Zeamer’s Eager Beavers – The Story – Part Two

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Part Two

Photo of Joe Sarnoski, ~1941

Joseph Sarnoski, ~1941
(Sarnoski collection)

KINDRED SPIRITS

Joseph Sarnoski, 27, can relate to Jay’s experience.  His position in his squadron is opposite Jay’s: Joe is the highly respected squadron bombardier, serving on the plane of the squadron commander, Major Thomas “Nick” Charles.  Unlike Jay, after months in theater, Joe still hasn’t seen combat.  The 403rd has spent the spring and summer servicing the planes of the 19th Bomb Group, the veterans of the Philippines who only partially escaped capture and death by the Japanese and have been fighting defiantly, at first single-handedly, against them ever since.  They are the ones who have pricked, heckled, and plugged, and by their fingernails have helped keep the Japanese at bay from Australia, barely, for months.  Proud as the 403rd is to be taking care of such men and planes, it’s tough duty for men who long to make their own mark against the Japanese.  Like Zeamer, Sarnoski has high personal standards for himself: He wants to sink five ships before he goes home.  The two men are natural friends and soon reconnect.  Through Joe, Jay also befriends Major Charles.

Photo of Maj Charles and Lt Durbeck

Maj. Thomas Charles & Lt. Arthur Durbeck
(USAAF via AFHSO)

But for the first month, Zeamer's lack of experience in the B-17, and lack of history in the 403rd, is still a stumbling block.  He spends the time learning as much as he can.  He attends operational briefings,  even does some intelligence work.  He takes every task he’s given, small and large, including commanding the squadron for a day while the more senior officers are away.  All the while he volunteers for every flight he can, in any capacity.  At the same time, Sarnoski is teaching classes in aerial gunnery and leading bombing practice in the fields around Torrens Creek, impatiently awaiting his turn to do the real thing with his squadron commander.  Everything gets set aside, though, when the 403rd receives word that the advance echelon in Iron Range has done its work: It’s time for the rest of the squadron to pack up and join them.

In early October the air echelon of the 403rd, including both Jay and Joe, heads for Iron Range.  The  flux of the move and his initiative work to his favor: Zeamer is able to grab a series of flights as the “squadron errand boy,” first as a copilot and then as pilot.  His quest to check out as first pilot, though, remains thwarted by weather and still fewer planes than pilots.  Sarnoski, however, is starting finally to see combat, and is excited about it.  After two years, Major Charles’ crack crew is able to put its professionalism to the test.

Undaunted, on an errand to Mareeba, Zeamer manages to gain the right seat on a series of missions in a squadron from a different bomb group, and in the middle of those flights, nabs the navigator’s seat on a mission in another 43rd squadron.  That one happens to be the 63rd, his original squadron in the 43rd, and the mission is with another familiar face from back then: Ken McCullar, who’s already becoming a legend in the group through his breathtaking treetop exploits against the enemy.  Zeamer learns from McCullar just what a pilot can do with a B-17, and makes another important friend.

B-17 over Solomon Islands

11th BG B-17F "Aztec's Curse" over Ghizo, Solomon Islands
(USAAF)

TAKE-OFF

Finally Zeamer’s persistence and newfound experience gain him the coveted pilot seat on a combat mission, his first time as first pilot in combat.  When a plane gets mired in the mud prior to take-off, Zeamer convinces the pilot to let him take over as pilot-in-command.  It seems meant to be, and foretells things to come: Jay’s determination to complete an important reconnaissance mission over the target, Rabaul—the most fortified base the Japanese have—despite overcast leads to a surprise encounter with an estimated 15-20 Zeros.  Zeamer avoids them through wise use of the cloud cover and a hard dive that sucks the entry hatch off the belly turret.  As if that weren’t enough, a visit on the way home to an air base thought by the crew to be in friendly hands, isn’t, and the battle is joined again, this time by anti-aircraft fire from below and a half-dozen Zeros.  A la McCullar, Zeamer dives the Fortress down too low for the ack-ack and for any Zeros to get under them.  Like he learned in the 22nd, he turns into the ones that attack them from the front and sends one home and one into the trees below.   The running dogfight lasts twenty minutes.  Zeamer's incredible flying skills and coolness under pressure help them get back home with no one wounded but a tire, which Zeamer lands on, flat, like an expert.

His actions and ability don’t go unnoticed.  His aggressive flying causes one crew member to refuse to fly with him again (perhaps not surprisingly, the belly turret gunner), but Zeamer is recommended for the Silver Star.  He also is considered, without a doubt, checked out in the B-17.   Jay’s goal of being a pilot leading his own crew is now half-accomplished.

Japanese airdrome at Rabaul

Rabaul air base, New Britain, with Simpson Harbor
(USAAF via ibiblio.org)

Major Charles is impressed enough that when the squadron moves northward again, this time to New Guinea itself, he puts Zeamer in command of the contingent of almost seventy enlisted men left behind as a makeshift maintenance depot to service planes needing repair before they can rejoin the squadron at the new base.  It’s a bittersweet compliment for Jay, as it keeps him from flying for three weeks.

Then—tragedy.  Just days later, Major Charles is lost on a mission as an observer with another crew.  The plane disappears and is never found.  The entire squadron is devastated.  Sarnoski and the rest of Charles’ crew have lost a friend and commander they’ve known for almost two years, and Zeamer has lost a new friend and advocate.  Almost immediately, Charles’ crew begins being pulled apart to serve on other crews.  While he’s sensitive to his friends’ loss, Jay knows what a great crew they could be together and wants to join up with them, now that he’s a pilot in search of a crew.  Stuck at the rear base as he is, though, he can do nothing about it as Charles’ crew begins to fly with others.

Charles "Rocky" Stone

Charles "Rocky" Stone
(USAAF via Joe Bowman)

Joe isn’t happy about it, either.  There are other great pilots in the 403rd, but they already have crews.  He and Lt. “Rocky” Stone, his good friend and Charles’ navigator, are at the top of their profession, yet face flying with the new, unproven pilots coming in fresh from the States.  Rocky, as squadron operations officer, does what he can to get them with proven pilots, but with the squadron being decimated by mosquitoes bearing malaria or dengue fever, the choice isn’t always there for him to make.  Both learn the danger of flying with a pilot unfamiliar with the theater and inexperienced with the B-17.

Zeamer’s detached assignment finally comes to an end, just before Christmas.  Fearing the worst during his time away, he approaches Sarnoski about joining him.  He’s surprised and relieved when Joe embraces the idea, but Rocky is away on missions.  A final decision will have to wait until he returns.  On Christmas Day, Zeamer’s present is a mapping mission for the next day.   Joe is busy, so Jay has to throw a crew together himself, without proper screening.  He does, flies a couple of missions with them, and the results are mixed.  The missions are largely a success, but the dangers of an unprepared crew, out of synch with its pilot, are manifest.

Upon his return, Zeamer is gratified to hear that his offer has been accepted: Sarnoski and Stone will crew with him.   Jay’s experience may be thin, and Rocky is wary based on Jay's unusual history and what he’s heard about Jay's flying, but his skill and command are apparent.  It caps an impressive feat: In three months, Jay Zeamer has gone from an unsung stranger in a new squadron with a new plane to a decorated command pilot with a top-notch core of a crew.  With the lesson of his latest mission fresh in his mind, he knows the first task is to find the rest of a crew that matches their high standards.  Trusting Sarnoski's judgement, they begin a search together.

Part I - Stuck
Part III-Some Assembly Required
Part IV - Joining the Battle
Part V - Twenty-two Minutes
Part VI - Crucible
Part VII - After the Fire

Prefer to read offline?  You can download the story here.

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