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It’s Wednesday, June 16, 1943. Despite his lack of sleep, Zeamer has the crew at the plane on time for their 4 a.m. take-off. As they’re taxiing out, however, a jeep cuts them off, delivering by hand an order to add the Buka recon to the trip. Once again Zeamer dismisses it out of hand.
The four-hour flight out begins beautifully, treating them to a spectacular breaking of dawn above the wide blue plain of the Pacific. It is as uneventful as a transport flight to Australia. The crew check their stations, clear their guns, Sarnoski whistles his Polish tunes, cat naps are had. The flight is in fact too smooth: Even with the delay, they arrive over Bougainville a half-hour early. The sun is too low for mapping: Not enough illumination of the topography below.
The crew has a choice to make, Jay tells them: kill time over the water—or do the recon of Buka airstrip. It’s not much of a choice. They know what they should do. What kind of men would they be to pass off to another crew on another day what they can do right then? The answer comes unanimously over the interphone: “Let’s do the goddamn recce.” What’s the big deal, besides? They were just there two weeks before. It’ll be the same six green Jap Army fighters they’ve run into on other visits. Zeamer puts 666 into a wide circle north to head over Buka from the northeast.
It’s a fateful decision. What they don’t know is that the Japanese, known by Allied command to have moved over four hundred fighters and bombers to the Rabaul area in preceding days—hence the desire for a photo recon—have sent crack Japanese Navy squadrons to Buka. As the crew gets its photographs of Buka and starts the long mapping run down the coast of Bougainville, Zeamer flying by his fingertips, they begin counting. Since Dillman hasn’t entered the belly turret yet, Kendrick crawls in to get a better view. Sticking his hand up out of the belly turret hatch, he uses his fingers to show the count of enemy aircraft taking off. When he runs out of fingers, he waves his hand and climbs out of the turret. It’s time for Dillman to take over. Kendrick gets ready at the twin fifties on either side of the waist. He’s by himself there, by choice; he doesn’t want to be “bumpin’ asses” with somebody behind him on the other pair.
All told, the crew count seventeen or eighteen aircraft either taxiing taxiing to take off, and they aren’t Army green. These are Navy gray, and climbing faster. They know they have about twenty minutes before the Zeros catch them—and their run is twenty-two minutes long. The Jap fighters strain to catch the lone Fortress, flying straight and level at 25,000 feet, unable to break away without forfeiting its mission.
As the mission begins its twenty-second and last minute, the trap is set. Two initial passes have been ineffectual, but now five Zeros are converging on them from below, three from 10:00, 12:00, and 2:00 in the front, two in the back at 4:00 and 8:00. Zeamer has never seen Zeros as coordinated as this, confirming his belief that these are crack Jap naval fighters. Jay knows he’s made a mistake to do the recon he said he wouldn’t do, but it’s too late now. He knows he could break off without censure in the face of such resistance. But he also knows it’s taken two months already to get to this point. Today, right now, is their shot. And he knows it’s this bay, silver-blue in the morning sun twenty-five thousand feet below them, that command needs the most. That’s where the Marines will land. They need those maps. He won’t break off.
But neither will he be able to use his usual aggressive maneuvering against three in front. Doing so will expose their belly too much to the rest. The best option is to keep level and try to drive them off with the arsenal they have. With forty-five seconds left, Zeamer assigns the left Zero to Sarnoski, the right to Johnston, and orders all gunners to fire as necessary. Britton calls out the fighters coming at the nose. Joe tells the crew to keep on their toes and “give ‘em hell.” Just then the incoming Zeros roll over on their backs for a faster breakaway . . .
The opening encounter changes the war for all of them. Navigator Ruby Johnston’s Zero at 2:00 drops away without hitting the Fortress, surprised at the accuracy of these B-17 gunners. But Jay’s and Joe’s foes are as determined as they are. The Zero at 10:00 puts multiple 20 mm cannon shells in the plane before Joe’s intense return fire finally forces it to break off. Joe is blown back off his guns onto the floor, hit badly in the neck and side by jagged shrapnel. Johnston is hit in the back and side and then the face and neck as he falls over Sarnoski into the doorway to the nose compartment. Able, standing behind Zeamer in the top turret, gets a spray of shrapnel in his legs. The center Zero is surprised by Zeamer’s nose gun—Jay sees a flash in its wing root where he’s hit it—and it breaks off, but not before putting a 20 mm shell through the Plexiglas nose.
The shell strikes the base of the cockpit bulkhead, blasting Jay’s rudder pedals and side of the instrument panel from the back, leaving instruments destroyed and hanging out by their wires. Because he’s pulled them back under his seat for the mapping, his feet are mostly spared, but his rudder pedals are destroyed, his left thigh ripped open, his left leg above and below the knee shattered and showing bone, and his arms, already both struck by bullets, are slashed by shrapnel. Blood pulses from a deep gash in his right wrist onto the steering column. Miraculously, copilot Britton is unhurt, as are Dillman in the belly turret, Kendrick in the waist, and tailgunner Herb “Pudge” Pugh.
Another fighter, a twin-engine, swoops up from the left and below, aiming for the cockpit. Another hit could prove fatal. Through his broken instrument panel and the holes in the bulkhead, Jay can see Joe back at his gun. He’s pulled himself back up, despite his ragged wound and certain agony. Sarnoski pours fire into the Jap fighter, driving it off before it can fire point-blank at them. Then he collapses to the floor.
Now there are flames. Hydraulic and oxygen lines behind Zeamer are on fire. With only aileron and elevator, he shoves the plane into a dive down to where they can breathe, using the manifold pressure to estimate when they’re low enough since the altimeter is broken. Able, with wounded knees, and Johnston, bleeding so badly from his face he’s partially blinded, both slap at the fire with their bare hands, tearing out what they must to put it out.
As they plow downward, radio operator Vaughan sees tracers passing over his radio room hatch. The Zeros are following them down. Suddenly a thud and heat in the side of his neck; he’s been hit. He gets a good shot at the Zero that’s hit him as it flies over. Despite the sudden dive, despite the lack of communications due to the broken interphone, no crew member panics or leaves his post. The veterans know it from training, and the subs know it from them.
Leveling out with Britton's help, the crew watches the Zeros line up on both sides, single file, for their traditional frontal attack, sensing that the B-17 is now exposed from the front. They’re right: All of the forward fixed guns are either inoperable or unmanned due to wounded crew members. All Zeamer can do is maneuver. Everything he’s ever learned in combat—and everything he’s taught his crew—is now put to the test.
Blood from his smashed leg fills his boots and from his arms paints the control wheel a slippery red. Even so, helped by the blinding pain keeping him awake, Zeamer avoids their attackers. He chops the power as a Zero turns into them, rolls hard and hauls back on the wheel, forcing the Zero to turn into them more, forcing him to miss, forcing him to put his exposed belly in front of the seasoned rear gunners. It’s the technique Jay learned back in the 22nd with Walt Krell, ancient history it seems now, and the technique he’s drummed into his own crew so that they’ll know what to do when the interphone goes out. Every five to ten minutes, one by one, another turns into them, fails to connect, and gets raked by the rear gunners. In between, Zeamer tries to use his belt as a tourniquet for his leg, but never has enough time. Fortunately the cold air blasting through 666’s broken skin helps to clot his wounds.
The Japanese are getting frustrated and angry as they fall into the Beavers’ well-practiced trap. Two, three, four more are hit. Some smoking, some spraying oil, they peel off by one by one. And still, forty minutes into the engagement, there are more. Zeamer has been losing blood for three-quarters of an hour, and still, with both arms and a leg wounded, the other leg broken and useless, is in full command of the Fortress, violently evading the persistent attackers—and without rudder pedals. Finally, running low on fuel and ammunition, worn down by the tenacious Fortress’ agile defense, astonished at its pilot’s supernatural will, the final Japanese fighter retires to home. Old 666 is alone once more.