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ZEAMER'S EAGER BEAVERS
The Incredible True Story
It is late summer, 1942. Glenn Miller rules the radio. Abbott and Costello dominate the silver screen, though Mrs. Miniver, a sensitive film about the English during the Nazi raids on London, is the top-grossing film so far of the year. Byron Nelson wins the Masters. And World War II is eight months old. In the Pacific, the U.S. has enjoyed two great victories, one in the Coral Sea in April, another at Midway in June. It seems real progress is being made against Japan.
In the southwest Pacific, seven thousand miles from the United States, it does not seem so to Lt. Jay Zeamer, Jr. Jay, 24, is an undistinguished copilot with the nomadic 22nd Bomb Group, stationed, for now, at a base in the northern prairies of Australia. A gravel airstrip surrounded by scores of pyramidal, canvas tents and no fixed facilities, it looks more like a Civil War encampment than a modern air base. A motorcycle has to be used to clear cattle off the runway. Barely edible food, hordes of sticky flies, and endless monotony plague their days. Dust and wear have worn down their planes, and being at the end of the supply chain has left them not hundreds, not scores, not even tens of planes to attack their formidable enemy, but a handful at a time. A handful to cross hundreds of miles of shark-infested oceans, unescorted, through the most violent storms on Earth, to bomb one of the most fortified harbors in the world. Europe this was not; this was hell with an Australian accent. Even so, the threadbare bomb groups in the theater have done an almost miraculous job slowing down the Japanese advance. But slow it down is all they can do. What Jay Zeamer and everyone in the fight can plainly see is that the Japanese have absolute superiority in the air, bombing Allied forward bases at will and still pushing inexorably toward Australia.
Zeamer, however, doesn’t show it. He is a quiet, affable, unflappable man, well-liked by his squadron and sought out, in private moments, for his counsel. The unruffled exterior, however, belies a powerful need to excel, based on his own high standards, sometimes going around the rules to do so if necessary. He is, after all, a man who at age ten built his own primitive boat to sail around Boothbay Harbor in Maine, who set a goal of becoming an Eagle Scout and did so by age 14. A man who, failing the Navy eye exam, spent three months strengthening his own vision using self-help eye exercises to pass his next vision test, and did. For Jay Zeamer, there is always a way. Now he is eager to do his part to move the war effort forward. Convinced in his belief that preparation and the confidence it creates are the surest way to survival, Jay wants to be a pilot and lead his own crew into combat.
For a year, though, he has been unable to find the way to that goal, due to his inability to check out as command pilot in the bomber to which he’s been assigned, the B-26 Marauder. It is a high-performance aircraft infamous for its reputation for killing those who attempt to fly it with Zeamer’s relaxed approach. His personality simply doesn’t fit the plane. The result is Jay’s eternal status as copilot, as well as an undercurrent of unease throughout the squadron in flying with him. It’s one thing to like someone. It’s another to trust him with your life in the air. The combination has left Zeamer a well-liked outsider in his own squadron.
THERE’S ALWAYS A WAY
Up to now the 22nd has been busy with some of the first strikes against Rabaul, the major Japanese stronghold in the South Pacific, in the first combat missions in the B-26 in the war, making it possible for Zeamer to ignore his status. But now, with his squadron idled for rest and its aircraft dwindling, Jay sees his prospects for making a difference his way diminishing. They plummet when his growing disengagement causes a problem on a mission. Stuck again as copilot, this time paired with an up-and-coming pilot on one of his first missions as pilot-in-command, Zeamer has little to do. When the pilot calls for power going into the bomb run, nothing happens. He’s falling back, out of formation, from the lead aircraft. Again he calls for power from Zeamer, and again receives no response. Finally in desperation he looks over and is astonished to find Zeamer asleep in his Mae West and the WWI helmet he wears for protection against flak. It was said the imperturbable Zeamer could sleep anywhere; here was proof. An arm across his chest wakes Zeamer and he immediately gets the power up where they need. Needless to say, the incident almost certainly gets him grounded, and doesn’t help his status in the squadron, much less his hopes of getting his own plane. More bad news arrives when his regular crew is lost on a mission without him. When and if he does get to fly again, it will be with a different crew.
By mid-August, another bomb group, the 43rd, is entering the theater, flying B-17Fs fresh from the factory. Jay knows the 43rd; he served with it briefly at Langley before being shipped off with the other second lieutenants to Patterson Field for service testing on the new B-26. He also knows the B-17. He’s seen first-hand how rugged it is; other bomb groups have been flying older models for months in the theater. They’re worn down, mottled with patches, but are still flying. He respects the aircraft, and has a feeling about it. He knows a fresh start when he sees one. He decides the time has finally come for a change.
Zeamer puts in for a transfer to the 43rd. Even with his history with the 22nd, it surprises his commanding officer and squadron mates, but if he wants to fly as command pilot with his own crew, he has no choice. Beyond that, it will benefit his own squadron by freeing up the right seat for someone who can become first pilot. Begrudgingly admitting the logic, his C.O. puts the transfer through. It’s a great risk on Zeamer’s part. The signal it sends to his peers is clear. If his transfer doesn’t go through, he’ll be stuck in a squadron and with a crew that knows he doesn’t want to be there, and will certainly reciprocate the feeling.
Fortunately it does go through, and by late September, Zeamer is the newest member of 403rd Bomb Squadron in Torrens Creek, Australia, where the scattered squadrons of the 43rd Bomb Group are finally reuniting. The 403rd has more pilots than planes, so it will be an uphill climb to the left seat, but Jay is up to the challenge, especially with a promising old connection. Upon learning the history of the squadron, he sets out to see if an old friend is still with them. He is.