LUCKY 666 by Drury and Clavin — a critical review: Part 2

An alternative history of the Eager Beavers.

Front cover of LUCKY 666

Part 1 can be found here, Part 3 here.

For those interested in a short summary of the primary issues with Lucky 666, see my Amazon review here.  If you find it helpful, I’d appreciate clicking the appropriate button at the end of the review.

Part 1 of this series examined the mistakes concerning who actually comprised the Eager Beavers, and introduced the issue of the chronological confusions that lead Drury and Clavin to create an entirely novel story of the crew once Zeamer leaves the 22nd Bomb Group—including inverting that event itself.

Two Narratives Diverged in a War

This divergence begins at the earliest moment in the crew’s origin story, with Zeamer’s exit from the 22nd Bomb Group and entry into the 43rd—easily the most consequential event in the formation of the crew.  In this case, at least, the event is described, but with its timing seriously off and its manner totally flipped.

Remember that in Drury and Clavin’s telling, the reunion between Jay and Joe in the 403rd doesn’t happen until late January 1943—despite the fact that Sarnoski had not only already flown with Zeamer by then, but sunk his first ship. (It was also the first combat mission for co-pilot Hank Dyminski, fresh from the States, even though the authors imply that Dyminski had been flying combat for some time.) Thanks to the 403rd’s invaluable squadron morning reports, a surprising omission in the authors’ list of sources, we know that in reality Zeamer joined the squadron at 10:30 a.m. on September 22, 1942.  Thus Zeamer’s fateful reunion with Sarnoski occurred months—and several important events—earlier than portrayed in Lucky 666.

The more significant distortion is to Zeamer’s own story, with Drury and Clavin reversing the very nature of Zeamer’s transfer.  Once again we have the repeated assertions in Zeamer’s own papers as evidence that he himself sought out the transfer from the 22nd into the 43rd, based on the inactivity of the former and the new B-17s of the latter.  Indeed, this signal event is one of the few correct common denominators of every breathless, myth-filled account of the crew going back decades. 

And yet in Lucky 666 we are told:

“If the transfer of one man, even an inherently good man like Jay, would ease even an iota of the duress his Airmen felt, Col. Divine was more than happy to accommodate the request.  That is how and why, in September 1942, Jay was cut lose from the 22nd and reassigned to the 43rd Bomb Group.  The 43rd consisted of four squadrons, and as it happened, the first of those was just then touching down in Australia with its brand-new B-17 Flying Fortress.”

It’s hard to know to what to ascribe such a fundamental change in Zeamer’s wartime story. It’s a mystifying mistake to make, but neither is it necessary as another stanza in the ballad of the misfits.  Why change something that so perfectly exemplifies Zeamer’s “there’s always a way” philosophy? Not to mention the sheer drama inherent in it.  After all, Jay Zeamer had no prior flight experience in the B-17, could not claim even first pilot status in the B-26 after sixteen months, and would be entering the 403rd knowing not a soul (as far as he knew).  Yet Zeamer unflinchingly made it happen anyway, and in just weeks would fly his first combat mission as command pilot in the B-17, and be recommended for the Silver Star for the mission.

So rather than being the first evidence of Lucky 666‘s ultimately schizophrenic misfit-renegade narrative, Zeamer’s initial transfer was simply another expression, in a long line going well back into his childhood, of Zeamer’s formidable will to create and drive to excel, this time in order to shape his wartime experience to those ends. Jay Zeamer knew how he could best fight in the war, and made it happen. And it would not be the last time.

What’s His Motivation?

Zeamer’s service history throughout the book is a bumpy ride of errors. Drury and Clavin have Zeamer transfer straight from the 22nd Bomb Group in Australia to the 43rd Bomb Group at Port Moresby, New Guinea. He didn’t, because he couldn’t. As already shown, the official records reveal he went almost directly into the 403rd BS, but even if he hadn’t, no squadron of the 43rd was at Port Moresby yet; they wouldn’t be for another four months. First the 403rd had to move to Iron Range, in the far north of Queensland, and then to Milne Bay, New Guinea, where rampant disease prompted a return later to Mareeba, Australia.

Some may wonder why this matters, that it’s all so much inside baseball, but in missing this train of events, the authors miss two more crucial events in the turns of Zeamer’s wartime history. First there was the month-long flying sabbatical Zeamer endured fresh off the excitement of his first combat mission in the B-17 as command pilot. While the rest of the 403rd moved up to New Guinea, the only 43rd squadron that close to the combat zone at that time, Zeamer was ordered to stay in Iron Range leading what Zeamer’s friend Walt Krell describes as a service detail, likely a victim of his own success and his engineering background.

So instead of finally being able to put a crew together and get busy, Zeamer had to deal with the immediate suspension of his goal yet again, as well as wondering what was happening with Charles’ crew—including his friend Sarnoski—up in Milne Bay. Sarnoski, on the other hand, having been marooned after flying with the squadron commander, would have been desperate to get with an experienced pilot he trusted in a squadron where all such pilots by then would have been taken—except, at least, for Zeamer, who was stuck at Iron Range.

None of these facts or their consequent significance to their subjects is mentioned in Lucky 666 even as an aside. Second, Drury and Clavin omit entirely—it’s in Zeamer’s flight log (and Dyminski’s) and described in the squadron diary—the month and a half of inactivity following the return to Australia at the end of January ’43. Again, this happens right after a success, in this case most of the original crew’s first missions together, including the sinking of that first ship as a crew.

The omission leads to one of the stranger episodes in the book. Because they miss that mission as Sarnoski’s actual first bombing mission with Zeamer—indeed, aren’t aware of his combat missions the previous fall—the authors have to find another mission to be his first with Zeamer and his “trial by fire.” Yet instead of using the actual next missions, memorable ones that the authors do portray, they opt to move those a few weeks later, from Valentine’s Day till March, after a mission they say Zeamer and Sarnoski grabbed with the 65th BS during the momentous Battle of the Bismarck Sea. That’s strange enough, but even stranger is that there’s no record of such a mission either in Zeamer’s own flight log, which even includes trivial test hops and transport flights, or the 403rd morning reports, which show the two men never leaving Australia during that time.

The more important hit, though, is to the overall narrative, with once again the authors missing a major motivating event in Zeamer’s combat history. That lengthy inactivity is very likely what prompted Zeamer’s attachment to his good friend Ken McCullar’s 64th Squadron based in Port Moresby, New Guinea, at the end of March, making his transfer to the 65th Squadron soon after—also in Port Moresby—rather too coincidental to be chance. Especially knowing Zeamer’s history and personality.

Which raises the question: how well do the authors actually know Jay Zeamer?

Read the conclusion of this series in Part 3.

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