Today is Jay Zeamer’s birthday. The lieutenant colonel would have turned 101 years old.
It was rather a coincidence to realize that last night as I planned to make this post today, which deals with how some newly acquired documents—Zeamer’s official flight records—both significantly alter and confirm our understanding of an important part of his wartime history, and reveal some of the inevitable struggles of historical accuracy.
I’ve made it plain from the start, twenty-five years ago, that accuracy has been my primary focus in telling this story. (In all things, for that matter.) I wanted to tell the real story of this crew. The most profound result of that originally was the felling of various dramatic fables about the nature of the crew and ‘666. They weren’t screw-offs and misfits, and it wasn’t a broken wreck in the boneyard they had to piece together to have a plane to fly on all their combat missions. None of that turned out to be true, another case of “if it sounds too good to be true . . .” The truth that was revealed, however, of ordinary men with real lives back home going “above and beyond” to do extraordinary things, was so much more interesting, compelling, and inspiring.
That focus on accuracy, in service to the story, has never abated, and has continued to force other refinements to the narrative, big and small. It did become somewhat less consequential, however, depending on the demands of what I was writing. As can be imagined, a screenplay requires vastly less detail than a novel, so when I shifted to the book, my level of research into their daily world and events bloomed. I mentioned recently that’s been a primary delay in getting it written.
It’s also forced me, though, to address once and for all the unknown details surrounding important aspects of the crew’s timeline. Even though this book is a novel, allowing me to dramatize situations and conversations, I want those situations to reflect what actually happened, and the conversations as much as possible to reflect those situations and the men having them. As long as there was any uncertainty about the validity of what I was writing, I was bugged.
To that end, I’ve been bugging my stable of willing experts more and more over the past few months, mostly the ever-patient Steve Birdsall and the fine folks at International Historical Research Associates (the publisher behind the outstanding histories of the bomb groups of the Southwest Pacific that have proved so incredibly valuable in my own research). Eventually, though, there’s only so much they can provide about this specific crew, based on their own broader research requests.
In light of that, about two months ago I tried to order the squadron mission records for the 22nd Bomb Group. I wanted to try to nail down once and for all, to the degree possible, the exact nature of Jay Zeamer’s transfer from the 22nd BG to the 43rd. I pulled the morning reports for both squadrons from the archives in St. Louis myself over the past several years to try to fill in that blank. They gave me wonderful new details about that and other aspects of the crew’s history, but didn’t quite fill that in. Hence finally the search for the squadron mission reports.
At first it seemed unfortunate that, as I feared, such records barely exist, if at all, for the 22nd Bomb Group. The unforeseen reward was that I was informed that I might find what I was looking for in Zeamer’s official flight records. Honestly, I wasn’t aware such records existed. Having assumed that a service member’s flight records would be part of his personnel records, which I have for Zeamer, it simply didn’t occur to me to look for them separately. But separate they are, as Randy Ashenbrenner thankfully informed me, and Golden Arrow Research got them for me. They are a treasure, 101 pages of consisting of every official flight Jay Zeamer was on from his training through his retirement. As such, I now have the most detailed window possible at this point of Zeamer’s flight history in the 22nd BG.
Now I have a hard time considering myself a historian. I didn’t go to school for it. I’m just a writer doing as much research as I can, and making the soundest judgement calls I can based on the evidence I have. As more evidence comes in, I refine as necessary.
Based on the evidence I’ve had, and the educated guesses of veterans and related experts I trust more than myself, I’ve assumed that Zeamer’s flight with Duncan Seffern in which Zeamer was asleep going into a bombing run had in fact happened (because Walt Krell told me himself on the phone that it did); that he was likely grounded for it for at least some period of time; and that event, among other reasons, accounted for his not being copilot on the mission in which his regular pilot, Bob Hatch, went down in New Guinea and spent a few weeks with his crew finding their way out of the jungle. Since that mission occurred on August 7, 1942, I assumed in reverse that the Seffern/sleep mission must have occurred shortly before that. I couldn’t find evidence that it didn’t, but I couldn’t find evidence that it did either. Lacking anything solid on that, I went with my gut, assuming it was that extended downtime and general dissatisfaction with still not being a command pilot in the 22nd, the rundown state of affairs the 22nd was enduring by mid-September ’42, all capped by the extended hospitalization of his great friend Walt Krell, that spurred Zeamer to resort to his famous will to action to get himself in a command pilot position.
Well—yes and no. Much of that appears to remain true, but in a different order. He did in fact find himself flying only local or short flights after some missions in April. He had no missions in May, and reported no flight hours at all in June, despite missions being flown. It’s hard to trace for certain whether Seffern flew on a mission in that early period in which Zeamer could have fallen asleep on him; at the moment I simply don’t know. The best evidence we have for it is Walt Krell’s memory of it, easily recalled, in the early 1960s and again on the phone with me in the mid-1990s. Because Krell’s memory has cross-checked well with other events I’ve squared it against, and it seems a strange thing to remember incorrectly, or that didn’t happen at all, until I have positive evidence against it, I’m going to assume something very like it happened. Whether that accounts for Zeamer’s abrupt shift to non-combat flights, we simply can’t know for sure, but it would explain a lot. It can’t simply be chalked up to Zeamer’s difficulty in landing the Marauder, since that was a known problem dating back months.
A few non-combat flights appear in late July, but the 19th squadron as a whole sat out most of the month for rest after their missions and a movie to Woodstock. Come August, however, Zeamer begins flying again almost every day, half of which are local flights with him as pilot doing numerous touch-and-goes—practice landings where the pilot immediately takes off again after landing. One three-hour stint consists of six landings. Now it’s possible that this was Zeamer checking out new pilots to the 22nd, but it doesn’t seem likely considering, for one, normally in that circumstance the instructor would be copilot; two, it’s my understanding that the 22nd wasn’t receiving new pilots at that time; and three, it was Zeamer’s own consistently slow reaction time in landing the B-26 that had kept him from officially transitioning to pilot-in-command.
So more than likely, it was Zeamer being Zeamer, driven by flying regular combat again but still not in the command pilot position he sought, working to get over the landing hump that would allow him to. This was, after all, the man who spent three months exercising his own eyes, using a soon-discredited technique, to pass the vision test to apply as a flight cadet—and did it. As Zeamer himself has said many times, the 22nd was running low on planes—which was true—and the ones they had were severely combat fatigued. When the 43rd BG—his bomb group at Langley—arrived flying brand new B-17Fs, they must have looked mighty attractive to someone looking for a less demanding bomber than the B-26 Marauder. Zeamer said himself many times that that was his primary motivation for pushing for a transfer.
It’s my however educated opinion, in light of Zeamer’s prompt departure afterward, that while Zeamer was actively looking at the exit door, it was Krell’s own exit from the 19th that pushed Zeamer through. The two had known each other since flight school, each Captain of Cadets for their respective classes, hanging out at the end of the day to talk shop. It was Krell who knew Zeamer when he got transferred into the 22nd from the 43rd at Langley, and who tried helping him adjust to the bomber.
He never did, and now we have about the clearest picture possible now of what his experience was during the sixteen months Jay Zeamer spent in the effort. It means I have some rewriting to do—on the script, on the story of the crew as presented on the website, as well as the novel—but that’s the job, and I’m happy to do it.
Happy birthday, Colonel Zeamer.