An alternative history of the Eager Beavers.
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.
The second part left off with the question of how well Drury and Clavin understood Jay Zeamer himself, considering their consistent misinterpretation of his actions in theater. This third and last installment examines that, as well as how it applies to the crew generally, and concludes with Lucky 666‘s treatment of the B-17 Flying Fortress which inspired its title.
Who Was Jay Zeamer?
So how well do we get to know Zeamer himself? Can it at least be said we get an accurate portrait of the principals themselves? I would argue only superficially, though better in Sarnoski’s case. The man we meet in Lucky 666 (and especially in the interviews Drury and Clavin have been giving) is an exaggerated aspect of the man I’ve come to know over my decades-long research.
“Jay Zeamer Jr.’s parents suspected early on that their oldest child was a born renegade,”
the first chapter begins, the first of numerous times the authors use the word to describe Zeamer. Only, I would argue, if the definition of the word has changed: “a deserter from one faith, cause, or allegiance to another; an individual who rejects lawful or conventional behavior.”
Jay Zeamer was neither. I certainly doubt he considered himself one. Zeamer was always very loyal to the institutions he served, whether school or military, and while he certainly had a maverick streak—that part of him Drury and Clavin play up—he didn’t as a rule reject lawful or conventional behavior. He could never have served long in the military had he done so. His own brother says that Jay took easily to military life and that it suited him. Not what I’d call a renegade. Going your own way sometimes in spite of the rules may make you a bit of a maverick, but a renegade? I think not. Words have meaning.
Truly preposterous is the claim that Zeamer was ever “cavalier,” which the authors use in reference to Zeamer’s attitude when they claim that he was “dismissed” from the 22nd Bomb Group. No one I have ever spoken to about Jay Zeamer, even those who weren’t fans of his aggressive flying, ever described him in any terms resembling “cavalier.” It was always the exact opposite: cool, thoughtful, pensive, methodical. He was, as the authors well know, an engineer and a Boy Scout, neither of which are particularly known for their cavalier temperaments, and Zeamer represented the traditional qualities of both even more exceptionally than most.
Unlike in the interviews they’ve given, the authors fortunately don’t indulge the “daredevil” trope with regard to Zeamer in the book, though I find the disconnect awfully curious. Why there, but not in the book? Even ignoring the real-world “daredevil” claims and sticking to the descriptions in the book, if the authors really think of Zeamer in such terms, it’s hard to believe they dug very deeply into the man.
But while I’m on it, let’s look at the “daredevil” claim. A daredevil is one who takes unnecessary risks, is careless. That could fairly be said of Sarnoski at times, who liked to race and even stand up on his Indian motorcycle, but it’s the antithesis of Jay Zeamer. While it’s true I have the advantage of his own crew’s and squadron mates’ rejection of the notion, the authors should know it from their own biography of Zeamer. Again, Zeamer was an engineer and a Boy Scout; this combination is definitive. He wanted to understand machines and to be prepared. It was his nature to test and understand, in his methodical and unruffled way, then use that knowledge to his advantage. He was comfortable flying the B-17 to its limits because he understood better than most what those limits were. He was well used to overcoming challenges at that point in his life, and already a tested combat veteran by the time he finally was flying left seat in the B-17. All this combined into a comfort in combat and in the aircraft beyond most of his peers in the war.
It’s no surprise, then, that some who flew with him felt he took unnecessary risks, like William Eaton, the belly turret gunner who told Zeamer he would never fly with him again after Jay, to escape a flock of Zeros over Rabaul, executed a power dive that sucked the door off the hatch of Eaton’s belly turret. But it wasn’t their opinions that mattered. It was Zeamer’s, who was quite sure of what he was doing. That was also the opinion of his own crew, and those pilots who knew and flew with him. To a person they all rejected the daredevil and “hot” pilot descriptions, and more than one described Zeamer as one of the best pilots they ever knew.
Perhaps the greatest indication, however, that the authors never really cracked the nut of their principal subject is the claim in a longer interview that Zeamer’s motivation for the “impossible” mission (which none of them considered “impossible”) was a need to prove something to the brass and other pilots. Ignoring the fact that he’d already proved his bravery and exceptional piloting skills to anyone who cared long before, proving himself to others was never a concern for Jay Zeamer, Jr. That would require an insecurity that anyone with even a casual understanding of Zeamer would know he never had. If he felt the need to prove himself to anyone, it was himself, and even then, it was less about proving he could do it than simply the satisfaction of the achievement itself.
Drury and Clavin should know this. Zeamer was overcoming personal and external challenges from childhood, and the authors document them (mostly) but don’t seem to understand the meaning behind them. As imperturbable as he was on the outside, Zeamer was driven by a fierce need to excel, to be the best he could be at whatever he chose to do. His motto “there’s always a way,” the title of his article for American magazine in January 1945, isn’t an end itself; it’s an approach for overcoming challenges. Jay Zeamer’s motivation came squarely from within, from his own innate need for excellence; the high standards he set for his crew, he set for himself first.
Some may say this is all speculation at this point; unlike the factual record above, it’s merely a competing impression of the man based on the same evidence. To some degree that’s true, but I at least know my understanding better matches what I was told by his crew and the squadron mates who knew him best, and received an unequivocal confirmation from Zeamer’s wife.
The same criticism of misunderstanding their subjects applies in an odd way to the authors’ repetition of easily debunked claims of Zeamer’s crew being “screw-offs,” “renegades,” and “misfits.” First off, they were unequivocally no such thing. The description comes originally from author Martin Caidin in his book Flying Forts, quoting Zeamer’s friend Walt Krell about the crew in 1963, twenty years after the fact. It’s tough to know whether the authors actually know who Krell actually was, or if he was just useful, as his quotes from Caidin’s book appear in various places throughout the book like a stock player playing multiple parts in a school play. First he’s a fellow pilot in Zeamer’s B-26 squadron in the 22nd, then an unnamed flight commander in an unidentified bomb group, a squadron commander in the 43rd BG, and finally, unless I missed one, a “fellow bomber pilot,” presumably in the 65th considering the context. So it’s possible that they’re simply unaware that Krell never served with Zeamer’s crew, much less knew them personally, and in some cases was relating events which had happened months before even at the time he first heard about them. I spoke to Krell in 1994 and he regretted his off-the-cuff remarks—he was unaware he was being recorded by Caidin—and walked back his embellished description of the crew. “I wouldn’t say ‘renegades’,” he told me. “I never even met his crew.”
The authors didn’t need Walt Krell to tell them, though. Common sense alone should suffice. It defies logic that men with such high standards as Zeamer and Sarnoski, who would need a crew that would follow their orders, would handpick a bunch of screw-offs and renegades to crew their aircraft. And if that’s not enough, there are the crew’s families, not to mention the official record, both of which quickly reveal how much Krell’s understanding of the crew and events as portrayed in Caidin’s book was off, through no fault of his own. This might explain why Drury and Clavin themselves don’t actually portray the men in such terms in Lucky 666. Indeed, to the authors’ credit in this case, the rest of the crew—save the unjustly forgotten Bud Thues and diminished Rocky Stone—are described when we meet them largely as I’ve come to know them myself from their crew mates and family members: level-headed professionals at their jobs who weren’t afraid to fly with Zeamer because they trusted his approach and ability. No evidence is given that they didn’t fit in with their respective squadrons, or were rebels or troublemakers, before, during, or after their service with Zeamer. Several of the crew were promoted and decorated repeatedly during their service with him, and served in more important capacities after their service with Zeamer.
These clearly aren’t the histories of “screw-offs,” “renegades,” and “misfits.” And yet even as Drury and Clavin describe the men individually relatively accurately, they still rely on quotes to that effect for color in the book. They quote Krell from Caidin at the end of Chapter 19: “[Zeamer] recruited a crew of renegades and screwoffs . . .” Their chapter about the formation of the crew is titled “‘A Motley Collection of Outcasts’,” from another quote. And then they themselves repeat the assertion, ending their chapter about the “impossible” mission with “Not bad for a bunch of screwups and misfits.” Despite never giving any evidence for such claims in the book. The effect is jarring. Again, why the disconnect? Is it simply a marketing ploy?
Amazingly, there is more, significant and not, too much to catalog. The “impossible” mission warrants special attention, but I’ll leave it to those who are interested to read the version available on my website if they want to see a more definitive account that doesn’t get the sequence of events wrong, put one crewman’s words in another’s mouth, or give the copilot an injury he never received or an exaggerated landing he didn’t make. The effect, for someone not familiar with the details, is simply not knowing whether what one is reading is the real story or not.
Because of its centrality to the lore concerning this crew, I’ll conclude with the treatment of the plane of the book’s title, ‘666, since it sums up so many of the issues of the book as a whole. We’re told that while in the 65th BS in March 1942, Zeamer’s photographer George Kendrick found “the hulk of a spavined Flying Fortress”—which “may have resembled nothing so much as the rotting carcass of an immense raptor”—with its cameras intact, at the end of the runway at 7-Mile Strip; that Zeamer then asked the 43rd group commander for permission to fix it up; upon receiving it had his crew “restore” the plane from its derelict status before then stripping it of unnecessary weight, replacing and souping up the engines, and arming it with, by the count described in the book, nineteen mounted .50 cal machine guns. Finally, the authors describe how the crew removes the name “Lucy” from the nose, painted on there for a previous crew, its origins “lost to the mists of time.”
Well—barely. The crew couldn’t have fixed up ‘666 in March 1943 in Port Moresby as part of the 65th because they weren’t there. They were still in the 403rd Bomb Squadron in Mareeba, Australia. Nor could they have restored the plane to flight status, since by the time Zeamer and the crew worked on it in late May, it had already been flying for a month with the 8th Photo Recon Squadron. Someone else had done that work. What really happened, according to the same sources the authors have as well as those that they didn’t obtain, Zeamer and then the crew—likely once again by Zeamer’s own finagling—transferred to the 65th in late March/early April (not January ’43 as Zeamer sometimes misremembered and the authors write), and in mid-May 1943, the 8th Photo Recon happily pawned off ‘666 to the 65th. Zeamer, by then squadron operations officer for the 65th, requisitioned the aircraft himself, at which point the crew did “soup up,” in Zeamer’s words, #41-2666 with new engines and stripped it of around 2000 pounds of weight. They did increase the armament, but to 16 .50s, according to Zeamer’s own flight log and the squadron morning reports, with probably three spares on board. They flew “Old 666,” as Zeamer himself liked to refer to the plane, on only two combat missions before the 16 June 1943 Medal of Honor action. Two days before that mission, Zeamer himself had the name “Lucy” painted underneath the enlarged port nose window, after a young lady, Lucile Christmas, who he had dated at Langley.
So once again we get some essential truth, but not all of it, and in a narrative of almost pure invention—which is the overall criticism of Lucky 666 in a nutshell. There are elements of truth. Drury and Clavin do capture the general spirit of the relationship between the crew and Zeamer. They do a good job of describing the nature of life in the theater for the bomb groups stationed there. They give a rough semblance of Zeamer’s personality and motivations. For those new to the subject, they do an admirable job of describing the challenges in the command structure, as well as the strategy leading up to the 16 June 1943 mission, though experts in the latter area would strongly challenge some of their assertions about the specific plans concerning Bougainville and the Solomon Islands in general. The overall effect is of a rush job, with the well-established macro-level history fairly solid, but the crew-level narrative full of mistakes borne perhaps of time constraints and strongly suggesting a preconceived notion of the story.
If that’s all a reader is looking for—the authors’ preferred version of the story shaped, by mistake or by design, to a “Dirty Dozen” narrative that doesn’t actually apply—then Lucky 666 will serve that need. But if the reader is expecting the real story of how Jay Zeamer, as he really was, went from an undistinguished bomber copilot, unable to check out as command pilot in his assigned bomber, to the leader of the most highly decorated air crew in U.S. history, he won’t find it here. By relying too much on Zeamer’s unfortunately inconsistent memory and reticence about certain episodes in his time in theater, without consulting the most pertinent official records, the authors miss what I have long found to be the more compelling true story of this fascinating crew.
Some may say I have a vested interest in criticizing Drury and Clavin’s book since I’m trying to sell my own story of the crew for film/TV, and plans for my own novel. To that I can only recommend they search for this story online and see how long it takes for my name to come up. I’ve been correcting the record on this crew for over twenty years. I would have written this review whether I had my own plans for the story or not.
Besides that, the presence of their book and its exposure doesn’t hurt my own work, it helps it. I feel the same way about the upcoming Masters of the Air miniseries, which tells a totally different story about a totally different theater of the war. As Tom Clavin told me himself when he contacted me prior to their final edit, a rising tide lifts all boats. My only concern has ever been that the real story get told, not the myths and misconceptions that have been hanging like an anchor on this crew for decades. I have no control over what others write about them, but I will correct them if they get the story wrong. In this case, I even helped prior to publication: when I discovered they didn’t have them, I sent Mr. Clavin the crew statements they were lacking that provided many of the “you are there” details in their account of the “impossible mission” of their book title. That’s why you’ll find my name in Lucky 666‘s list of acknowledgements.
Mr. Drury and Mr. Clavin are professional authors. They know the risks involved in writing about historical subjects, of the necessity of ensuring you have the fullest picture of your subject before committing it to paper. They say so in Lucky 666 itself. It comes with the territory. Why the territory got quite as hostile in their treatment of Jay Zeamer and the Eager Beavers, only they can say. All I can say, and am saying, is that it did, and didn’t have to be.