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ABOVE AND BEYOND
The Incredible True Story of Zeamer's Eager Beavers
No true understanding and appreciation of the Southwest Pacific theater of World War II can be had without first simply recognizing the size of the theater. The only fitting word is “massive.” Its size is hard to comprehend even with a map.
Through most of 1942, most missions beyond Port Moresby were started from the air bases in Australia. Bombers would leave the Australian air fields, land at the air strips east of Port Moresby to fuel up and load their bombs (usually done at night), and only then embark on their actual missions. For scale—always depending on the weather—it was a 3.5-hour flight from Mareeba to Port Moresby. The roundtrips to Rabaul were consistently around 7.5-8 hours. Travel to lower Australia was usually even slower, as it was done using 1890s-era steam trains, which made routine stops at country stations all along the way. The train ride from Mareeba to Sydney normally took 5-7 days. For true distance perspective, it’s 1,439 air miles from Mareeba to Melbourne, Sarnoski’s home for the first half of 1942—almost exactly the distance from Sacramento to Dallas.
It’s late summer, 1942. Glenn Miller rules the radio. Abbott and Costello dominate the silver screen, though Mrs. Miniver, a sensitive film about the English during the Nazi raids on London, is the top-grossing film so far of the year. Byron Nelson wins the Masters. And World War II is eight months old. In the Pacific, the U.S. has enjoyed two great victories, one in the Coral Sea in April, another at Midway in June. It seems real progress is being made against Japan.
In the southwest Pacific, six thousand miles from the United States, it doesn’t seem so to Lt. Jay Zeamer Jr. Zeamer, 24, is an undistinguished copilot with the nomadic 22nd Bomb Group, stationed, for now, at Woodstock, an air base in the northern prairies of Australia. A gravel airstrip surrounded by scores of pyramidal, canvas tents and no fixed facilities, it looks more like a Civil War encampment than a modern airfield. A motorcycle has to be used to clear cattle off the runway. Barely edible food, hordes of sticky flies, and endless monotony plague their days. Dust and overuse have worn down their planes, and being at the end of the supply chain has left them not scores, or even tens of aircraft to attack their formidable enemy, but a mere handful at any one time. A handful to cross hundreds of miles of shark-infested ocean, unescorted, through the most violent storms on Earth, to bomb one of the most fortified harbors in the world. Europe this is not. Even so, the threadbare bomb groups in the theater have done an almost miraculous job slowing down the Japanese advance. But slow it down is all they can do. What Jay Zeamer and everyone in the fight can plainly see is that the Japanese have absolute superiority in the air, bombing Allied forward bases at will and still pushing inexorably toward Australia.
Zeamer, however, doesn’t show it. He is a quiet, affable, unflappable man, well-liked by his squadron, sought out in private moments for his counsel. The modest exterior, however, belies a powerful need to excel, based on his own high standards, sometimes going around the rules to do so if necessary. He is, after all, a man who at age ten built his own primitive boat to sail around Boothbay Harbor in Maine, who became an Eagle Scout by the age of fourteen. A man who, failing the Navy eye exam, spent three months strengthening his eyes using now-discredited self-help eye exercises, and passed the Army exam. For Jay Zeamer, there is always a way. Now he is eager to do his part to move the war effort forward. Convinced in his belief that preparation and the confidence it creates are the surest way to survival, Jay wants to be a pilot and lead his own crew into combat.
For a year, though, he has been unable to achieve that goal, due to his inability to check out as first pilot in the bomber the 22nd Group flies, the unfairly maligned B-26 Marauder It is a high-performance aircraft infamous for its reputation for killing those who attempt to land it with Zeamer’s relaxed approach. His personality simply doesn’t fit the plane. The result has been Jay’s eternal status as copilot, and an undercurrent of unease throughout the squadron in flying with him. It’s one thing to like someone; it’s another to trust him with your life in the air. The combination has left Zeamer a well-liked outsider in his own squadron.
THERE'S ALWAYS A WAY
Up to now the 22nd has been busy with some of the first strikes against Rabaul, the major Japanese stronghold in the Pacific—the first combat missions of the B-26 in the war—making it possible for Zeamer to ignore his status. But now, with his squadron idled for rest and its aircraft dwindling, Jay sees his prospects for making a difference his way diminishing. For three months he has practiced landings, sometimes six at a time, with his flight school buddy and best friend in their squadron, Walt Krell, in an effort to “get the monkey off his back,” as Krell puts it. But the monkey won’t leave; Zeamer simply can’t overcome his natural relaxed approach to the B-26.
His predicament only gets worse when, in August, his regular pilot and crew are lost on a mission over New Guinea without him. As perhaps the most experienced copilot in the entire group, and a solid pilot in the air, missions continue to come his way, but now with double the skepticism—one for his known issues on landing, another in the skepticism of outsiders by crews with months of camaraderie behind them.
Ever the engineer and monk, Jay doesn’t get frustrated—Krell will say later he never saw Zeamer show any frustration, no matter the circumstance—but with little to challenge him, he does disengage. On a mission to Lae on September 13, 1942, stuck again as copilot, Zeamer is paired with an up-and-coming pilot on one of his first missions as pilot-in-command. When the pilot calls for power going into the bomb run, nothing happens. Another call to Zeamer, and still nothing. Falling back from the lead bomber, now out of formation, the desperate pilot looks and discovers the problem: Jay, with little to do or asked of him, has fallen asleep. It was said the imperturbable Zeamer could sleep anywhere; here, even in his Mae West and the WWI helmet he wears for protection against flak, was proof. An arm across his chest wakes Zeamer and he immediately gets the power up where they need.
The mission is still a success, but there’s little question of the trouble awaiting him upon landing. Even Krell, a much respected leader in the squadron, will be of little help.
As it turns out, Krell will help, but in a most unintentional way. Returning from the same mission, Krell’s B-26 clips an uncleared tree stump just short of the runway, swerves into a nearby truck, and explodes into flames. In his heroic but vain attempt to rescue his trapped Australian copilot, Krell receives third-degree burns on his legs. He will be hospitalized for weeks. In a single day, Jay’s situation in the squadron has turned about as bleak as possible. Once again, however, his belief that “there’s always a way” finds a way out—literally. In a highly unorthodox move, even for the unorthodox Southwest Pacific theater, Zeamer requests a transfer. Not merely to a different squadron, but to a different group altogether, flying a different bomber: the B-17 Flying Fortress.
The 43rd Bomb Group had arrived in theater around a month earlier, flying B-17Fs fresh from the factory. Jay knows the 43rd; he served with it briefly at Langley before he was transferred, with a bevy of other second lieutenants, to Patterson Field. The Air Corps needed them to service test the new B-26. The move was what led to his assignment with the 22nd Bomb Group in the first place. Zeamer also knows the B-17. He’s seen firsthand how rugged it is; other bomb groups in the theater have been flying older models for months. The aircraft are worn down, mottled with patches, but still flying. He respects the aircraft, and has a feeling about it. He knows a fresh start when he sees one.
Even with his history in the 22nd, his request no doubt surprises his commanding officer and squadron mates, but if he wants to fly as command pilot with his own crew, he has no choice. >Beyond that, he knows it will benefit his own squadron, freeing up the right seat for someone who can become first pilot. Unusual as it is for a theater starved for veteran experience, his C.O. sees the logic and puts the transfer through. Six days after the bomb run incident and Krell’s crash, Zeamer departs the 22nd on an unknown aircraft, to an unknown destination. Likely he ended up in Mareeba or Townsville, both busy hubs for the Allied air forces. Whatever his route, on the morning of September 22, 1942, Zeamer arrives in barren Torrens Creek, where the scattered squadrons of the 43rd are reuniting after months apart, and reports for duty with the 403rd Bomb Squadron.
The odds are stacked against him from the start. The 403rd has more pilots than planes, so it will be an uphill climb to the left seat. That will be especially hard considering Zeamer has never flown the B-17 Flying Fortress. These are simply more of the challenges, though, that seem to be Jay Zeamer’s forté. In this case, however, upon learning the history of the squadron, Zeamer discovers fate for once may have extended him a most unexpected hand.
Joe Sarnoski, 27, is the highly respected squadron bombardier of the 403rd. Sarnoski and Zeamer had met at Langley in 1941 when Sarnoski had been a bomber and gunnery instructor for the 2nd Bomb Group. It was an improbable friendship, considering the dramatic contrast of their backgrounds. While Zeamer grew up in an upper middle class home in the shadow of New York City, Sarnoski was the fifth of sixteen children born to a coal miner and his wife in the rolling coal fields of Pennsylvania. The Sarnoskis grew their own fruits and vegetables and hunted their own meat, the latter being one of young Joe’s responsibilities.
Like Zeamer, though, Sarnoski was driven from the start to excel, and to fly. His room, too, was decorated with models of planes that he had built. In grade school he earned enough extra money on the side to buy his own accordion, and by twelve he had learned it well enough to join a youth band that traveled the state playing graduations and weddings. After spending his high school years helping on the farm, he joined the CCC, using it as a springboard to join the Air Corps and fulfill his dream of flight. By summer 1941, he had done that, excelling enough as a bombardier to put on demonstrations for the brass at Langley.
Now, however, in the Southwest Pacific, Sarnoski can relate to Zeamer’s experience, though in reverse: he’s part of a top-notch crew, but after months in theater has yet to see combat. The 403rd has spent the spring and summer as essentially a service squadron, repairing the planes of the 19th and other bomb groups, veterans of the Philippines and after who have been fighting defiantly ever since. They are the ones who have pricked, heckled, and plugged, and by their fingernails helped keep the Japanese at bay, barely, from Australia.
While important work that the 403rd can be proud of, it’s a tough assignment for men long ready to make their own mark against the Japanese. Sarnoski, like Zeamer, has high ambitions for himself: he wants to sink five ships before he goes home. But for now he remains the teacher he’s been since Langley, giving classes in aerial gunnery and leading bombing practice in the fields around Torrens Creek. All the more impatiently, too, now that some of the 403rd’s pilots and enlisted men, including members of his own crew, are flying missions with a sister squadron, the 63rd—Zeamer’s first assignment at Langley—in anticipation of the 403rd starting combat itself.
Zeamer soon has a happy reunion with his surprised friend, but there’s little Sarnoski can do to help him initially beyond respect and reputation by association. That’s no small thing when the association includes his pilot, squadron commander Major “Nick” Charles, and his very popular crewmate and friend, squadron navigator Lt. “Rocky” Stone. It’s enough, in fact, that Charles leaves Zeamer in command of the squadron just four days his arrival, while Charles and other senior officers are away.
But it doesn’t change Zeamer’s lack of history in the 403rd or lack of experience in the B-17. On the latter Jay wastes no time: two days after he arrives, Jay is in the right seat on a supply mission. Four days after that, he’s in the left, and mostly stays there as he becomes a self-described “squadron errand boy,” building time and experience in the B-17 as quickly as possible. He spends his time on the ground attending operational briefings, assists in some intelligence work, and reportedly, despite being a first lieutenant, even helps in the mess.
In early October, the 403rd moves to Iron Range, a new airbase carved out of the jungle in the far northeastern tip of Australia. 403rd crews begin flying their first combat missions attached to the 63rd, but not yet Sarnoski or Zeamer, who remain in line but not yet at the front of it. Sarnoski must wait his turn, until Major Charles takes his first solo mission, but Zeamer, true to form, finds a way to skip to the front of the line.
Shortly before Halloween, while on temporary duty in Mareeba, the Australian rear base from which the 63rd and 403rd combat crews are operating, Zeamer volunteers as copilot for a mission with a different B-17 group altogether. Once in Port Moresby for combat, he finds more, some as copilot, some as navigator. One of these is with his old 63rd squadron, thanks to another familiar face from Langley days: barnstorming pilot Ken McCullar, who’s already becoming a legend throughout the 5th Air Force through his breathtaking, treetop exploits against the enemy. That night, Jay learns from McCullar just what a pilot can do with a B-17, and another close friendship is kindled.
November brings yet another move to yet another jungle airstrip, but this time actually into the combat zone. Located on the easternmost tip of New Guinea, Milne Bay has already been the focus of a Japanese invasion attempt, lying less than a flight hour away from Port Moresby, the 5th Air Force’s main base of combat operations in the Southwest Pacific.
For once, though, they don’t have to create the campsite themselves. They’re moving into the area formerly held by members of the 19th Bomb Group, whose veterans are finally rotating home. The 19th’s newer members, however, are assigned to the 403rd, along with others just arriving in Australia. In all, close to a hundred new faces are added to the squadron. Two of them will become quite familiar to Zeamer and Sarnoski in the coming months.
But while the squadron does fly sixty-one missions over the month, they are almost all single-plane reconnaissance missions by a few crews. Most of the squadron spends the month getting ready for the move, including Sarnoski, who as a master sergeant helps supervise much of the effort while Major Charles tends to squadron business in Townsville. Zeamer spends most of the month stalking chances to fly, but these, too, end up squadron-related.
Not until November 20 does one of the men get on a mission. Fittingly, it’s Zeamer, and in typical fashion. When their plane gets mired in the mud prior to take-off, copilot Zeamer—who has yet to officially transition to first pilot in the B-17—arranges to take over as pilot-in-command for the mission. It seems meant to be, and everything about the mission foretells things to come.
The mission is a reconnaissance of Rabaul, the most fortified Japanese base in the Pacific and the hinge of all Japanese activity in the theater. Rather than abort when they arrive to find it blanketed by a thick overcast, Zeamer dives beneath the clouds to get the photos. They do get them, but also attract the attention of some of the twenty Zeros circling in protection. Jay avoids them by dropping into a cloud bank below them, in a dive so precipitous it sucks the entry hatch off the belly turret, and staying there until they’re out of harm’s way. And still the excitement isn’t over. Returning home, Zeamer decides to pay a low-pass congratulatory visit to an air base reportedly now in friendly hands, only to find that it isn’t. The battle is joined again, this time by anti-aircraft fire and more Zeros. A la McCullar, Jay dives the Fortress down too low for the ack-ack and for any Zeros to get under them. As he learned in the 22nd, Zeamer turns into the Zeros attacking from the front, sending one home and one into the trees below. The running dogfight lasts twenty minutes. Jay’s incredible flying skills and coolness under pressure help them get back home with no one wounded but a tire, which Jay lands on, flat, like an expert.
His actions and ability don’t go unnoticed. His aggressive flying causes some raised eyebrows, and the belly turret gunner refuses to fly with him again, but for getting the photos of Rabaul Harbor and their remarkable escape, Zeamer is awarded the Silver Star. Wire news stories of the mission circulate back home. He is also considered now, without a doubt, checked out in the B-17. Eight weeks after joining a new squadron, in a new plane, his goal of achieving first pilot with his own crew is now half-accomplished.
The other half will have to wait, though, due, ironically, to itself. Lacking a crew of his own, Zeamer is the officer most suited to overseeing a detached assignment of over seventy men remaining in Iron Range when the move to Milne Bay finally happens three days after his debut. He’ll be there, without a single flight, for three weeks.
Sarnoski, too, suddenly sees the light at the end of the tunnel snuffed out. With the camp, and thus Major Charles, now settled, their turn—Joe’s turn—to go into combat is at hand. Instead, on November 29, the same day the squadron has the sobering experience of its first air raid, it loses its commanding officer. Charles accompanies another crew that’s been dispatched to shadow a retreating Japanese convoy. The crew radios back when it finds the convoy—and is never heard from again.
The squadron is stunned. As days pass and it becomes apparent the missing crew will remain missing, Charles’ crewmen face the inevitable prospect of being reassigned to other crews. Zeamer knows this, and while sensitive to his friend’s loss, can’t help but see the possibilities, now that he’s a pilot in search of a crew himself. Unfortunately he can’t act on the idea while stuck back in Australia at Iron Range.
Across the Coral Sea in Milne Bay, Sarnoski is a bucket of emotions. In mid-December, thanks in part to his friend and crewmate Rocky—who as squadron operations officer assigns crews to missions—Joe finally achieves his long-awaited goal of getting into combat. While a thrill and personal triumph, it’s bittersweet now, and heavy with uncertainty. He and Rocky are at the top of their professions, yet face flying with the new, unproven pilots coming in fresh from the States. The experienced pilots in the 403rd already have crews. As ops officer, Rocky can try to get them with proven pilots, but with the squadron now being decimated by malaria and dengue fever, the choice isn’t always for him to make.
Zeamer’s detached assignment finally comes to an end a week before Christmas. Back in Milne Bay on the 21st, Zeamer is antsy to approach Joe about teaming up, only to discover that both Sarnoski and Stone are still in Port Moresby on missions. Not until Christmas Eve does he finally get the chance. It’s only Joe—Stone still isn’t back—but that’s enough. For Joe it’s a Christmas miracle. He can only speak for himself, but he’s all in. He’ll talk to Rocky when he sees him.
Jay almost sees him first. Pressing for action even on Christmas Day, he gets himself back to Moresby for missions, but Stone returns to Milne Bay. Over three days he flies two recon missions of Japanese shipping lanes with assigned crews. The missions are a success, but Zeamer dislikes the uncertainty of a crew unused to his methods and approach.
Returning to Milne Bay, Jay gets the news: Rocky likes the idea, but can’t commit. He fills in too much, and his squadron duties keep him moving. So for now, Zeamer will have to look elsewhere. Still, it caps an impressive feat: In three months, Jay Zeamer has gone from an unknown in a new squadron flying a new plane, to a decorated first pilot with the beginnings of a top-notch crew. Now they just need to fill it out.
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 eager approach to combat. It’s one thing to brave the risks of the missions they’re assigned; it’s another to seek them out. Zeamer, though, belying his calm, methodical demeanor, would rather be busy and making whatever difference he can. The difference culls the wheat from the chaff; in the first few weeks, four crew members will quit for Zeamer’s constant volunteering for missions.
The first addition to the crew that will become the Eager Beavers is copilot Hank Dyminski, a former high school All-Star tight end and appliance repairman. Dyminski’s been in the theater for less than a month, the 403rd for less than a week, when Jay taps him as copilot. Zeamer doesn’t mind that he’s seen no combat yet; easier to bring someone new up in his style than have to bring a veteran around to it. Joe likes him, too; the fact that Hank’s a fellow Pole is a big plus. Hank hedges against Jay’s eagerness himself at first; unlike Zeamer, Dyminski has a wife at home. But like Jay, Hank does want to fly, and he likes Jay’s even temperament.
Next are the trio from 8th Photo. Joe has been combing the enlisted ranks for available, quality candidates, and finds three recent transfers who’ve come into the 403rd from the relative boredom of a photo recon unit’s ground and support staff. Not only are they friends already used to working together, they’re a complete package: a photographer and two engineers, one short enough for a belly turret. Better still, their personalities fit Jay and Joe. There’s the quiet-spoken flight engineer, Bud Thues, an engineer through and through: He builds working model planes from his own plans, before enlisting was a technician at Technicolor and Disney, and like Zeamer, even a private pilot. Thues is mentor to Johnnie Able, Jr., at nineteen the youngest of the crew. He’s a sweet South Carolina kid, with a romantic view of the world and who, like Joe, loves to sing. On Jay’s crew, he becomes Thues’ assistant and belly turret gunner. Then there’s the “spark plug,” as Zeamer calls him—George Kendrick. As a waist gunner, he doesn’t want to be “bumpin’ asses” with somebody else; he wants the guns all to himself. As a photographer, he can help Zeamer get all the mapping missions he wants to himself.
Then there are the floaters. Cool, reserved radio operator William “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. (He put his own knife through the Jap who did it; there’s a reason they call him “Iron Pants.”) His tour wasn’t up when the 19th went home, so he found himself in the 403rd, rotating between crews as disease took its toll. Eventually it catches him, too, but it keeps him off crews until Zeamer needs a new radio man, and Rocky Stone vouches for him. Zeamer knows tailgunner Herb “Pudge” Pugh already. He was part of Jay’s detached contingent at Iron Range, and has been in the 403rd almost as long as Zeamer. (It’s an ironic nickname; a former wrestler who, like Jay, loves to stay fit, it stems from Able’s refusal to call him “Pughie.”) Jay likes his quiet confidence and skill with a .50, thanks to Pugh’s advanced gunnery training in Australia. Joe enjoys his easy nature and the fact that he’s a fellow Pennsylvanian.
And within a couple of weeks, there’s Rocky Stone. When their navigator on the first few missions has enough of Zeamer’s volunteering for missions, Stone officially signs on. While uncertain of Zeamer at first, he trusts Joe’s judgment, and he appreciates that Zeamer would rather sit in a cockpit than sit in a tent. Stone’s risen like a rocket through the 403rd thanks to his own drive and initiative. He likes having a pilot who shares the same, even if it involves extra risk. (Later in the war, Stone will rescue a burning B-29 still rolling on the runway by climbing into it from a racing Jeep.)
It’s just the crew Zeamer and Sarnoski had in mind. To a man they are practical and professional, easy-going and confident without being cocky. Most important, they’re willing to take whatever their pilot and bombardier throw at them: shooting at logs in the water for gunnery practice, stripping and reassembling guns blindfolded, learning the duties of the other positions on the crew. They do it because they recognize the purpose: training and preparation are their best hedges against risk. The lower the risk, the greater chance they’ll get home. They want to make sure as much as Zeamer does that there’s always a way.
A START . . . AND A STOP
Jay and Joe’s instincts about them prove correct. On the first mission together of half the eventual crew—it’s Dyminski’s first foray into combat—Zeamer and Sarnoski find their way to Rabaul through a thunderstorm without the aid of a navigator, and Joe sinks an 8000-ton Japanese transport, the biggest score for the squadron for all of January. It’s an auspicious start, but that’s all it is.
Their progress is interrupted by a terrible 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, the entire 403rd is removed from the combat zone back to Australia. Joe himself is given two weeks of sick leave. The result is extended inactivity for the rest of the crew, who pace the area in and around Mareeba awaiting their turn for leave.
With much of the squadron on leave, the 403rd flies only five missions in February, but two of them are flown by Zeamer and what crew he has. For once, it’s unintentional. Under cover of an overhaul, Jay has a B-17, stripped for transport use, flown to Mareeba to get farm-fresh groceries for the 43rd squadrons in Port Moresby, and to earn flight pay for the crew and others. Instead, headquarters takes the groceries itself and orders Zeamer and crew to prove their “overhauled” plane on a large assault on Rabaul that night. Initially hesitant, the crew dubs the lack of guns little concern on a night mission. They take fragmentation and incendiary bombs to toss out by hand, along with empty Coke bottles that fall with a terrifying whistle.
Their target, unfortunately, is a dismal one: a Rabaul city hotel where Japanese brass are expected to be—and prostitutes and geisha girls are known to be. Catholic Sarnoski, back from sick leave, refuses to bomb innocent women, so Zeamer allows him to pick his own target. Joe directs them to a naval air corps supply warehouse and oil dump nearby, and their hand-tossed bombs carpet it, starting a huge fire. Command is unamused, ordering them out again the next night with the same target. Sarnoski doesn’t yield, this time targeting an ammunition dump, to spectacular, firework effect. Headquarters doesn’t ask them to go again. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that just afterward, their turn for leave finally arrives.
Back to civilization the men go. For almost a month, they are away from musty tents, stiffening sickness, and muddy air raid trenches. Almost two weeks of it are spent on trains, with daily afternoon stops for tea at whatever country outpost suffices. Some, like Dyminski and Thues, go to Sydney, staying in temporary apartments, going to dances and the beaches, eating proper food, sightseeing, and generally just taking it easy. Able and Vaughan, on the other hand, are invited to stay at the house of Able’s Australian fianceé. The young couple are only recently engaged, and now she’s gotten cold feet. Able seems uncertain himself. Suddenly the war seems almost simpler. Yet still it’s nice to feel the throb and pains of normal life again. By the time their time away is over, they are rejuvenated, and have a bond they didn’t have before.
By mid-March, Zeamer is beyond ready to return to work, having spent the first two weeks of the month on squadron business. On the 15th he’s appointed operations officer for the 403rd. The position gives him more leeway in finding the crew missions, but Jay has more ambitious plans. Days later, after getting the crew to Port Moresby to hunt missions, he’s transferred to the 65th Bomb Squadron, already based at Port Moresby along with the 64th, now headed by Ken McCullar, Jay’s intrepid and close friend previously of the 63rd. While in Port Moresby, Zeamer works transfers for the entire crew, to go through soon.
All but one, that is: Rocky Stone receives orders to return to the United States. In one blow they lose a good friend and valuable crew member. Worse, they can’t find a suitable replacement. For the time being, Zeamer opts to simply go without again, relying on his and Sarnoski’s experience and navigation skills.
JOINING THE BATTLE
Even as they wait for the transfers, Zeamer keeps them busy, finding a string of missions for them with the 64th. Over a six-day period, they fly a mission every day. It helps to be where the action is.
After the week of solid combat, the crew is returned to Australia for a break. In one of the many surreal experiences in war, one of their tasks is to pick up and deliver a major and his orchestra instruments, including a piano. Once the crew’s transfers are effective, though, they are back at work.
After their first official mission with the 65th, the entire group, but Zeamer especially, is hit with terrible news. In a shocking twist of fate, McCullar and his entire crew are killed in a freak accident on take-off. Jay loses one of his best friends and a man of his kind. It sharpens Zeamer’s purpose, and reinforces his perspective on fate: You can’t escape it no matter how careful you are; it will find you if it wants you. All you can do is choose to be crippled by it or not. Jay chooses not to be. Newly appointed as squadron operations officer in the 65th, Jay is in the driver’s seat. All missions have to go through him first.
Being new to the 65th, the crew meets a degree of wait-and-see, but Zeamer’s volunteering, and the nickname they’ve given themselves—the “Eager Beavers”—make a quick impression, and in short order they’re establishing a reputation. When a typical night raid on Rabaul gets delayed and becomes a rare and dangerous daylight raid, three 65th planes turn back, but three continue—one of them Zeamer. Picking his own target, Jay makes a solo bombing run on one of the most heavily defended airstrips at Rabaul from 7500 feet. The crew receives credit for shooting down a Zero, a flak hole in their wing big enough to jump through, and Silver Stars all around.
When a formation bombing run over Wewak is threatened by Japanese searchlights, Zeamer circles and dives down to let the crew strafe the lights, darkening three of them, while the remaining bombers make their runs. Brass is furious: Endangering the plane and crew that way is strictly against regulations. But it’s how the Eager Beavers see their role, and the newspapers love it, so Jay is left alone.
When they can’t find Port Moresby during one of the monster thunderstorms that regularly drive planes back to base or into mountains and ocean, the crew keeps its cool, even as the fuel gauges drop to empty. Flying under the clouds for better visibility, they have to fire their guns towards the water to monitor their altitude. Finally they catch the glow of the airfield searchlights, and with Hank watching the instruments, Jay lands without ever seeing the ground.
No mission seems beyond their ability. It’s not by accident. Zeamer and Sarnoski’s focus on preparation and training never wavers, with post-mission reviews of what happened, and what they can do better next time. It shows in their results, and they’re getting recognized for it. Various crew members receive promotions, including Zeamer to captain, but not Joe, a continuing source of consternation to him and his crewmates. All of them receive decorations for their earlier missions, or word of more coming.
Yet Jay’s desire to fly more remains unquenched. Two weeks after they arrive in the 65th, photographer Kendrick informs Zeamer that a B-17E specially equipped for mapping work has been returned to the 65th by his old squadron, the 8th Photo. The 8th is happy to be rid of it, calling it a “Hard Luck Hattie” for its colorful history of damage expected and unexpected. In one case, a life raft had broken free inside, been sucked out the port waist window, and wrapped, fully inflated, around the port elevator. Despite the side gunner deflating it with his .50, the raft stayed put, damaging the elevator and requiring the aircraft to return to base. Later, on a mission to Rabaul the previous December, it got shot up so badly that it sat for weeks waiting for repair. The plane’s serial number, #41-2666, seems to sum up its fate well.
Zeamer doesn’t care. To him it’s an opportunity to snag the mapping missions no one else wants to do. As squadron exec, he requisitions 666, as the crew comes to refer to the plane, and has it towed to one of the 65th’s earthwork revetments as another pet project. Guarding against grabby hands, Zeamer has red tape stretched across the front of the revetment and posts “No admittance” signs for extra measure.
Photographic mapping requires straight and level flight for an extended period of time at high altitude, allowing for no evasive maneuvers and plenty of notice of their presence, so for Zeamer and his crew, it’s all about speed and being able to defend themselves. Handy men all, the crew sets to work on the plane, largely on its own, officers and enlisted men together, over the next two weeks in their spare time. They replace the old rattly engines with new ones, and strip out over two thousand pounds of parts and structure they don’t need: armor plating, soundproofing, even ammunition belts and feeds. They’ll feed it directly from the boxes of .50 caliber rounds set beneath the guns, 250 per box.
The only thing added to the plane is firepower. When they’re finally done with 666, they have given Flying Fortress new meaning: The plane bristles with sixteen .50-caliber guns, with spares on the catwalk. Zeamer has a second .50 mounted through the nose just for him to fire. That’s not original, only another lesson learned from Ken McCullar. What is original are the twin .50s mounted in the waist, an unprecedented field modification, never seen before, or again, on a Pacific B-17.
By late May, change is in the air—and on the ground. The 43rd’s beloved but beleaguered B-17s are getting used up from months of heroic use, and being slowly replaced by the B-24 Liberator. Their friends, those who’ve survived this long, are beginning to go home. It’s hard for the Eager Beavers not to be the ones returning home, but it leaves them among the few battle-tested veterans at the tip of the spear, sitting pretty at the top of the 65th heap. Zeamer himself, in fact, is transferred to Bomber Command, but retains his crew and flight status. The real cherry on top is Joe receiving a long-overdue battlefield commission to second lieutenant. It’s a pleasant surprise to everyone but Jay, who used his clout to make it happen. What does surprise everyone are Joe’s orders to return home on June 19, in just three weeks, to teach at a bombardier school. While they knew long-termers like Joe and Jay were up for it, it’s still a shock.
But work is work, and the bombing and mapping continues. On their first mapping mission in 666, they document a new Japanese airstrip and spot a Jap naval convoy on their maiden mapping mission.
They do it with a new navigator as well. Such missions extend to the limit of their range, and for that Zeamer wants a dedicated navigator, a position they haven’t filled since moving to the 65th. Ruby Johnston comes highly recommended. He’s been in the 65th for a few months—even survived two weeks in the jungle after ditching in the dark in January—but now he’s at loose ends. Jay likes him, and taps him to join Joe in the nose on their extended missions.
One mapping job in particular has been hanging for weeks. Part of the strategic plan to neutralize Rabaul involves an invasion of Bougainville Island in the northern Solomons. For that, command needs accurate maps of the island, particularly Empress Augusta Bay on its southwest coast. The success of a marine landing there will hinge on those maps, and the maps are generated from high-altitude photos.
What it means to the planners is a twenty-two minute mapping run, on a cloudless early morning, starting at Bougainville’s northern tip, almost six hundred miles away from Port Moresby, at the limit of the B-17s range. Bomb bay fuel tanks will be needed for this one. What that means for an aircrew is an eternity of non-evasive flight, in the daytime, below standard cruise, stomach deep in enemy territory, alone. What that means for command is a volunteer mission. That’s why Zeamer and his crew found themselves in their C.O.’s office in May with Generals Whitehead and Ramey, getting the lowdown. Zeamer agreed to the mission then, follow by the crew, on their condition that only Jay would pilot it. Zeamer also insisted that there be no interference with the mapping mission. It would be dangerous enough on its own. They all got their way.
What they haven’t gotten for weeks is the right weather. But now, in mid-June, they do. June 15 dawns clear and calm, and before Zeamer and the crew know about it, 8th Photo takes a shot at the mapping run. The Eager Beavers get the call to be ready to go in any case, and good thing: the 8th’s flight goes beautifully, with no interference from the Japanese, but incredibly, both cameras fail. Command still needs the photos.
The Eager Beavers jump into action, Joe included. Even though as bombardier he’s not required to be on the flight—even though he’s slated to be on a plane home in just four days—he volunteers to go. Partly it’s due to friendship and loyalty, but it’s also because he knows they’re two men down: copilot Dyminski and flight engineer Thues are both grounded with malaria. Zeamer’s good friend and flight surgeon Milton “Doc” Gusack advises him not to take the mission for that very reason. Jay hears Doc out, but for him it’s out of the question. Dyminski taps his good friend and flight school buddy J. T. Britton, who accompanied him to the Southwest Pacific, to take his place. Meanwhile Able, Thues’ assistant and normal belly turret gunner, gets a single-mission promotion to flight engineer and top turret. Taking his place in the belly turret is squadron armorer Forrest Dillman, who’s never flown in combat.
The crew spends the afternoon checking their stations and prepping 666, newly christened Lucy by Zeamer just days before for an old girlfriend at Langley. The bomb bay fuel tanks are installed and filled, extra ammunition distributed, and spare guns loaded in the waist in case of jams. Faster to dump a jammed gun and replace it than try to fix it while hot. With these spares, they’ll have a total of nineteen on board. Radio operator Vaughan brings an additional liaison radio, just in case. Jay wants to strip the paint off, but there’s no time. In the afternoon, they take 666 up for a check flight, test-firing all sixteen mounted guns in the process. The plane is ready. It’s time to get some sleep. Wake-up call is 0330, with take-off an hour later.
Then at 10 p.m., Zeamer gets a call from Bomber Command. 8th Photo has had to scrub a recon mission of Japan’s Buka airfield the next day; the F-4 Lightning slated to do it has been grounded. Bomber Command wants Zeamer to add it to the Bougainville mapping run. The Japanese airbase is on tiny Buka Island, which almost touches the northern tip of Bougainville, a mere fifteen minutes north of where Zeamer’s mapping run is to start.
The normally sedate Zeamer is angry. He had an agreement with Whitehead and Ramey: No interference with the mapping. He refuses. It’s one thing to do a mapping mission so close to an active Jap airbase. It’s another to stir up the hornet’s nest next door before you start. Upset, Zeamer never gets back to sleep.
It’s Wednesday, June 16, 1943. As 666 taxis in the moonless dark to the runway, a jeep cuts them off, delivering by hand an order to add the Buka recon to the trip. Zeamer does his duty and passes it around to the crew, but again dismisses it out of hand.
The almost four-hour flight to Bougainville begins beautifully, treating them to a spectacular breaking of dawn above the wide blue plain of the Solomon Sea. It is as uneventful as a transport flight to Australia. The crew clear their guns; Joe whistles his Polish tunes; cat naps are had. The flight is, in fact, too smooth: Even with the delay before take-off, they arrive over Bougainville a half-hour early. The sun is too low for mapping: Not enough illumination of the topography below.
The crew has a choice to make, Jay tells them: they can circle northwest and kill time over the water, or circle northeast and do the recon of Buka airstrip. In reality, there is no choice. The crew knows the dangers of delay, both in terms of weather windows and the time necessary to create the maps, as well as of another crew having to assume the risk. What kind of men would they be to pass off to another crew on another day what they can do right then? The decision is a little easier for having just been to Buka two weeks before, with only light resistance from a half-dozen green Zeros not known for pressing their luck.
The answer comes unanimously over the interphone: “Let’s do the goddamn recce.” Zeamer puts 666 into a wide circle north to head over Buka from the northeast.
It’s a fateful decision. What the crew doesn’t know is that the Japanese have moved hundreds of fighters and bombers to Rabaul and the upper Solomons in the preceding days—hence Bomber Command’s desire for the Buka recon—including a veteran Japanese Navy squadron to Buka. What the crew also doesn’t know is why: the Japanese have scheduled for that same day a large attack on shipping off Guadalcanal and Tulagi. So the dot trailing four brilliant white contrails against the blue sky high above, photographing and recording their strength, cannot be tolerated. Japanese pilots scramble to their planes as if their lives depend on it, because they do.
Having already checked to ensure the camera is working properly, Kendrick climbs into the empty belly turret for a better view; Dillman is waiting to enter the cramped ball until necessary. Sticking his hand up out of the open belly turret hatch, he uses his fingers to show the count of enemy aircraft taking off. When he runs out of fingers, he waves his hand and climbs out of the turret. It’s time for Dillman to take over. Kendrick gets ready at the twin fifties on either side of the waist. Once in the belly turret, Dillman keeps counting. He reports eighteen Zeros either taking off or taxiing to do so.
In minutes, they’ve left Buka behind and Zeamer has swung the nose parallel to Bougainville’s west coast. The long mapping run down the coast of Bougainville has begun. Behind them, the climbing Zeros glint silver in the morning sun. These aren’t Army green; they’re Navy gray, and climbing faster than their Army counterparts, straining to catch the lone Fortress flying straight and level, unable to break away without forfeiting its mission. Zeamer estimates they have about twenty minutes before the Zeros catch them—and their run is twenty-two minutes long.
As the mission begins its twenty-first minute, the trap is being set. Out of caution, Vaughan sends out a communication with his best guess about their position and that they’re under attack, which now they are. Two Zeros have already made ineffectual initial passes from below, spooked by the furious extra streams of tracers flashing toward them. But now three Zeros approach in a loose vertical line from 10:00. These advance closer, punching a few holes in the front of 666, but they, too, are nervous of the extra—and extra sharp—firepower of this particular B-17, and peel off.
But this is almost a diversion, giving the Zeros behind them time to coordinate even more tightly. This trio converges on 666 in a horizontal line across the front at 10:00, 12:00, and 2:00. The interphone crackles from the back: two more Zeros are closing from the rear at 4:00 and 8:00. Zeamer has never seen Zeros as coordinated as this, confirming his belief that these are crack Japanese Navy pilots. Jay knows he’s made a mistake to do the recon he said he wouldn’t do. He knows he could break off without censure in the face of such resistance. But he also knows it’s taken a month already to get this day, and that it’s Empress Augusta Bay, silver-blue in the morning sun twenty-five thousand feet below them, that Command wants the most. That’s where the Marines would land. Right now is their shot; he can’t break off. But neither will he be able to use his usual aggressive maneuvering against these three in front. Doing so will expose their belly too much to the rest. They’ll have to shoot their way out. But this is why they turned 666 into the arsenal it is.
As the last minute of the mapping run begins, Jay assigns the left Zero to Joe, the right to Ruby; he’ll take the center one himself with his own .50. Joe tells the gunners to “keep on your toes” and “give ’em hell.” Zeamer orders all gunners to fire at will. The Fortress shakes as its sixteen .50 caliber machine guns erupt at once. Just as they do, the incoming Zeros roll over on their backs for a faster breakaway . . .
Ruby Johnston’s Zero at 2:00 dives away with little fight, perhaps choosing to protect his plane for the Guadalcanal attack that afternoon. Zeamer and Sarnoski’s foes show no such reticence and continue driving toward the nose. Machine gun fire peppers the nose and Joe is struck in the neck, but he ignores it and doubles-down.
The center Zero is surprised by Zeamer’s nose gun, since the bombardier is busy with the Zero at 10:00, but it, too, keeps closing in.
As Sarnoski’s tracers connect with the Zero at 10:00, the cannons on its wings light up. Having found its target with the 7.7mm machine gun fire, it unloads with the much larger 20mm cannon rounds. Two in quick succession hit the nose. Joe is blown off his chair onto the floor, a terrible gash is his side. Johnston is blown back beneath the flight deck, hit with debris in his forehead, head, left arm, and back. A third 20mm hits behind the pilot’s seat. Able, standing behind Jay in the top turret, gets a spray of shrapnel across his knees. The Zero drops away in a blur.
Zeamer’s Zero has unleashed its own cannons, lingering on its target until Jay, undaunted himself, sees his own fire hit the Zero’s wing root. Now it breaks off, too, but not before it manages to put a fourth 20mm shell into the Fortress, right through its Plexiglas nose.
It explodes on the bulkhead in back of Zeamer’s side of the instrument panel, blowing all the flight instruments out from the back, leaving instruments hanging by wires, and mangling Zeamer’s rudder pedals. Because he’s pulled his feet back under his seat, they’re mostly spared, but his left thigh is ripped open above the knee and his knee shattered, showing bone. His legs and arms are slashed by shrapnel; blood from his legs collects in his boots. and pulses from a deep gash in his right wrist onto the steering column. Miraculously, copilot Britton is unhurt, They and Able, who is restricted to short bursts due to the top turret jamming, have driven off the fighters in the rear without any damage to 666.
And still they aren’t in the clear. A twin-engine Japanese Irving, by coincidence on a recon of its own out of Rabaul in support of the imminent attack on Guadalcanal, sees the melee and decides to investigate. It too closes in from the left and below. Zeamer fears the worst; another hit could prove fatal. But through his broken instrument panel and the holes in the bulkhead, he can see his terribly wounded bombardier pulling himself back up to his gun, onto his seat. Seeing the Irving, Sarnoski drains what is left of his strength at it as it closes. Its pilot, surprised at the sudden fire from the dormant nose, breaks away quickly without firing a shot. As soon as it disappears, Joe wobbles and slumps onto the floor.
For an eerily quiet moment, they’re free of the fighters. But another immediate danger replaces that one. Johnston, his face covered in blood, lays Joe out on the floor. As he does, he sees flames behind him: the hydraulic and oxygen lines below and behind the flight deck have been severed and are on fire. They’re at 25,000 feet with no oxygen. He opens the hatch to the flight deck to report it—to Zeamer he looks like a red beet—then drops down to tackle the fire. As he does, Zeamer drops the right wing into a sharp, slicing dive to a breathable altitude. With the altimeter destroyed, Jay can only watch the manifold pressure climb to judge when they’re low enough to breathe freely. Despite the sudden plunge, despite the lack of communications due to the broken interphone, no crew member panics or leaves his post.
As soon as the pressure indicates they’re around 10,000 feet, with Britton’s help Zeamer hauls 666 out of its dive and opens the throttles west. Zeamer wants distance. They can breathe now, but only literally: the Zeros have followed them down. Radio operator Vaughan gets a good look, and shot, at the one that dives down from overhead, wounding him in the side of the neck as it rakes the top of the plane. It burns, but Able hears him laugh and yell through the bomb bay that he’s okay.
Johnston, on the other hand, is still working on the fire. He tears out hoses and equipment with his bare hands, almost blind from the blood caked on his face. Able comes to join him. Finally, swatting at the flames with hands and rags, Ruby’s hair half-burned, they get it out. Able informs Zeamer and Britton as he returns to the top turret. Johnston returns to the nose, because they still have company.
Leveling out, the crew watches the Zeros line up on both sides, single file, for their traditional frontal attack, sensing that the B-17 is now exposed from the front. They’re right: All of the forward fixed guns are either inoperable or unmanned due to wounded crew members. All Zeamer can do now is maneuver. Everything he’s ever learned in combat—and everything he’s taught his crew—is being put to the test. With supernatural will, Jay focuses past the soaring pain of his myriad wounds, the flowing blood, to fix his attention on the first attacker.
As the Zero banks into them and its nose guns blink to life, Zeamer banks inside the Zero’s turn, with Britton instinctively operating the rudder for him. The Zero, with its fixed guns and line of fire, is forced to turn into them, chasing the Fortress to try to put it in his sight. But he can’t; the B-17 is always just inside his fire. The harder the Japanese pilot banks into it, the more he rolls, and the more he’s exposed first to Kendrick and Dillman’s return fire, and then Pugh’s in the rear, as he roars past 666 standing on his wingtip. Leveling out, Zeamer repeats the process with the next. It’s the technique he learned back in the 22nd with Walt Krell—such ancient history it seems now—and the technique he’s drummed into his own crew so that they’ll know what to do when, like now, the interphone is out.
Every five to ten minutes, one by one, another Zero falls into the Beavers’ well-practiced trap, taking its turn, failing to connect, and getting raked by the rear gunners. Two, three, now four are hit, some smoking, some spraying oil. One ends up in the water; the others limp back to Buka. The rest doggedly continue trying to bring the impertinent B-17 down. All the while Zeamer tries to use his belt as a tourniquet for his leg, but never has enough time. Fortunately the cold air blasting through the cockpit’s broken skin helps to clot his wounds.
Across forty minutes of sky, Jay Zeamer, losing blood from wounds in both arms and legs, his left leg broken and useless, remains in full command of the Fort, violently evading the persistent attackers. Finally, running low on fuel and ammunition—they’ve expended most if not all their cannon allotment on the B-17—worn down and fed up by the tenacious Fortress’ agile defense, the last remaining Japanese fighters give up and retire home. Another mission awaits. 666 is alone once more, hoping now only to finish its own. Only a box and a half of ammunition remains in the entire plane.
AFTER THE FIRE
Free of the burden of battle, the Eager Beavers quickly take stock. They have four good engines—their saving grace. Zeamer cuts the throttle to conserve gas. But they have no flaps, no brakes, only a magnetic compass and airspeed indicator for instruments, a badly wounded navigator, a semi-conscious pilot, and no idea what bearing to take home. All they know is west, over by now around 350 miles of ocean. They know Sarnoski, and likely Zeamer, won’t survive the trip back over the Owen Stanley Mountains to Port Moresby. They’ll have to land at Dobodura, just inland of New Guinea’s east coast. But where is it? Are they north or south of it? Britton says south. Zeamer disagrees; they’re north of it. Though fading, he’s still pilot-in-command, so south they turn.
Britton needs to assess their casualties and situation. He asks Able if he can take the right seat. Able doesn’t hesitate, and impresses Britton with his comfort at the control. It confirms Zeamer’s insistence on having every crew member learn the basics of flying the plane as insurance against just such a situation. For his captain, and with designs on being a pilot himself, Able is glad to put the training to use. Britton immediately turns to Zeamer. Jay waves off morphine initially, concerned it will dull his senses and to ensure there’s enough for Joe and Ruby. Britton does the best he can for now with tourniquets.
Vaughan enters the cockpit holding a rag to his bleeding neck, smiling about their “pretty tough time.” With the interphone out, no one in the back has any idea of the severity of the damage up front. His smile disappears into shock and anger when he sees Zeamer’s condition and hears about what happened in the nose. Britton and Able are relieved to hear that Vaughan’s neck and Kendrick’s elbow are the only injuries in the back, and Vaughan learns of their new destination. He knows that with their navigator out of commission, he’s their best chance of getting a decent bearing to Dobodura. He immediately returns to the radio room to send a mayday and start working on the problem.
Britton, having done as much for Zeamer as Zeamer will allow, drops below to the nose compartment to check on Sarnoski and Johnston. Johnston lies on the floor near the doorway in pain, the adrenaline of battle no longer covering it. Britton finds Joe prostrate on the floor where Johnston had placed him, lying in a pool of blood, barely alive, clutching his rosary. As Britton gives Joe morphine, he’s joined in the compartment by Pudge Pugh, coming to check on his friend. Pudge is alarmed at the sight of Johnston, but goes cold when he sees Joe. At Britton’s instruction, yelled over the wind ripping through the perforated compartment, Pugh sits between the two wounded men, propping Joe’s head in his lap, to give him oxygen.
Britton turns his attention to Johnston, who is bleeding from scores of cuts, shallow and deep, across his forehead, shoulder, side, and back, with burns on his arms and even head where his hair has been burned off. Belly turret gunner Forrest Dillman arrives to see if he can help, but it’s too crowded as it is. After stanching the worst and giving Johnston some morphine for the pain, Britton leaves to give Zeamer the last of it. In the roaring silence, Johnston inquires after Sarnoski. Pudge assures him Joe is fine.
But Joe isn’t. In the comfort of his friend’s lap, ten thousand feet above the Solomon Sea, nine thousand miles from home, amidst scores of spent cartridges, debris, and blood, Joseph Raymond Sarnoski spends the last minutes of his twenty-eight years on Earth. In seventy-two hours, he would have been over the Coral Sea in another plane, headed south with others like him, likely leading them in song, beginning their long, and long-awaited, trips home.
In the cockpit, Zeamer has refused to give in to unconsciousness, even as he continues to lose blood. There’s simply too much to stop it all. Repeatedly he opens his eyes and advises Able about flying the plane, whether they’re gaining or losing altitude, and about their location. Whenever Able asks him how he’s doing, Zeamer responds, “I’m okay.” Upon Britton’s return from the nose compartment, Zeamer finally accepts what’s left of the morphine, and Able relinquishes the right seat back to Britton. He joins Kendrick and Dillman in the waist, leaving Vaughan to his diligent work in the radio compartment.
Willy Vaughan has had to work by Morse on the backup liaison unit, but it’s enough. Loading up the antenna for all it’s worth, he sends their position as best as he’s been able to determine it back to Seven-Mile Strip. It takes him a few tries, but finally he gets verification back from base. They can hear him. They send him a reciprocal and weather report. Using his facility chart, Vaughan works out an educated guess to Dobodura and hopes it’s right. He writes “247°M” on a piece of paper—west southwest—and takes it to the cockpit. Zeamer is conscious again, and both pilots wonder how Vaughan managed it. Britton has to admire Zeamer again, too: he was right to have headed south. Britton leans the plane left.
Vaughan returns to the radio room to continue updating, and getting updates from, Dobodura. He’s joined by Kendrick and Forrest Dillman, who relays position and weather reports to the pilots. Herb Pugh stays in the nose with Joe and Ruby. Despite his wounds, Johnston occasionally asks Pugh to describe landmarks to him, still trying his best to fulfill his navigator role.
The true waiting game has begun. 666 drones on across the open sea for what could be another two hours to Dobodura. They’ve lost Joe already; whether Zeamer will last that long is the unasked question. Britton nudges the throttles forward. All their hopes are pinned on Vaughan’s heading.
It’s almost dead-on, and Dobodura is ready for them. The men in the radio room assume crash positions. In the nose, Pugh stabilizes Sarnoski and Johnston. Britton has Able brace himself behind and between the pilot and copilot seats to help secure Zeamer from falling.
With no brakes or flaps, Britton is landing hot. He cuts the engines just before the tires touch to help slow the plane. The landing is so smooth the crew can barely tell they’re on the ground. The aircraft rolls, and rolls, eating up all of the 6000-foot runway. As 666 approaches the end of it, Britton gently steers the B-17 off into the dirt in a smooth arc and brings it to an anticlimactic stop.
As it does, vehicles pull up alongside. Base personnel and staff from a portable surgical hospital begin coordinating with the crew. Roused by the activity, Jay hears a medic announce, “Get the pilot last. He’s dead.” It’s a simple misunderstanding from the clipped Morse transmissions, but still draws a sharp rebuke from the crew. With extreme care, Zeamer is lifted out the top of the cockpit; Sarnoski and Johnston are taken out the back. When the back of the plane is clear, Kendrick resumes his role as photographer, removing just as carefully the other precious cargo on board: the film for which all the morning’s sacrifices have been made.
They spend the night at Dobodura. Zeamer has lost almost half of his body’s blood supply. Amputation of the left leg at the knee is assumed, but it will have to wait. First he needs blood or he’ll most assuredly die of blood loss during the amputation. Due to the lack of refrigeration, the portable hospital doesn’t have blood, but it does have plasma. The medics get enough plasma into Zeamer to keep him alive overnight, leaving the amputation to a better equipped hospital. In the meantime, a determined surgeon spends hours working on Zeamer’s mangled left leg. Having done what he can, he puts the leg in a cast from thigh to toe.
The next morning, a B-17 arrives to fly the crew back home. Dyminski, still stiff with malaria, demands to come along as copilot. When he investigates 666 himself, he finds the copilot seat filled with shrapnel. He suddenly remembers that, unlike himself, Britton sits forward when flying in combat. With a chill Hank realizes what it could have meant had he been allowed to make the mission like he wanted.
At the hospital in Port Moresby, “Doc” Gusack sees his friend’s precarious condition and immediately donates two units of his own blood to Zeamer in a direct transfusion, resting in a cot over Jay’s. When it proves not enough, the word goes out and fellow squadron members line up to donate more blood. Zeamer will receive eight transfusions in the next few days.
It’s enough, but barely. Zeamer is unconscious, near death, for two days after returning to Port Moresby. Over a hundred pieces of metal are removed from his body. In an astonishing feat of field surgery, the surgeon at Dobodura has saved Zeamer’s left leg, but it will require almost a year of hospitalization and further surgeries, in Australia and the United States, to restore the majority of its mobility. Jay will spend the rest of his life on a cane, but in yet another feat of Zeamer willpower, in a few years he’ll be back to skiing and playing tennis.
Sarnoski’s journey ends in a modest cemetery in New Guinea, where he is buried a few days later. Only Johnston and Zeamer miss his funeral. Jay, in fact, won’t learn of Joe’s death for a full week after the mission. He is heartbroken and guilt-ridden at the loss of his friend and kindred spirit, despite knowing that Joe himself would have had it no other way. You do what you have to do, and if necessary, do more. Joe Sarnoski always leaned forward all the way, even at the ultimate price. Jay wonders: Did we get the photos? Yes, he’s told; the mission itself was a complete success. So is the naval invasion of Bougainville Island, at Empress Augusta Bay, four and a half months later, using the maps made from their photos.
“AN EPIC OF COURAGE”
It doesn’t take long for word to begin spreading about the mission. Within a month Fifth Air Force has recommended Jay and Joe for the Congressional Medal of Honor.
“I have only twice before in my military career recommended anyone for the Medal of Honor,” writes Col. Merian Cooper, World War I veteran and famed film producer of King Kong.
Major General Whitehead, who helped brief the crew in May, debriefs two of the unwounded members of the crew as soon as they return to Port Moresby. He types the official recommendation for Zeamer’s Medal of Honor, concluding, “I have full knowledge of the heroism necessary to be displayed in order to be worthy of the highest of all American military honor, and, with this in mind, without reservation I recommend the Congressional Medal of Honor for this very gallant leader and soldier.”
General George Kenney, commanding general of the Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific, would write in his memoir that the mission “still stands out in my mind as an epic of courage unequalled in the annals of air warfare.”
Belly turret gunner Johnnie Able sums up the crew’s feelings best in his statement given in support of Zeamer’s Medal of Honor:
“In regard to the mapping run and our continuing on it after the enemy planes had left, it was taken for granted and understood among the crew—knowing Captain Zeamer as we did and flying with him as we have flown—that we would continue our work until it was no longer possible. Only when it became absolutely impossible to go on would we stop anything like that. It has always, and so long as we fly with Captain Zeamer, will always be like that. As Captain Zeamer’s crew, we thought so much of him and had such absolute trust in him and his ability, that frankly we didn’t give a damn where we went, just so long as he wanted to go there. Anything okay by him was okay by us.”
Ultimately Jay and Joe do both receive the Medal of Honor, Joe's posthumously. It will be one of only three times that two members of the same crew receive the Medal of Honor for the same mission. The rest of the crew on that mission receive the Distinguished Service Cross, only one step removed from the Medal of Honor—only the second time that has happened. The combination, however, makes the 16 June 1943 mission over Bougainville the most highly decorated mission not just of World War II, but of any American war. When added to the multiple decorations they’ve already earned individually, it makes the Eager Beavers the most highly decorated air crew in American history.
The mission is the end of Zeamer’s Eager Beavers, but it isn’t the end of the pursuit of excellence that made it possible for them to complete it. Thues and Vaughan go on to fly with Dyminski, now a first pilot in his own right, while Able returns to the 8th Photo Recon Squadron, joined this time by Herb Pugh. Ruby Johnston, after two weeks in the hospital, is given indefinite leave in Sydney to further recuperate. In September, however, he returns to the United States. So do Vaughan, Pugh, and Able, who return as a trio and are all assigned to the same unit; Able and Vaughan will go on to second tours of duty. George Kendrick also returns to the States, teaching his specialties of gunnery and photography. None of the crew forget Jay and Joe’s philosophy for survival: forget fate, and always be prepared. There’s always a way.
As for Zeamer, he returns to the U.S. to begin his stateside recovery in August 1943. When he disembarks in San Francisco, he is met on the gangplank by Dalton McCullar—Ken McCullar’s father.
His friend Joe will eventually return home, too, though not to his home state. In 1949, construction of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is completed in the scenic Hawaiian crater known as the Punchbowl. It is as symbolic a location as practical; the most common translation of the crater’s Hawaiian name, “Puowaina,” is “Hill of Sacrifice.” Thousands of war dead from the Pacific theater, their original burial places scattered across the Pacific, will have their remains relocated to the Punchbowl. Sarnoski’s will be on January 6, 1949, just two days after the first remains arrived.
Zeamer will find him there forty-six years later, honoring his memory, and still seeking peace for the loss of his friend.
© 2022 Clint Hayes. All text rights reserved.
I've spent thirty years researching this crew, this plane, and their war. If you use this story as a reference, I'd appreciate the courtesy of a source citation. Please only reproduce the text with my permission.
Rights to all illustrations not in the public domain are reserved to the attributed sources.
Interviews & Documentary
Interview, Jay Zeamer
Interview, Barbara Zeamer, wife of Jay Zeamer
Interview, William Vaughan, Eager Beavers radio operator
Interview, Ruby Johnston, Eager Beavers navigator
Interview, J.T. Britton, 16 June 1943 mission copilot
Interview, Richard Bennett, pilot, 65th Bomb Squadron , 43rd Bomb Group
Interview & personal correspondence, Herbert Pugh, Eager Beavers
Interview & personal correspondence, nephew and niece, Joseph Sarnoski, Eager Beavers
Interview & personal correspondence, son and daughter, Hank Dyminski, Eager Beavers
Interview & personal correspondence, son, Bud Thues, Eager Beavers
Interview & personal correspondence, daughter,Johnnie Able, Jr., Eager Beavers
Interview & personal correspondence, son and daughter, William Vaughan, Eager Beavers
Interview & personal correspondence, daughter, Ruby Johnston, Eager Beavers
Interview & personal correspondence, Walt Krell, friend of Jay Zeamer, pilot, 19th Bomb Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group
Interview & personal correspondence, son, Dr. Milton Gusack, friend of Jay Zeamer, flight surgeon of 65th Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group
Interview & correspondence, Jim McEwan, 8th Photo Recon Squadron, 6th Photographic Group
Interview & correspondence, military historian Larry Hickey
Interview & correspondence, military historian Joseph Bowman
Personal correspondence, William Eaton, 403rd Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group
Personal correspondence, Steve Birdsall, author/historian
Personal correspondence, Richard Dunn, author/historian
Personal correspondence, Edward Rogers, author/historian
Personal correspondence, Michael Clairingbould, author/historian
Personal correspondence, Congressional Medal of Honor Society (cmohs.org)
Personal correspondence, National Eagle Scout Association
Letter, Jay Zeamer to Agnes Sarnoski, 11/9/43
Letter (with diagram of #42-2666), Jay Zeamer to William Bennett, 5/5/70
Letter, Jay Zeamer to flight cadet, 1989
Letter, Jay Zeamer to Victoria Sarnoski, 12/21/95
Letter, Jay Zeamer to Mrs. William Vaughan, 1/15/2000
Letter, Jay Zeamer to Jim Rembisz
Letter, Jay Zeamer to Dave Armstrong, 11/24/98
Letter, Joe Sarnoski to sister Jenny, Jan 1942
Letter, Johnnie Able, Jr., multiple letters to parents, 1943
Letter, Herb Pugh to author, 1994
Letter, Joseph Sarnoski to sister Nellie 5/23/1943
Letter, William Eaton to author, 3/2/94
Autobiography, “Military Autobiography,” Jay Zeamer
Biography, “Sketch of Early Life of Lt. Col. Jay Zeamer, Jr.,”Margaret Zeamer (mother)
Biography, “Jay Zeamer’s Training and Wartime Experiences As Told to His Brother,” R. Jere Zeamer
Speech (typed copy),Jay Zeamer to Wing’s Club, August 1944
Personal flight log, Jay Zeamer
Personal flight log, Hank Dyminski
Combat diary, Hank Dyminski
Combat diary, William Eaton
USAAF, morning reports, 19th Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group
USAAF, morning reports, 65th Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group
USAAF, morning reports, 403rd Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group
USAAF, squadron diary, 403rd Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group
USAAF,squadron diary, 63rd Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group
USAAF, official history, 43rd BombardmentGroup
USAAF, Statement, J.T. Britton, in support of Zeamer Medal of Honor
USAAF, Statement, George Kendrick, in support of Zeamer Medal of Honor, 6/21/1943
USAAF, Statement, Johnnie Able, Jr., in support of Zeamer Medal of Honor, 7/24/1943
USAAF, Statement, Forrest Dillman, in support of Zeamer Medal of Honor, 7/24/1943
USAAF, Statement, Herbert Pugh, in support of Zeamer Medal of Honor, 7/24/1943
USAAF, record of service, Johnnie Able, Jr.
USAAF, record of service, Ruby Johnston
USAAF, SO No. 77, HQ, V Bomber Command, 12/23/1942
USAAF, Travel orders, HQ, Hawaiian Dept., 11/5/1942
USAAF, SO No. 16, 65th BS, 4/13/1943
USAAF, SO No. 23, 65th BS, 5/14/1943
USAAF, GO No. 74, HQ, 5th AF, 4/25/1943
USAAF, award of the Silver Star, General Orders No. 123, HQ, Fifth Air Force, 6/18/1943
USAAF, Air Information Bulletin #19, AAF, SWPA,7/14/1943
USAAF, Certificate, Merian Cooper, HQ, Advance Echelon, Fifth Air Force, 7/17/1943
USAAF, Proceedings of Disposition Board re: Jay Zeamer, 8/6/1943
USAAF, Special Orders 122, Headquarters, U.S. Army Services of Supply, 8/11/1943
USAAF, Sec V WD Cir 127, 43, HQ, USAFFE, 9/22/1943
USAAF, Special Orders No. 216, HQ, 5th Air Force, 10/2/1943
USAAF, Personal History Statement, Jay Zeamer, 10/6/1944
USAAF, Memorandum, Ennis Whitehead, Recommendation for the Congressional Medal of Honor, HQ, Advance Echelon, 5th Air Force, 10/18/1943
IJN records, kodo, 251 Kokutai, 6/16/1943
Newspapers & Magazines
Associated Press, “The Old Pilot, the Young Bombardier: A Team Again,” St. George The Daily Spectrum, 9/3/1995, p. 8.
Cohn, Art, “Z Is for Zeamer,” Liberty magazine, Jan 1944.
Dornon, Kay, “Kendrick Decorated for Bougainville Flight,” Rapid City Daily Journal, 3/3/1944, p. 3.
Palko, Jerry, “Lt. Sarnoski Story Worth Repeating,” Scranton Times-Tribune, 06/02/1972, p. 16.
Schur, Rhoda, “Death Took a Holiday,” The Oranges and Montclair, Aug 1947.
Schedler, Dean, “Flying Fortress Extinguishes Jap Lights,” Del Rio News-Herald, 6/2/1943, p. 1.
Staff, “Daring Air Pilot is County Native,” Carlisle Sentinel, 11/25/1942, p. 3.
Staff, “Posthumous Award Given Richmond Airman for Successful Mission Over New Britain,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9/7/1943, p. 4.
Staff, “Grateful Nation Presents Highest Medal Here to Widow of Fighting Airman Sarnoski,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1/8/1944, p. 1.
State Star Report, “‘Dumb Kid’ at Culver Became Hero of WWII,” Indianapolis Star, 6/5/1971, p. 12.
Zeamer, Jr., Jay, “There’s Always a Way,” American Magazine, Jan. 1945.
Larry Hickey, et al, Revenge of the Red Raiders: The Illustrated History of the 22nd Bombardment Group During World War II, IHRA, 2006.
Larry Hickey, et al, Ken’s Men Against the Empire: The Illustrated History of the 43rd Bombardment Group During World War II, Volume I: Prewar to October 1943, IHRA, 2016.
John Miller, Jr., U.S. Army in WWII: The War in the Pacific: Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul, Chapter 3, “Elkton III: The Plan for CARTWHEEL,” Office of the Chief of Air Force History, 1959. (via iBiblio.org)
Kramer J. Rohfleisch, The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. 4: The Pacific: Guadalcanal to Saipain: August 1942 to July 1944, Section 2, Chapter 7, “The Central Solomons,” Office of Air Force History, 1983. (via iBiblio.org)
John Stanaway & Bob Rocker, The Eight Ballers: Eyes of the Fifth Air Force, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1999.
General George Kenney, General Kenney Reports: A Personal History of the Pacific War, Office of Air Force History, 1987.
Robert B.D. Hartman, The Grand Parade, Vol. 1, Culver Military Academy, 1994.
“Moon Light World Map,” timeanddate.com, https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/moon/light.html. Accessed 10/24/2022
“Dobodura airfield,” PacificWrecks.com, https://pacificwrecks.com/airfields/png/dobodura/index.html. Accessed 11/5/2022.
“Historical Information,” National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, https://www.cem.va.gov/CEMs/nchp/nmcp.asp. Accessed 11/11/2022.
“Joseph R. Sarnoski,” National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, https://www.vlm.cem.va.gov/JOSEPHRSARNOSKI/4DDB2F3. Accessed 11/11/2022.