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It’s Wednesday, June 16, 1943. Despite his lack of sleep, Zeamer has the crew at the plane on time for their 4 a.m. take-off. As they’re taxiing out, however, a jeep cuts them off, delivering by hand an order to add the Buka recon to the trip. Once again Zeamer dismisses it out of hand.
The four-hour flight out begins beautifully, treating them to a spectacular breaking of dawn above the wide blue plain of the Pacific. It is as uneventful as a transport flight to Australia. The crew check their stations, clear their guns, Sarnoski whistles his Polish tunes, cat naps are had. The flight is in fact too smooth: Even with the delay, 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: kill time over the water—or do the recon of Buka airstrip. It’s not much of a choice. They know what they should do. What kind of men would they be to pass off to another crew on another day what they can do right then? The answer comes unanimously over the interphone: “Let’s do the goddamn recce.” After all, they were just there two weeks before. It’ll be the same six green Jap Army fighters they’ve run into on other visits. Zeamer steers 666 north into a wide circle to come back over Buka from the northeast.
It’s a fateful decision. What they don’t know is that the Japanese, known by Allied command to have moved over four hundred fighters and bombers to the Rabaul area in preceding days, and at least one squadron farther south to Buka, in preparation for a Japanese strike on Guadalcanal that very afternoon. Hence Fifth Air Command's desire for a photo recon.
As the crew gets its photographs of Buka and starts the long mapping run down the coast of Bougainville, Zeamer flying by his fingertips, they begin counting. Since Dillman hasn’t entered the belly turret yet, Kendrick crawls in to get a better view. Sticking his hand up out of the 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. He’s by himself there, by choice; he doesn’t want to be “bumpin’ asses” with somebody behind him on the other pair.
All told, the crew count fifty aircraft on either side of the runway at Buka, and now seventeen or eighteen either taxiing or taking off—and they aren’t Army green. These are the gray of Air Squadron 251, a Japanese Navy contingent flying the Model 22 version of the A6M3 Zero, and they're climbing faster than the Zeros the crew is used to running into. They know they have about twenty minutes before the Zeros catch them—and their run is twenty-two minutes long. The Jap fighters strain to catch the lone Fortress, still flying straight and level at 25,000 feet, unable to break away without forfeiting its mission.
As the mission begins its twenty-second and last minute, the trap is set. Two initial passes have been ineffectual, but now five Zeros are converging on them from below, three from 10:00, 12:00, and 2:00 in the front, two in the back at 4:00 and 8:00. Zeamer has never seen Zeros as coordinated as this, confirming his belief that these are crack Jap naval fighters. Jay knows he’s made a mistake to do the recon he said he wouldn’t do, but it’s too late now. He knows he could break off without censure in the face of such resistance. But he also knows it’s taken two months already to get to this point. Today, right now, is their shot. And he knows it’s this bay, silver-blue in the morning sun twenty-five thousand feet below them, that command needs the most. That’s where the Marines will land. They need those maps. He won’t break off.
But neither will he be able to use his usual aggressive maneuvering against three in front. Doing so will expose their belly too much to the rest. The best option is to keep level and try to drive them off with the arsenal they have. With forty-five seconds left, Zeamer assigns the left Zero to Sarnoski, the right to Johnston, and orders all gunners to fire as necessary. Britton calls out the fighters coming at the nose. Joe tells the crew to keep on their toes and “give ‘em hell.” Just then the incoming Zeros roll over on their backs for a faster breakaway . . .
The opening encounter changes the war for all of them. Johnston’s Zero at 2:00 drops away without hitting the Fortress, surprised at the accuracy of these B-17 gunners. But Jay’s and Joe’s foes are as determined as they are. The Zero at 10:00 puts scores of 7mm ammo and multiple 20 mm cannon shells in the plane before Joe’s intense return fire finally forces it to break off. The center Zero is surprised by Zeamer’s nose gun—Jay sees a flash in its wing root where he’s hit it—and it breaks off, but not before putting a 20 mm shell through the Plexiglas nose.
The combination is devastating. Joe is blown off his gun onto the floor, holed badly in the neck and side by jagged shrapnel. Johnston is hit by shrapnel and debris in the back and side and then the face and neck as he falls over Sarnoski into the doorway to the nose compartment. Zeamer's left thigh is ripped open, his left leg above and below the knee shattered, his arms and calves slashed by shrapnel. His feet are saved by being pulled back under his seat, but his rudder pedals are destroyed, one blown off, the other bent ninety degrees, and his instrument panel is blasted to pieces from behind, some hanging out by their wires. Behind them, Able in the top turret gets a spray of shrapnel in his legs, and Vaughan in the radio compartment is grazed badly in the neck. The crew hear him exclaim over the interphone, but he quickly follows it up: “I'm all right!"
In just the first pass, five men are wounded, some seriously. Unhurt are Dillman in the belly turret, Kendrick in the waist, tailgunner Pugh, and miraculously, copilot Britton—saved, his friend Dyminski tells him later, because he was sitting forward in his seat, which is filleted with shrapnel behind him.
But there's no time to take a breath. Another fighter, a twin-engine that Zeamer identifies as a Ki-46 "Dinah," bears in fast, again from 10:00, trying to finish what the first started. Another hit on the cockpit could prove fatal. Through the hole in the bulkhead, Jay sees Joe pull himself back up to his gun, despite his ragged wound and agonizing pain. Joe swings the gun toward the incoming fight and pours fire at it, forcing it to break off before it can fire at them. Zeamer feels like he can reach out and touch it as it flies overhead. Then Sarnoski sinks to the floor.
Now there are flames. Able yells over the wind: The hydraulic and oxygen lines behind Zeamer are on fire. They need to get down. Whatever seconds might be left on the mapping run now are sacrificed; they need oxygen. With only aileron and elevator, his steering column slick from blood from a gash on his right wrist, Jay shoves the Fortress over to the right into a precipitous dive for the water. The altimeter is among the shattered instruments; Zeamer watches the change in manifold pressure to estimate when they’re low enough. Despite the suddenness and steepness of the dive, despite the lack of communications due to the now-broken interphone, no crew member panics or leaves his post.
They plow toward the Solomon Sea for what seems like suspended time, each man isolated with his own thoughts. It's amazing how many can race through one's mind when given a respite, however brief, from immediate threat. In less than sixty seconds, though, they've dropped fifteen thousand feet.
Zeamer strains at the controls, Britton pulling with him. Slowly '666's nose comes up. Somewhere between eight and ten thousand they finally level out. Even as they are, Able and Johnston, one with wounded knees, the other bleeding so badly from his forehead he’s partially blinded, have attacked the fire, slapping at the flames with their bare hands and rags, tearing out what they must to extinguish it.
The rest of the crew watches as the relentless Zeros who have followed them down begin lining up on both sides of the plane, single file, to take their turns circling around toward the nose for their traditional frontal attack. They can sense that the B-17 is now exposed from the front, and they’re right: All of the forward fixed guns are either inoperable or unmanned due to wounded crew members. Sizing up the situation, Jay knows that all he can do now is maneuver. Everything he’s ever learned in combat—and everything he’s taught his crew—is now put to the test.
Blood from his smashed leg fills his boots; the gash on his wrist has painted the control wheel a slippery red. Even so, with the blinding pain helping to keep him awake, Zeamer avoids their attackers. He chops the power as a Zero turns into them, rolls hard and hauls back on the wheel, forcing the Zero to turn into them more, forcing him to miss, forcing him to put his exposed belly in front of the seasoned rear gunners. It’s the technique Jay learned back in the 22nd with Walt Krell—ancient history it seems now—and the same technique he’s drummed into his own crew so that they’ll know what to do when the interphone goes out. Every five to ten minutes, one by one, another Zero turns into them, tries but fails to connect, and then gets raked by the rear gunners. In between, Zeamer tries to use his belt as a tourniquet for his leg, but never has enough time. Fortunately the cold air blasting through 666’s broken skin helps to clot his wounds.
The Japanese are getting frustrated and angry as they fall into the Beavers’ well-practiced trap. Two, three, four more are hit. Some peel off, either smoking or spraying oil, but the others continue to come. Zeamer has been losing blood for over half an hour, and still, with both arms and a leg wounded, the other leg broken and useless, is in full command of the Fortress, violently evading the persistent attackers—and without rudder pedals. Finally, forty minutes since that first and worst attack, running low on fuel and ammunition, worn down by the tenacious Fortress’ agile defense, astonished at its pilot’s supernatural will, the final Japanese fighter retires to home. Old 666 is alone once more.