Most of the fun of research for me is filling in holes. Filling in the pieces of a puzzle to get a more complete picture gives me all the dopamine hits I need to keep going. It’s all the stronger when a piece has been eluding me, of course. The longer it goes and the harder I have to dig, the bigger the rush at the end. Finally finding it is like finding that one 1×1 Lego piece you need in the bin after combing through it for ten minutes. (Not sure how much that’s dating myself, but if you know, you know.)
At least as big a rush, though, is when you haven’t been looking for something at all and you just stumble across it. That’s what happened in a significant way, coincidentally, on the 80th anniversary of the Eager Beavers’ famous last mission together, as I was rushing to finish and post Joe Sarnoski’s biography that day.
I wanted to find a photo of Bangor Army Air Field circa Joe’s time there for the end section of the biography. I had photos of Langley and Lowry, so it seemed off not to have one for Bangor. I never did find one that met my needs—they were either too old or too new—but along the way I came across a fascinating rabbit hole. On the Bangor Public Library site I found a digitized album of a few hundred photos of the 43rd Bomb Group from 1943 to 1944. I couldn’t help interrupting work on the biography to scan the amazing collection: shots around camp, pictures of aircraft and nose art, medal presentation ceremonies, crew and individual portraits.
And it was in a stretch of the latter that I came across this photo of Jay Zeamer I haven’t seen before. Dated May 22, 1943, the photo captures Zeamer just four days after the crew’s first test flight of “Old 666,” and three weeks prior to the 16 June 1943 mission to Bougainville which would end his service career and earn him the Medal of Honor.
On that day, this slight, unassuming monk of a man would, with wounds in both arms and legs, blood pulsing from his right wrist onto his control column, his left leg shattered at the knee, his boots slowly filling with blood, dive his B-17 Flying Fortress almost vertically 15,000 feet, then spend another roughly 35 minutes aggressively banking the bomber into his enemies’ frontal attacks. He would then spend another hour after the battle ended advising his flight engineer—who was now piloting the plane from the copilot seat—while flirting with unconsciousness. Upon landing 2.5 hours later, he would be taken for dead by a medic. In the hospital he would be found to have lost almost half his body’s blood supply, and have over a hundred pieces of metal removed from his body.
But he would live.
Appearances can be deceiving. But for me, the eyes are all the explanation necessary.