraft was to replace the engines. The rest of their work consisted of stripping it of unnecessary equipment and installing the additional guns. That didn’t grant them sole use of the aircraft, though, and in any case they were busy with combat missions in other planes they used much more frequently than 666, which again was not a combat aircraft.
It has to be understood that especially in the early going of the bomber war in the Southwest Pacific, there were few enough aircraft that it was not uncommon for crews to share whatever planes were available for duty. As the war progressed and more aircraft were in stock, more consistency was possible, but early on, few crews had a plane they could consider solely their own.
Zeamer’s logbook illustrates the point: He flew or copiloted more than half a dozen different planes while in the 403rd Bomb Squadron. His most common ride was 41-24518,“The Reckless Mountain Boys.” As copilot or pilot, he flew it a total of ten times between October 1942 and January 1943—but only once on a mission. All the rest were errands, local flights, personnel flights, or scrubbed missions.
It was only after the crew got into the 65th Bomb Squadron in April 1943 that they got into a truly routine combat plane, 41-24403, known first as “Blitz Buggy” but in the 65th as “The Old Man.” The Eager Beavers flew it a dozen times starting in mid-April 1943, eight of which were combat missions.
So while the crew did have an affinity and felt some ownership of 41-2666, it was not "their" plane that they used on all of their missions, and rebuilt from the bolts up. It was a specialized plane for a specialized purpose that the Eager Beavers made even more special for that purpose.
Until a photo can be found of 41-2666 immediately before or after the mission, it can never be said with certainty how many there were. That said, according to four different members of Zeamer’s crew as well as the 65th Bomb Squadron morning reports, 666 had at least sixteen mounted .50s for the 16 June 43 mission.
Zeamer himself is most consistent on sixteen. Here is how he described it in 1994 to author and military historian Joe Bowman:
Both waist guns we replaced with twins. We put twins on each side, and the radio gun which is a single we replaced with twin guns firing up backwards. . . . And then in the nose, we put the fixed gun in for me to fire, firing straight forward, and on each side of the nose where there was a flexible .30, we took those out and put a window on each side with a .50 calibre mounted in a swivel on each side of the nose. So we had .50s firing forward left and forward right. And then we had another .50 mounted down back of the ball turret shooting down. I don't know who would have handled that except the side gunner. He wanted all the guns he could get. He wouldn't let another gunner back there with him. He said, “These are my guns. I’m going to shoot them all. I don’t want to be bumpin’ asses with another guy back here.”
In 1970, to a T/Sgt William Bennett who inquired about ‘666, Zeamer added this detail:
Cartridge belts and the normal ammunition feed equipment was removed. Instead we set boxes of 250 50-caliber rounds under each gun and fed in direct. Extra guns were carried on the cat-walk. If a gun jammed and couldn’t be cleared, or a ruptured cartridge case removed, the gun was dumped overboard and a new one mounted in its place in a matter of seconds.
Some respected historians have expressed serious and educated reservations that the aircraft had as many guns as Zeamer has claimed, based on the real difficulties, for instance, in mounting twin .50s in the waist of the B-17. The troubled YB-40 program is pointed to as evidence, as well as the all-too-real phenomenon of air crewmen combining multiple planes in their memories, thanks to the multitude of planes they flew in theater and the vagaries of memory. They also raise the issue of timing; when would the crew have had time to make such modifications with their busy combat schedule? Finally there is the fact that Zeamer himself confuses the issue, having referred on some occasions to nineteen guns on the plane rather than the sixteen he describes in other places.
My policy has been, when there’s a question, to go with those accounts most contemporary to the events. In this case, that would be the squadron morning report for the day of the 16 June 1943 mission, as well as Zeamer’s own flight log, probably updated a few months after the mission. Both list sixteen guns.
In 1970, in response to Bennett’s written request, Zeamer produced both a written description and a detailed diagram using both overhead and side views of a B-17 to illustrate the color scheme and gun complement of 41-2666. This description shows the same sixteen-gun configuration he outlines yet again in 1994 to Bowman.
But it’s not just Zeamer’s word we have to go on. His radio operator Bill Vaughan confirmed to me that he had twin .50s in the radio room, and the son of flight engineer Bud Thues informed me that his father referred to twin fifties on both sides of the waist. Taken on their own, it’s possible each could be misremembering, but they’re substantiated by tailgunner Herb Pugh in his own, unprompted accounting of the mounted guns.
That being the case, even granting the vagaries of memory in combat, it seems unlikely to me that four members of the same crew would misremember the radio and waist gun configuration all in the same highly unusual same way. After all, it’s the normal that usually blurs together with other memories, not the abnormal. Important to note is that even where there was uncertainty—the men in back were foggy about the nose configuration except for Zeamer’s fixed .50—in no physical count did any of theirs come up with fewer than sixteen.
So why did Zeamer sometimes say there were nineteen? It’s well known that the crew carried spare .50s on the catwalk to quickly replace jammed guns. The nineteen number almost certainly includes those; there’s no arrangement that gets the plane to nineteen mounted guns. Where Zeamer says there were, I believe he’s simply misspeaking or misremembering. I believe the consistent record over time on sixteen, starting with the squadron morning report and Zeamer's log book, makes it the more trustworthy.
So where were they located on the plane? There are two ways to get to sixteen, one more plausible than the other but less consistent with the record. First, though, an accounting of the fifteen we know were there, if we trust the four crew members’ memories:
• Zeamer’s forward single .50 in the nose compartment mounted to the deck through the Plexiglass. That’s one. (Besides Zeamer,Vaughan, Pugh, and Johnston—who as navigator would certainly know—all confirmed the existence of this gun. There are other examples of such a modification just in the 43rd, namely Ken McCullar’s Black Jack.)
• A single .50 on each side of the nose is two more, making three total.
• The twin .50s in the top turret make five.
• The twin .50s in the radio room make seven.
• The twin .50s in the belly turret make nine.
• The twin .50s on each side of the waist make four more, for a total of thirteen.
• The twin .50s in the tail, then, brings us to 15.
As for the sixteenth, there are two possibilities—an unusual single .50 mounted through the bottom deck aft of the belly turret, or a second single, flexible .50 through the Plexiglass in the nose.
Strange as it is, Zeamer has listed the flex .50 aft of the ball turret since at least 1970. He shows it in his diagram to the Air Force historian. He clearly lists it in his description of the gun complement in the Bowman interview. Some historians have rightly asked what it would be for, especially with the presence of the belly turret. Steve Birdsall points out that early B-26s had a “tunnel” gun that was fired through the entry hatch, so it’s not unreasonable that Zeamer might have been recalling that.
In terms of the nose compartment, Zeamer’s accounting could conflict a little with Ruby Johnston’s memory, and possibly Vaughan’s. Johnston recalled that at one point in the initial attack on the 16 June 1943 mission, Sarnoski drove off a Zero in the center, implying a second .50 through the Plexiglass. Vaughan did also recall a .50 besides Zeamer’s in the nose that either Sarnoski or Johnston could fire. Such an arrangement was common in B-17Es in the theater at the time, so it’s reasonable to believe 666 had one as well. But it also makes it more likely that they could be confusing different planes with similar configurations. There’s simply no way to know that they were remembering that particular mission and that particular plane. That’s what makes Zeamer’s flexible .50 aft of the ball more likely to my mind—it would be unusual to misremember such a nonstandard gun.
In other words, there are good arguments for and against both versions of sixteen. We will likely never know for sure. Either way, based on contemporary records, Zeamer’s consistency from shortly after the mission to the end of his life, and the crew members’ corroboration of each other, I believe it’s reasonable to conclude that Old 666 sported sixteen .50s when it took off on 16 June 1943. It might not be enough for others, and I respect their opinions; some of them have been researching B-17s in the Southwest Pacific since before I was born. But until better evidence otherwise comes to light, it’s enough for me.
In the final analysis, the takeaway is the same: The plane had “guns all over the place,” as Johnston put it—65th pilot Dick Bennett said it “looked like a porcupine”—and gave new meaning to the name “Flying Fortress.”
The confusion over the name stems from timing. Under Zeamer’s command, 41-2666 was only named "Lucy" for the 16 June 1943 mission. The crew only ever referred to it as either “666” or, more often, simply “the plane.”
After the Medal of Honor mission, Zeamer only referred to the aircraft as “Old 666” or “666,” and said outright that the plane had no name besides that. During the time the Eager Beavers were working on and flying ’666, this was certainly true.
But while Art Cohn’s January 1944 article “Z Is for Zeamer” in Liberty magazine suffers from a number of mistakes, he appears to have been correct about Zeamer naming the plane “Lucy” two days before the 16 June 43 mission. In an August 1943 letter to Cohn, Zeamer tells Cohn that the name “Lucy” was for a girl who lived in Washington, D.C. This would have been Lucile Christmas, daughter of Major General John K. Christmas, who Zeamer dated briefly while he was at Langley. Zeamer clearly felt a deference to Ms. Christmas’ privacy, for he asks Mr. Cohn not to use her full name in his article. It is to that deference I believe his reticence about the name later can be attributed. Removing any other doubt, though, author Steve Birdsall has located a 65th crewman’s combat log entry for September 25, 1943, which notes the mission plane as “666 ‘Lucy’ B-17.” He also has found a photo of a 65th squadron B-17 with “Lucy” nose art.
So yes, without a doubt, 666 was eventually christened “Lucy” by Zeamer, but not in time for it to become a moniker the crew used. As far as they were concerned, it was then and remained “666.”
It has been reported on occasion that Britton was injured, most recently in Drury and Clavin's Lucky 666, but multiple sources say he wasn't.
Ruby Johnston, the navigator on the mission, said in our interview that Britton was not wounded, but more important, J.T. Britton himself never indicated in multiple conversations with me that he was hurt in any way on the Bougainville/Buka mission. When I read him my extensive account of the mission in my feature screenplay, in which I portray him as uninjured and aiding Zeamer at the controls, he did not correct me. (His initial response, in fact, was simply, "Wow.") If he did receive a head contusion as described in Lucky 666, it would be despite wearing his helmet pulled low on his head, as both he and Zeamer did, according to Britton himself.
Another crew member who indicates Britton wasn't injured was Britton's flight school buddy, Hank Dyminski, Zeamer's regular copilot who Britton substituted for that day. He does so by way of his own explanation for how Britton incredibly escaped injury. Hank was able to examine 666 the day after the mission, and told his son later that if he'd have been on Old 666, he'd have likely been wounded if not killed because the copilot's seat was badly ripped by shrapnel. His flight school buddy J. T. Britton wasn't hurt, Dyminski said, because Britton always sat forward in his seat when he flew. Dyminski, like most pilots, always leaned back.
Yet more evidence that he wasn't hurt, much less unconscious, is that it would have been practically impossible for Zeamer, wounded as badly as he was, to pull 666 out of the severe dive after the initial attack without assistance. The B-17 has no boost, hydraulic or otherwise, on its controls; they are strictly cable-actuated, requiring brute strength to pull out of any excessive maneuvers.
Britton did indeed have Johnnie Able, Jr., normally the belly turret gunner but substituting for Bud Thues in top turret on that mission, pilot the aircraft for about ninety minutes on the return flight. It was Britton, however, who landed the plane at Dobodura, expertly so and without incident, despite having to ground-loop it—steering the plane off the runway in a wide loop to slow it down. A truly impressive feat considering the hot landing without brakes or flaps. Britton was rightly proud, telling me, "I just greased 'er in. It was one of the best landings I ever made."
A few, now, but none with respect to the 16 June 1943 mission. It took decades for any to surface. In recent years, though, a few have been published, with interesting stories attached, on PacificWrecks.com, a tremendous resource for those interested not just in the story of the Eager Beavers but the air war in the Pacific in general.
His original nickname was "Pughie," but Johnnie Able refused to call him that. He went with "Pudgy" instead, which became “Pudge.” This is even how Able refers to Pugh in his official statement given in support of Zeamer’s Medal of Honor. Considering Herb Pugh wasn't heavy—on the contrary, was quite the fitness nut like Zeamer—it says something about him that he took all of his nicknames in stride.