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SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
It’s not an easy task. Limited missions due to the ravaging sickness make it hard to assess many people—by the end of the year, ten percent of the squadron is out sick—and others don’t share Zeamer's and Sarnoski’s eager approach. Jay remains a fixture at operations, grabbing every mission he can that comes open. Despite the limitations and delays, Jay and Joe sort through candidates, putting them through their paces: shooting at logs in the water for aiming practice, stripping and reassembling guns blindfolded, learning the duties of the other positions on the crew. The chaff—those who haven’t been to gunnery school, those who can’t sweat the training—cull themselves out, and a crew Zeamer and Sarnoski feel good about begins to form. Some will come and go, but the regulars settle in over the next few weeks.
First are those from the 8th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. They’ve come into the 403rd from the relative boredom of a photo unit’s ground and support staff, and they’re friends. Jay and Joe like men experienced with photo work, and they like the camaraderie. There’s the quiet-spoken flight engineer, Bud Thues, an engineer through and through: He builds working model planes from his own plans and was a technician at Technicolor and Disney before the war. He’s already a pilot back home; he’d rather be in the air. Then there’s Johnnie Able, Jr., Thues’ assistant and belly turret gunner, at nineteen the youngest of the crew. He’s a sweet South Carolina kid, active, loves to sing, and ready to mix it up. They come to Zeamer through dapper George Kendrick, the photographer and waist gunner Jay has flown with already and likes. He’s a “spark plug,” like Able ready to do more than take photos.
Then there are the floaters. Pilot Hank Dyminski, former high school All-Star tight end and appliance repairman, has been in the theater for less than a month and hasn’t flown combat yet. Zeamer likes his attitude in the morning meetings; Sarnoski does, too, but he also likes that Hank’s a fellow Pole. Dyminski’s not sure about Jay’s eagerness at first, but he’s more then ready to get to work. Cool, reserved radio operator “Willy” Vaughan has seen plenty of combat already with the 19th Group, and more personally than anticipated: He got a Jap bayonet in the neck during the defense of Milne Bay. (But he put his own knife through the Jap who did it; there’s a reason they call him “iron pants.”) The 19th is going home, but his tour isn’t up. Now he’s flying with whomever in the 403rd needs him, until Stone recommends him to Zeamer. Tailgunner Herb “Pudge” Pugh has been in the 403rd almost as long as Zeamer, and was part of his depot contingent at Iron Range. Quiet and confident, a former wrestler, like Jay he likes to exercise. For Zeamer, it’s a natural fit.
None of them are ones to sit around. They share Zeamer's desire to keep busy, and keep the Japs on their toes. To a man they are practical and easy-going, not brash—Jay and Joe see to that—and they find in Zeamer, Sarnoski, and Stone men of equal temperament and mettle. In short order they also recognize that Zeamer's confidence in them and himself will carry them far.
A START . . . AND A STOP
Zeamer’s instincts prove correct. On one of the first missions together, Joe sinks an 8000-ton Japanese transport. It’s an auspicious start, but that’s all it is. Their progress is interrupted by a major Jap bombing raid on their base at Milne Bay that destroys a number of their precious supply of aircraft. Thanks to that and the sickness that has been ravaging the squadron since it moved to “Malaria” Bay, they are moved away from the combat zone back to Australia. The result is extended inactivity, even as the other squadrons, still in the combat zone, are participating in some of the biggest battles of the air war so far. The only consolation is a respite: Leave.
Back to civilization the men go—away from tents, away from raids, away from sickness, food from barrels, showers under oil drums, insects, and rats. Down Under they go to rinse it all away. Some go to Sydney and the beach. Able and Vaughan go to stay with Johnnie’s Australian girlfriend at her parents’ house. She and the young belly gunner are engaged, but she’s gotten cold feet. Now his own feet feel cold. It’s all so complicated. Suddenly the war seems almost simpler, but it’s still nice to feel the throb of real life again. It helps that wherever they all go, they’re treated like royalty. Feeling abandoned by England, the thanks the Australians feel for these young men from the United States is palpable, mixed with elation and relief. By the time their time away is over, they are rejuvenated. The distinction between the new and old on the crew has largely disappeared, and by the time they return, they have a bond they didn’t have before.
That bond and their temperament become crucial in their return to combat. Even with Zeamer's well-known initiative—the squadron has taken to calling them “Zeamer’s Eager Beavers” after his constant hunting for missions—the delays test even their reserves of patience. Zeamer takes to flying whatever he can again, including secret missions to strafe Rabaul with Ken McCullar—no record of that one for proof, but plausible considering the personalities involved; it wouldn’t have been the first time Zeamer was threatened with a court martial—and to scrounge food for the officer’s club. The price of discovery? Flying the unarmed, unarmored transport B-17 on a mission to bomb Japanese brass in the Rabaul city hotel, even with the prostitutes and geisha girls there. Catholic Joe refuses to do it, and leads them to bomb first an oil refinery, and the next night—after they’re commanded to go again and bomb what they were told—an ammunition dump. Headquarters rips them, but doesn’t ask them to go again.
Finally Zeamer has had enough. Attached to the 64th Squadron at Port Moresby for a series of missions at the end of March 1943, Zeamer talks to McCullar, whose intrepidity and command has led to him being assigned as the squadron’s C.O. What about a transfer to the 64th? No room in the inn, Ken tells Jay, but it’s not in vain: The talks do lead to a transfer. In early April, the Eager Beavers join the 65th Squadron at Seven-Mile Airstrip in New Guinea.