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in the War on Terrorism
- AIR FORCE
O.E.F. - ARMY
These books contain the citations for nearly all of the awards of the Silve
Star and higher to members of each branch of service in the War on Terrorism. Books
include photos of most recipients, some biographical data, analysis of awards by rank,
unit, date, and more.
of AMERICAN MILITARY HEROES
WINGS OF VALOR
The Defining Generation
Plane - Nine Heroes
TWO MEDALS OF HONOR
a tight spot you'll come out better if you grab the long
chance and plow through rather than run away."
Major Jay Zeamer
While General Ira Eaker's Mighty
Eighth (Air Force) was making history in Europe, General George
Kenney's new Fifth Air Force was building a reputation of its own.
This was the unit that had been in such disarray in the spring of 1942
that General MacArthur had fired the air chief and demanded an immediate
replacement, prompting Kenney's transfer to Australia. Upon Kenney's
arrival MacArthur quickly voiced his lack of confidence in his air arm or
its abilities--even indicating that he distrusted the airmen's loyalty to
help of men like Generals Kenneth Walker and Enis Whitehead, the Fifth Air
Force quickly began to give a good account of itself, netting two Medals of
Honor in six months to air heroes Captain Harl Pease and General Ken
Walker. Two days after General Walker was lost on a mission over
Rabaul, another of General Kenney's young pilots became an ace. That
man was Richard Ira Bong, the stunt-flying kid whose aerial
antics at had got him noticed, and reprimanded, before Kenney left
California. (Kenney insisted on taking Bong with him when he took
command of the air force in Australia.)
the end of 1942, despite a shortage of aircraft and replacement parts, the
rag-tag men of the Fifth Air Force had gained air superiority in the
region and ingratiated themselves to MacArthur. Though top military
commanders back in the United States had ordered the Pacific Forces to wage
only a containment
action while the war in Europe took first priority, it seemed no one in
the Fifth Air Force realized that they were not supposed to defeat the
Japanese until the war in Europe had been won. Through sheer guts
and determination, these men ended the Japanese offensive in the South
Pacific by late 1942 and forced the enemy to go on the defensive.
Men, as the pilots and crews of the Fifth Air Force came to call
themselves, were an interesting bunch. Captain Pease earned the Medal of
Honor after patching up an un-flyable B-17 and piloting it from Australia
to Rabaul. General Walker defied orders from General Kenney that
forbade him from flying combat missions, and was subsequently lost in action on a daring
raid over the Japanese-held harbor.
Fifth Air Force pilots and ground crews were proud to be called Ken's
Men, MacArthur's staff had a
different title for the daring but unconventional airmen. Shortly
after Kenney's arrival and introduction to the top General in the Pacific,
MacArthur had told him, "George, you were born three hundred
years too late. Your just a natural-born buccaneer."
When the Supreme Commander's staff referred to the men of the Fifth Air
Force as Buccaneers, they sometimes didn't mean it with the same
respect MacArthur had implied. But that was okay with Ken's Men,
they weren't concerned with titles, they were occupied getting the job done.
when several of Kenney's fighter pilots were picked up in Sydney for
disorderly conduct, MacArthur told his staff, "Leave Kenney's kids
alone. I don't want to see them grow up either."
Men turned the tide of the Pacific air war through sheer guts,
determination, and ingenuity. The ground crews worked night and day
repairing aging and battered air planes with flattened tin cans, cannibalizing
the very worst of their air fleet for parts. When combat conditions
demanded new tactics they invented them. One such example was the
development of skip bombing.
of the Fifth Air Force's initial responsibility was to neutralize enemy
shipping in the region, shipments that reinforced embattled Japanese
troops at places like Guadalcanal and Lei. Regular missions were
mounted against major harbors, as well as against ships on the high seas.
American bombers did their best to sink them from high above, but with only limited
August and September 1942 Major William Benn, who had come to Australia as
General Kenney's aide and then given command of the B-17s of 63rd Squadron, 43rd
Bombardment Group, began practicing the new skip-bombing technique
on a wrecked ship in the harbor at Port Moresby. Rather than
releasing their bombs from high above the enemy ship, the plan was for
Benn's daring pilots to fly as low as 200 feet, aiming the nose of their bombers
directly at enemy targets, and then releasing their bombs on a near
horizontal trajectory to skip across the water into the ship's side.
Under combat conditions the pilots would be flying
directly into the enemy guns at speeds over 200 miles per hour. The bombs
were to be released from a distance of 300 yards or less, forcing the pilot
to climb quickly
to avoid collision. The practice was dangerous and required
concentration and nerves of steel.
October 23, 1942, Benn's pilots were ready to try the concept on actual enemy
targets. During a night raid over Rabaul six Flying Fortresses
dropped bombs on the enemy harbor from 10,000 feet, while six other B-17s
came in at 100 feet to skip their bombs. Piloting the bomber named Black
Jack, Captain Ken McCullar sank a destroyer with two hits
was quickly becoming a legend in the Southwest Pacific. Before
October 23 he had sunk or damaged four enemy ships. The adaptation
to skip-bombing only improved his record, and on the second skip-bombing
mission two nights later Captain McCullar was one of four pilots, out of
six bombers, to score a direct hit on the enemy.
those late-October missions Captain McCullar flew into Rabaul three times with a
particular good friend in the navigator's chair once, and then in the
copilot's seat twice. That friend was the most likeable man in the
43rd Bombardment Group, an officer who was generally popular everywhere except in the cockpit.
the missions with McCullar no one had wanted to fly with Lieutenant
Zeamer. For this reason he had no assigned airplane or crew.
he roved the entire group as a "pilot-at-large". To make
matters more complicated, Jay Zeamer he wasn't actually even a pilot.
was, in fact, the most senior non-pilot, pilot in the entire
Born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Jay
Zeamer and family later moved to Orange, New Jersey. In
his youth, on those rare occasions when his
traveling-salesman father was home, the family vacationed in
Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Jay's affinity for the rural
area of Maine would have a lifetime impact that to this day
keeps drawing him back.
Jay loved scouting, becoming an Eagle
Scout at the age of thirteen--to the detriment of his school
studies. To improve his son's education, his father
enrolled him in Indiana's Culver Military Academy when he
was fourteen. The experience fed the young man's
interest in the military. A few years later while attending
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after graduating
high school, Jay became an ROTC cadet in the Army Corps of
Engineers, despite the fact that his developing interest was in
aviation. To satisfy the latter he joined a flying club and took lessons in
nearby Norwood. In 1939, while still at MIT, Jay was
commissioned a second lieutenant in the Infantry
Reserve. Following graduation in 1940 with a Bachelors
degree in civil engineering, he was assigned to Fort Dix,
There Jay was discharged to enlist in the
Regular Army as a flying cadet and completed primary flight
school at Glenview, Illinois, where his leadership skills
earned him the position of Captain of Cadets. In March
1941 he received his wings after graduating from advanced
flight school at Maxwell Field, Alabama. On March 14
he entered active duty with the U.S. Army Air Corps,
sacrificing two years time in rank to realize his dream of
becoming a pilot.
That summer he flew as copilot during
service testing of new B-26 Martin Marauders, following
which he was assigned to the 19th Bombardment Squadron, 22nd
Bombardment Group at Langley Field. There all of Jay's
classmates checked out as pilots and were assigned aircraft
and crews. Jay just couldn't seem to get it right,
couldn't find a way to
pass the check. As a result he remained frozen in the co-pilot's
seat. Jay's close friend and fellow pilot Lieutenant
Walt Krell recalled:
Zeamer as a pilot had the kind of very relaxed attitude
that I liked. When you got right down to it he was
the most relaxed man in an airplane I ever knew.
Nothing ever seemed to bother him. No emergency
could shake him. He was the kind of a guy that
everyone took to.
some reason Jay just couldn't hack it (the flight
check). Every one of us tried to check him
out. We figured that someone, somewhere along the
line, would find the monkey that was riding Jay's
back. But whatever it was we couldn't find it.
Jay was stuck in the right seat as a copilot.
kept trying, of course. You just had to do your best
to get him into the left seat, where everyone felt he
belonged. But we just couldn't turn him loose
because...well, the way he'd come into the field would
turn your hair white. We'd go out and shoot
landings, and slow the airplane down to about 130 and
you'd hear, you would feel it get washy, soft and mushy on
the controls; you'd grab it and put in on the ground and
turn back to Zeamer and then you'd say: 'Jay, you know
what you did wrong that time?'
not only didn't know what he had done--he didn't even know
that anything was wrong!"
On the day after the Pearl Harbor
attack the 22nd was transferred from Langley to California
to fly submarine patrols off the west coast. Still
stuck in the copilot's seat, Zeamer was bored and unhappy
through the endless hours of droning over the empty
Pacific. Little changed when the B-26s were sent to
Australia in March 1942 to confront and fight the Japanese.
Jay was a good pilot, skillful and
daring, but for some reason he just never did manage to get
past the check flight in the Marauders. His
frustration gave way to complacency...there was little for
the copilot to do. On an early mission over Lei,
Lieutenant Krell was keeping close tabs on one of his new
pilots, an officer named Lieutenant Seffern who was making his first
bombing mission. Lieutenant Jay Zeamer was in the copilot's
seat. Seffern did not do well when the bombers reached
Lei, and upon landing back at Seven Mile Lieutenant Krell immediately
began chewing the rookie out, demanding to know what had
"I'll tell you what the hell
was wrong!" Seffern shouted back. "You
gave me Zeamer for a copilot, damn you!"
"What's wrong with
that?" Krell demanded.
"Wrong? I'll tell
you. When you gave me the signal to get ready for
the bomb run, I woke Zeamer up and...."
Zeamer's inability to get his
own plane and his seemingly permanent relegation to the role of
copilot had left him with no motivation. When enemy flak
and Japanese fighters turned on the incoming bombers over
Lei, Zeamer had awakened long enough to put on his Mae West
and World War I helmet, and then went back to sleep.
He was so unnerved by the explosions around him, Krell
noted, "All the way through the flak and bombing run
he's been asleep. I belted him on the chest to wake
him up and hollered at him some more. Walt, he was
sound asleep all over again."
When Lieutenant Krell confronted
Zeamer about this incident Jay responded, "I'm
getting out of this outfit. I'll never get anywhere
here; hell, they won't even let me be cook."
ended Lieutenant Zeamer's days in a B-26. Commanding Officer
Divine managed to get him transferred out to the 43rd
Bombardment Group. It would be Lieutenant Zeamer's
introduction to an airplane he could not only love...but
master...the B-17 Flying Fortress.
The Battle for the Air
On September 14 the 43rd Bombardment Group moved to
Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea. In those early
days the fate of New Guinea was still very much in doubt. Japanese airplanes
made daily flights out of Lae other airfields in the jungle, dropping down over the Owen Stanley Range to bomb
and strafe the aerodromes at Port Moresby. Meanwhile, enemy ground forces
were negotiating the Kokoda Trail and moving close to capturing Port
Moresby. If that last Allied position in New Guinea fell, Australia would be in grave danger.
On September 15 Kenney's cargo pilots conducted the
first airlift in history, flying reinforcements from the Army's 32nd
Infantry Division to New Guinea. (Only one regiment was actually
flown in, with the remainder transported from Australia by ship.)
Within two weeks the Japanese ground forces were thrown back and, for the
first time, it was the Allied forces that were on the offensive.
Pilots of the 43rd Bombardment Group began flying regular missions to destroy aircraft on
the ground at Lae using parafrag bombs (small bombs dropped by parachute
that exploded into thousands of small pieces of shrapnel to shred enemy
While Lei was a thorn in the flesh of the
Allied war effort, the key to the enemy activity in the region was the
great seaport at Rabaul on the north side of New Britain
Island. Rabaul was to the Japanese, what Pearl Harbor was to
the Americans--the key staging area for all activity in the Pacific.
Supply ships from Japan steamed endlessly into Rabaul. From there men and
material were quickly dispersed down through the Solomon Islands, where US
Marines were fighting for control of Guadalcanal. The nightly
Japanese supply runs
became known to them as The Tokyo Express.
Rabaul also provided a steady stream of
reinforcements to Lae, as well as to scores of enemy airbases scattered
throughout the many islands that dotted the region. As such, Rabaul
and its sister port further north at Kavieng, became regular targets for
Allied bombers. It was in missions against these that men like Harl
Pease, Ken Walker, Ken McCullar, and others built their legends.
Jay Zeamer there was little opportunity to join them in this effort. His reputation
had preceded him in transfer, and when the 43rd moved to New Guinea Jay was left behind in Australia. He became a catch-all, the
man given the odd-jobs. If he managed to find a crew that was short
a man for a particular mission, he filled in, but never as a pilot.
Jay Zeamer had never checked out on the B-17 either.
Jay's problems in the cockpit aside, everyone loved the
lanky guy with a big grin and a friendly manner. His friendship with
Ken McCullar paid off not only in providing Zeamer opportunity to fly B-17 missions as
both a navigator and copilot late in October, but with the chance to learn
from one of the best. The innovative Captain McCullar went so far as
to have his ground crews mount a 50-caliber machine gun in the nose of Black
Jack, extra armament that could be fired from the cockpit. It was a practice not
lost on Zeamer who, when at last he got his own airplane, planned to do same
and become one of the first pilots to use a heavy bomber as a fighter aircraft.
On Zeamer's last mission with McCullar their bomber
was attacked by five Japanese Mitsubishi Zeroes. In the running
battle that followed Lieutenant Zeamer
studied McCullar, his coolness in the cockpit and the evasive tactics that
allowed him to bring his bomber home despite heavy damage from the
fighters as well as from antiaircraft fire. For Zeamer that mission
became something of a graduation ceremony. He was now ready to pilot
his own B-17.
Lieutenant Zeamer's status as a
roving jack-of-all-trades placed him as an aide to the Intelligence
Section at Port Moresby early in November. It was a busy time and a
critical one for the Allied offensive at Guadalcanal. There had been
major battles on that island throughout October. Early in November,
Allied Intelligence received indications that the Japanese were mounting a major
convoy at Rabaul to reinforce their troops at Guadalcanal.
What was needed were photographs of
the buildup in Simpson Harbor so that effective strikes could be mounted against any such
convoy. For three consecutive days reconnaissance missions were flown unsuccessfully, due to heavy cloud cover. On the fourth day the
pilot who was scheduled to make yet another attempt was grounded.
Lieutenant Zeamer volunteered to fly the mission, despite the fact that he
had still not checked out in the pilot's seat of a B-17. By this
time, no one seemed to care about that fact, and soon Zeamer was flying
north in the left seat of a Flying Fortress.
The weather had not improved and the
mission once again appeared doomed when the Flying Fortress arrived
over Rabaul. The island was invisible, masked by heavy cloud
cover. Then, in the distance, Zeamer noted that he could clearly see Kavieng at the
north end of the distant island of New Ireland. The break in the
weather pattern seemed strange until Zeamer recalled the active volcano to
the west of Rabaul Harbor. (Many American bomber pilots claimed they
could find the harbor in the dark just by the smell of sulphur emitted by
Quickly Zeamer's keen mind solved the
mystery--the volcano was constantly sending up a stream of hot air.
This would undoubtedly clear the air beneath the clouds and, if one came
in low enough, he should be able to get the needed recon photos.
Zeamer flew north to Kavieng and then
plotted his course back to Rabaul. As he approached Simpson Harbor
he dropped down to 8,000 feet and his Fortress broke through
the clouds and into clear airspace. Above him sixteen Mitsubishi
fighters circled while Zeamer's camera clicked away, capturing the scene
below. What the camera revealed was at least 110 enemy ships, all of
them firing back at the invading American bomber.
Zeamer's crew fought back furiously
while the pilot held his airplane on course until the photos had been
taken, and then began a series of evasive "S" turns. As he
finished the run he was attacked by three Zeroes, all of which went
down in flames, thanks to the accuracy of Zeamer's gunners.
Lieutenant Zeamer and his adopted crew finally accomplished what no
other pilot in four days had been able to do. For his heroism and
determination, Lieutenant Zeamer was awarded the Silver Star. So too, were all
the other members of his crew on that mission.
Lieutenant Zeamer flew again and
again thereafter, often in the pilot's seat, despite the fact that he
was still not checked out as a B-17 pilot. For whatever the reason, his
commanders chose to overlook that technicality. On a mission
over Rabaul Harbor on January 16, 1943, Zeamer sank an 8,000-ton
ship. For that action he was awarded the Air Medal.
That same month his roving
role put him temporarily in the 65th Bombardment Squadron as operations
officer. There he met Captain Rocky Stone, a navigator whose pilot
had been reported missing in action. Stone and his bombardier asked
Zeamer to fly with them and Zeamer quickly agreed. He respected both
men for their courage and skill. The bombardier was a man he had met
at Langley before the war, a young officer who was one of the best bombardiers in the
Three years Jay's senior, Joe Sarnoski
was the second-oldest child in a family of seventeen
children belonging to a Polish coal miner in Zeamer's home
state of Pennsylvania. As the family had grown, Joe's
father's health began to fail and he left the coal mines to
begin farming. It was a tough, but suitable calling,
for so large a family. All of the children worked hard
to keep the farm operating and make ends meet.
Though the rural farm life was tough
and demanding, education was first priority in the Sarnoski
family, and Joe received his
first six grades of learning at Grade School #4 in nearby
Fell Township. A few years later when his family moved to White's
Crossing, Joe completed his education there.
Though the responsibility of
alternating between education and farm work left little free
time, young Joe Sarnoski found diversion in numerous hobbies
that included baseball, fishing, hunting, playing the accordion
and singing. In later years when he served as
bombardier in an American bomber, those who flew with him
often recalled the sound of his voice belting out tunes over
Joe's biggest interest however, was in
aviation. He covered his walls with pictures of
airplanes, built models, and read all he could about
gliders and motorized aircraft. He constantly begged
his parents to allow him to go somewhere where he could
learn more about airplanes. On March 7, 1936, two
months after his twenty-first birthday, Joe Sarnoski
enlisted in the U. S. Army as an air cadet, entering service
in Baltimore, MD.
Most of Joe's duty was performed at
Langley Field, Virginia, though he did spend considerable
time training at Lowry Field in Colorado. He completed
Lowry's Advanced Aircraft Armorer's Course in 1939.
The following year he was discharged from the Regular Army
to reenlist in the Army Air Corps, and then went on to
complete Lowry's Bombsight Maintenance Course early in
1940. Upon completing that course Sarnoski was promoted to
Sergeant and sent back to Langley to join the 41st
was at Langley that Joe Sarnoski and Jay Zeamer first met and had
occasional contact. In a 1943 letter to Joe's sister
Agnes, Zeamer recalled: "I knew Joe at Langley
Field. I remembered how Joe used to fly as bombardier
on the lead ship for exhibitions the Second Group used to
put on for the brass hats from Washington (DC) when they
came down to Langley."
That recollection by Jay Zeamer is
perhaps the best indication of just how good Joe Sarnoski
was at his job. Those exhibitions were critical to the
Air Corp's efforts to impress the "brass hats" and
obtain the funding to build an air force. Only the
best bombardiers would have been selected for the effort,
and since the lead bombardier would have the most crucial
role, only the best of the best would have been given that
While stationed at Langley Joe fell in
love with a young lady named Marie, and the two were married
soon thereafter. He was promoted to Staff Sergeant
early in 1941 and continued to fly exhibitions. In one
letter home Joe included a photo of his B-17 and wrote on the
back of it: "I remember when this picture was
taken very well for right after we dropped our bombs I
picked up the paper and saw where Hitler said he wasn't
afraid of the U.S. So I started to whistle, 'I'll be
glad when your dead you rascal you.' Ha!
Ha!" Joe was sure he would soon be heading to
Europe for combat.
Joe and Jay Zeamer met again in
September, just before Joe was transferred to Bangor, Maine,
to serve as a bombing instructor. Marie returned to her home
in Richmond while he was gone. Then came December 7,
1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor--and everything changed.
Joe's unit was transferred to
Australia on January 13, 1942, and two months later he was
promoted to Technical Sergeant. At first his expert skills
were utilized to train others, a role that disappointed
him. In a letter to his sister Jennie he wrote:
main job here is instructing. But I do hope that I
will do some bombing. I would like to sink at least
five enemy ships. I have told my squadron commander
that if I don't, I'm going to be ashamed to go back to the
Though Joe did fly some combat
missions and earned promotion to Master Sergeant, it was his
reunion with Jay Zeamer that enabled him to achieve his full
potential. Jay Zeamer was happy to work with Master
Sergeant Sarnoski. He later wrote: "Joe never
missed with either a bombsight or a machine
When Joe Sarnoski and Captain Rocky
Stone approached Zeamer to fly with them, when they
suggested that he in fact
organize their own air crew, it was exactly what Zeamer had
been waiting to hear for months.
Captain Jay Zeamer didn't have much
to draw from in organizing an air crew. He couldn't even promise his
men an airplane, but that didn't deter him. He scoured the
squadrons of the 43rd Bomb Group for the men no one else wanted, the
cast offs and screw-ups. In some ways it might have even seemed
comical. Jay Zeamer was the pilot who still had never been checked
out to fly in the left seat. Though likeable, he was still the guy
no one wanted to fly with, and he was gathering around him a crew of men
that like himself, were rejected by the other air crews. Walt
Krell recalled, "He (Zeamer) went through the outfit and
recruited a crew from a bunch of renegades and screwoffs. They
were the worst of the 43rd--men nobody else wanted. But they
gravitated toward one another and they made a hell of a crew."
To make matters even more comical,
Jay's misfit crew didn't have an airplane. There again, Zeamer had
his own ideas. One day an old B-17E with the tail number 41-2666
was flown in and parked on the airstrip. The bomber had seen better days and its frame bore
evidence of its heavy record of aerial combat. It was so badly
shot up it was now worthless, and was parked at the end of the runway
where other aircrews could cannibalize it for needed parts.
Captain Zeamer quickly intervened and claimed it as his own.
Zeamer's crew went to work on what
would normally have been an impossible task--turning #41-2666 into a
combat-ready bomber. They cleaned it up, patched the holes, fixed its
engines, and modified it to their liking. Jay had a 50-caliber machine
gun mounted in the nose so he could fire from the cockpit like a fighter
pilot. In the nose, the 30-caliber flexible guns normally manned
by the bombardier and navigator were replaced with swivel-mounted
50-caliber machine guns. The waist guns and radioman's guns were
replaced with twin-50s, giving the airship unprecedented firepower.
Zeamer's crew put guns where they
didn't even need guns, leaving loose machine guns on the catwalk so that
if a gun jammed at a critical moment they could dump it and quickly
replace it with a spare. Sergeant George Kendrick even mounted a
gun behind the ball turret near the waist. "I don't know
who would have handled that except the side gunner" Jay
recalls. "He wanted all the guns he could get! He
wouldn't let another gunner back there with him. He said, 'These
are my guns. I'm going to shoot them all. I don't want to be
bumping asses with another guy back here!' This was George
Kendrick, the screwball of the crew."
In truth, in the eyes of the other
pilots and ground crews at Port Moresby, the entire crew was
screwballs. That impression aside however, it quickly became apparent
that the men were building a flyable, fightable, bomber. At a time
when aircraft and spare parts were in short supply, quickly other pilots
and ground crews began
eyeing #41-2666 enviously.
Walt Krell recalled what happened when it came to
a head. "Jay was so mad...he ordered his men not to give
up the airplane and they weren't about to see that happen. By now
they would have done anything for Zeamer. They loaded their fifty
calibers and they told everyone to stay the hell away, and Zeamer and
his crew even slept in that damn airplane for fear someone would try to
take it away from them...Everyone was talking about him and his
In the months of missions that
followed Jay's crew was so busy that they never had the time to adorn their
bomber with the traditional nose-art, commonly seen on aircraft of that
era. Though many subsequent accounts refer to Jay's bomber as Lucy,
that was a title Zeamer and crew denied and avoided reference to even in later interviews.
The only markings the converted B-17E bore was the tail number.
became known simply as Old 666. Whenever there was a
mission--any mission, no matter how dangerous--Jay Zeamer and his crew
were the first to volunteer. They hung around the operations
center just waiting for a mission. Soon they too, earned a
They were called the:
Bud Thues, Zeamer, Hank Dominski, Sarnoski
(Front Row) Vaughn, Kendrick, Able, Pugh
The Bismarck Sea
If the men of the Fifth Air Force
had failed to understand that the Pacific war was supposed to be just a containment
action, they were not alone. Since the August 7, 1942, landing at
Guadalcanal, General Alexander Vandegrift's Marines had fought like they
were planning to defeat the Japanese...and they did. By December
the struggle for the southernmost of the Solomon Islands was nearing its
end and the battle-weary Marines were relieved by infantrymen from U.S. Army. The Tokyo
Express made its last run to reinforce the region on November
30. Tthe Marine Corps' Cactus Air Force at Henderson Field
on Guadalcanal now numbered more than 150
fighter aircraft and ruled the skies.
In New Guinea, the Allies had established air fields on the northern coast
of the Papuan Peninsula. Throughout November and
December, pilots of the Fifth Air Force turned back at least six major
attempts by the Japanese to reinforce Buna by sea. Meanwhile, American
infantrymen under General Robert Eichelberger fought their way over the
Owen Stanley Range. By the first week of January 1943 both Buna and
Gona were under Allied control.
General MacArthur knew that the
Japanese were stinging from their long list of defeats in the region, and
were desperate to
turn the tide of the war. He predicted that they would respond by
trying to reinforce Lae early in the new year by dispatching a massive convoy out of
Rabaul under cover of the first really bad weather. He advised
General Kenney to watch for the next front of heavy weather, and to have his
pilots maintain constant reconnaissance.
A major storm front moved through
the area in the last days of February. On the afternoon of March 1
one of Kenney's B-24 Liberators found fourteen enemy ships moving south
towards New Guinea through the Bismarck Sea. MacArthur's
predicted new Japanese offensive was indeed underway.
Japanese records later
indicated that eight troop transports, escorted by eight destroyers,
departed Rabaul on February 28. They were carrying nearly 7,000 troops of the 51st
Division to reinforce Lei and Salamaua. After they were sighted on
March 1, American and Australian pilots began hammering the Japanese,
both at sea and at Lei, to keep the aerodrome from getting its
aircraft into the fray.
Over the next three days the bombers
provided the ultimate proof of what Billy Mitchell had tried to demonstrate
decades earlier, when he pitted his bombers against a captured German
battleship off the east coast of the United States. Thanks in
large part to the new concept of skip-bombing, the Japanese force
was decimated in two days of combat. Four of the enemy destroyers
and all eight troop transports were sunk by Fifth Air Force and RAAF
bombers. Of the 7,000 soldiers of the 51st Division, fewer than
800 reached and landed at Lei. Japanese records later acknowledged that
3,664 men were either killed when their transports sank, or were lost at
sea. Fewer than 2,500 survivors were rescued and taken back to
Rabaul. Losses for the Allies were but a single B-17.
The smashing victory in the
Bismarck Sea opened the way for MacArthur to begin implementing a
military campaign he had long considered, one he had dubbed Operation
Cartwheel. The strategy was elementary to his plan for an island
hopping return to liberate the Philippines. In the early
stages of designing Operation Cartwheel, the key objective was
the capture of Rabaul.
On April 15 General MacArthur and
Admiral William F. Halsey met in Brisbane, Australia, to coordinate
their respective offensives designed to take Rabaul. Initially,
MacArthur had commanded only the Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific
from Australia to New Guinea, while Halsey commanded the South Pacific
which stretched from the Solomon Islands to Pearl Harbor. When
Guadalcanal fell, all of Halsey's future objectives lay in the Southwest
Pacific area under MacArthur's command. Fortunately, Halsey was a
rare breed of naval commander who let his intelligence over-ride any ego
or inter-service rivalry. Following his meeting with MacArthur he
stated, "Five minutes after I reported, I felt as if we were
The strategy for the capture of
Rabaul that was worked out in mid-April was a two-pronged assault.
MacArthur planned to land his forces on the southern coast of New Britain
island to fight their way north to Rabaul. Meanwhile, the Marines
under Halsey would begin a march through the Solomon chain, beginning at
New Georgia Island and working their way to the heavily fortified Japanese
stronghold at Bougainville. Key to the capture of Rabaul, at that
point in the planning, was for the Allies to take Bougainville.
(Ultimately MacArthur wound up by simply isolating and bypassing Rabaul in
his subsequent return to the Philippines.)
Full implementation of Operation
Cartwheel was delayed primarily by lack of intelligence.
MacArthur and Halsey were certain that, following the horrible defeat in
the Bismarck Sea, the Japanese would quickly move to reinforce New Britain
and Bougainville. Before the next steps in Operation Cartwheel
could commence, they would need to obtain important intelligence on the
In the meantime the Fifth Air Force
continued its regular run of bombing missions against the Japanese, and
many of these were flown by Captain Jay Zeamer and his Eager Beavers.
In May Zeamer and crew made a skip-bombing run on a Japanese
aircraft carrier, swooping within fifty feet of its decks. A few
days later on a daylight bombing raid over Rabaul, Old 666 came in
so low it was brushing the roofs of the housetops. It seemed that
the Eager Beavers were fearless. Everyone in the 43rd Bombardment
Group was talking about them, and now in some very respectful tones.
"Whenever the 43rd got a real
lousy mission--the worst possible mission of all that nobody else wanted
to fly--they went down to see Jay Zeamer and his gang," said Walt
Krell. "They couldn't keep them on the ground, no matter how
bad or rough that mission might be. They didn't care. They
crawled into that airplane and just flew and what was more they always
carried out their missions. It was the damnedest thing. They'd
fly in the worst possible weather, the kind of storm that made other
pilots grateful they were on the ground.
"And Zeamer would always find
his way in. Sometimes the weather would be so bad, in ships that
were shot up, other planes would crash, or the crews would bail out
because it was impossible to get back down safely. Impossible for
everyone except Jay Zeamer, that is."
One of Zeamer's missions over Rabaul was a psy-ops
flight during which pamphlets were to be dropped. Approaching the
enemy stronghold Zeamer told his crew, "Don't throw them
out. I'll go down low enough so you can pass them out individually,
but no lally-gagging around those geisha girls."
On a night mission over Wewak the
Japanese gunners on the ground managed to fix the flight of incoming
American bombers in the glare of several large search lights. Zeamer
got mad and made good use of his specially designed nose gun. In an
incredible display of courage and airmanship he dove on the positions,
shooting out three of them and damaging two others. His actions
enabled the squadron to complete its mission and get back safely.
That action earned the renegade pilot an oak leaf cluster to his Silver Star.
Zeamer's daring and skill gave his
crew great confidence. They believed they could fly anywhere,
accomplish any mission. They were convinced that
no matter what their condition, Captain Zeamer would always get them
home. On a May 5 mission over Madang Old 666 was hit more
than sixty times by anti-aircraft fire, the stabilizer was shot out and
the oxygen tanks exploded. Validating his crew's confidence, Zeamer
somehow managed to get everyone
back safely despite the extreme combat damage. Soon the Flying Fortress was patched up and ready
to fly its next mission.
Captain Zeamer was equally loyal to
his crew. All of them had been decorated again and again for their
heroics. Both Sergeants Vaughn and Pugh had been awarded Silver
Stars, and Sergeants Able and Kendrick had each been awarded the Silver
Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Master Sergant Joseph
Sarnoski had been awarded the Silver Star and Air Medal, but in Sarnoski's
case it wasn't
enough to satisfy Jay Zeamer. He was instrumental in seeking promotion for
his enlisted bombardier and, thanks to Jay's efforts, on May 24 Joe
Sarnoski became a second lieutenant.
Meanwhile, two things were still
General MacArthur was chaffing to
begin his assault on Rabaul via New Guinea and Bougainville,
the Japanese were moving quickly
to reinforce the region.
For months the weather had prevented
any air crew from flying the photo/recon mission necessary to initiate Operation
Cartwheel. No one knew how many enemy troops were dug in at
Bougainville, or how many enemy aircraft had been rushed in to reinforce
the island. Furthermore, the treacherous coastline with its reefs
and hazards needed to be mapped for the amphibious landing. This was the
mission that no one seemed to be able to accomplish. It was, indeed, the
mission no one wanted. It was so dangerous that no crew could be
ordered to fly it, any attempt would have to be made by volunteers. It was,
recalled Walt Krell:
"a reconnaissance mission
that nobody wanted to take. Nobody in his right mind, maybe.
So they went to see Jay Zeamer and his crew...."
The Mapping Mission
The reconnaissance mission over
Bougainville was simple in its concept:
- Depart Port Moresby under cover of darkness.
- Fly over 600 miles of open sea.
- Arrive at the north end of the island shortly
after dawn when there would be enough light to take
- Slowly cruise southeast at an altitude of 25,000
feet while the camera clicked in the belly of the aircraft to record
the terrain below.
Simple in concept perhaps, but the
devil was in the details. Despite Allied air superiority over New
Guinea and at Guadalcanal, Japan ruled the seas and the airspace
from New Britain to Choisuel. A lone photo-recon aircraft might
find itself hopelessly outnumbered and, for the mission to succeed not
only did the photographs have to be taken, but the airplane carrying
camera had to be able to get that film safely home.
"That job had been hanging
for months, and nobody else had been able to do it," Captain
Zeamer wrote in a letter five months after the mission. "We
just put extra guns all over our ship hoping to be able to fight our way
clear. We had 19 machineguns which is more than any other Flying
Fortress in the Southwest Pacific has ever thought of having."
On June 15 the ground crew of Abel,
Vaughn, Pugh and Kendrick prepared Old 666 for its important
mission of the following day. Two of Captain Zeamer's
officers were grounded by malaria so 2nd Lieutenant John T. Britton
became the volunteer co-pilot and 2nd Lieutenant Ruby Johnston the volunteer
Eager Beaver bombardier Joe
Sarnoski could have...indeed by all standards SHOULD have...been excused
from the mission. The young 2nd lieutenant had spent nearly 18
months in the combat theater and had flown dozens of missions and earned both
the Silver Star and Air Medal. More recently he had been ordered
home to instruct new bombardier recruits. His bags were all
packed; his departure was to be effective three days hence--June 19.
Why Joe Sarnoski volunteered for
the June 16 mission is anyone's guess. Since it wasn't a bombing
run his skills as a bombardier were not essential to the mission's
success. Perhaps he wanted one last mission before going
home. Maybe he sensed that in the face of intense danger Old
666 should have its vulnerable nose protected by the gunner who knew
it best. More likely however, Joe just couldn't imagine the men
who had been his brothers through so many harrowing missions in the
past, undertaking so dangerous a mission without him.
By the time darkness fell over Port
Moresby on June 15 Old 666 was armed to the teeth and ready for
action. While the crew headed for their cots to get a good night's
rest before their 4 a.m. takeoff, Captain Zeamer was given an additional
last-minute order. While in the air over the coastline of
Bougainville, he was instructed to fly over the smaller island of Buka
which was separated by a thin waterway known as the Buka Passage.
There he was to make a reconnaissance of the Japanese airfield there to
determine logistics and enemy strength.
This new assignment changed the
mission from being one of immense danger to one of sheer suicide.
Captain Zeamer was furious. His mission was to photograph
Bougainville and then get the images back home. A side trip over
Buka would almost surely doom his airplane and crew, making the entire
mission a futile waste. As he turned in for the night Zeamer had
already made up his mind that he would photograph Bougainville, but he
would not risk his men or his B-17 over Buka.
Old 666 lifted off from Port
Moresby right on schedule at 4 a.m. In the clear Plexiglas nose
Lieutenant Johnson plotted a course over 600 miles of open waters of the
Solomon Sea. Nearby, Joe Sarnoski checked and double-checked the
vertical camera switches he would activate when the time came for
Sergeant Kendrick to begin his all-important work of taking pictures
from further back in the
belly of the Flying Fortress.
For three hours Old 666's
four, big engines churned the air as Jay Zeamer flew into the rising sun
and one of Japan's most fortified islands. Shortly before 0700 the
faint dawn revealed the distant outline of Bougainville Island.
The B-17 was thirty minutes ahead of schedule. The sun had not yet
risen high enough to illuminate the island's west coast sufficiently for
Zeamer thought as he considered his early arrival and pondered the
suicidal last-minute order he had previously determined to ignore.
"Navigator, plot a course for Buka," he
Minutes later a thin slip of water
passed 25,000 feet below the Fortress, and then the dense jungle of Buka
appeared in the lens of Kendrick's camera. Carved in the foilage
below was a honeycomb of small airplane revetments, all leading to a
massive airstrip. With a sinking feeling Captain Zeamer suddenly
realized why headquarters wanted this recon--more than 400 enemy
fighters had been flown into the Buka aerodrome the previous day.
In the belly of Old 666
Sergeant Kendrick snapped a photograph while noting the time in his
camera log. It was 0700. Later that photograph would reveal
twenty-one enemy fighters either warming up or taking off to interdict
the American bomber.
"The thing we should have
done then was high-tail it for home," Zeamer later
stated. But even as Sergeant Forrest Dillman announced over the
interphone from behind his guns in the ball turret that he could see
enemy fighters taking off, Captain Zeamer turned southeast to level off
and begin his photo/mapping mission of Bougainville's west coast.
"The mapping had to be done
that day," Zeamer explained years later. With the invasion of
Bougainville already being planned, those photographs would mean life or
death to thousands of young American Marines. "They had to
know where the coral reefs were. A landing craft getting caught in
a coral reef would result in the men getting blown out of the water
before they could get overboard. So it was most important for us
to get the photographs from which charts could be made."
While his dedicated crew stood by
their guns and scanned the sky for trouble, Captain Zeamer held his
Flying Fortress steady at 25,000 feet. Old 666 cruised evenly on a straight and
level course over Bougainville while the camera clicked steadily.
Prop-wash kicked up a cloud of
dust on the earthen runway at Buka as Chief Flight Petty Officer Yoshio Ooki
throttled the engine of his A6M Zero. In the distance the American
Flying Fortress that had dared to make a lone incursion over Buka was fading
slowly, to become little more than a speck in the clear dawn of the
morning. Ooki gave a thumbs-up and then his fighter was taxiing for
takeoff. Behind him roared the engines of seven additional Zeroes,
the remainder of the Japanese commander's battle-tested squadron.
The 251st Kokutai was
part of the recently arrived reinforcement of 400 aircraft at Buka, following distinguished
service nearer the Japanese home islands. The cracker-jack outfit was part
of the massive air power shift to the Solomons in the Empire's desperate attempt
to turn back the sweeping air superiority gained by General Kenney's 5th Air
Force. Ooki's pilots were veterans, skilled fighters, and able tacticians
who were determined to surprise the American pilots with their aerial
prowess. On this day Yoshio Ooki had no doubt that if he and his men could
catch up to the fading B-17, they would send it down in flames.
It was slow work, climbing for
altitude and racing to catch the enemy bomber, but Ooki and his squadron nursed
every ounce of speed out of their engines. The race was too much for
Shunichi Yahiro's fighter, and while still in pursuit the Japanese pilot's
engine gave out and sent him crashing into the sea. Yahiro survived and
was later rescued, but at that moment Ooki's only thought was for the B-17 in the
distance. The American Flying Fortresses were known to be heavily armed and had
successfully fought off five, six, and occasionally even more fighters. But the
numbers today were certainly against the Americans. To increase the odds, Ooki's remaining seven
Zeroes were joined in the air by at least two twin-engine Dinah's.
Ooki knew also that the
other airfields on Bougainville would quickly field more Zeroes, should
they be needed.
The morning sun was creeping
over the island and bringing with it a light cloud cover, but as he raced
southward Ooki couldn't believe his luck. The pilot of the American bomber
was making it too easy. The big airplane didn't break and run for the
clouds--didn't dive and head out to sea. Instead, the pilot continued on a
straight and level heading. It was as if the enemy pilot was begging to be
attacked and destroyed.
Captain Zeamer was indeed making it easy
for the enemy fighters. "The mapping had to be extremely accurate
and you don't dare dip the wing a degree or the focal point on the ground moves
over a mile," he recalled in one interview. At 0740 Zeamer had only
22 minutes of flight-time remaining to complete his mission.
In the distance the crew could make out the
shapes of at least fifteen Zeroes and two Dinahs. No one
would have faulted the crew had they then opted to turn and run for home.
Zeamer's Eager Beavers knew, however, that for the first time in months the important
photos of Bougainville were being recorded on film. These were pictures that could save
thousands of American lives.
In the tail of the heavily-armed Fortress
Sergeant Pudgy Pugh unleashed a torrent of 50-caliber rounds at the
pursuing enemy. Technical Sergeant Forrest Dillman swiveled his ball
turret to add his own firepower. The deadly fusillade momentarily stunted
the advance and bought precious time.
the belly of Old 666 Sergeant Kendrick kept his camera rolling. In
the clear Plexiglas nose Lieutenant Sarnoski stood ready at his guns, scanning
the sky ahead for any sign of enemy fighters that might try to attack from the
In the cockpit Captain Zeamer held his
course while the co-pilot and navigator called out numbers, helping him to keep
the wings level, the air speed constant, and the bomber's altitude consistent
at 25,000 feet.
In the distance Jay could make out the
wide opening at the middle of the Bougainville Island. That would be Empress Augusta
Bay, he knew. If he and his crew could hold on for just another twenty minutes
their mapping mission would be completed. The respite bought by the
aggressive and accurate fire of Pugh and Dillman might prove to be just enough.
Captain Zeamer was far from oblivious
of the enemy presence, however. He knew he was in trouble, and worse,
he knew he was up against a formidable foe. In nearly a year of
combat that included 47 aerial missions, Captain Zeamer had never seen
more than two Japanese fighters in a coordinated frontal attack.
Such tactics required timing, practice and precision. Now he faced
FIVE fighters in such an arrangement. Jay knew these enemy pilots were good--VERY GOOD!
As Ooki's squadron dove in with guns blistering
the sky Zeamer was less than minute from completing his mission. He also
knew the enemy would be on top of him in far less time than that. "The
dumbest thing you can do with a B-17, when you're under attack against
fighters, is to hold it straight and level," Jay recalled. "Everyone
I know who did that (against two fighters) got shot down. But here
are five coming in five different directions. I thought, 'My gosh,
if I maneuver against one, I'll make myself better game to the
others.' That, coupled with the fact that the mapping was important,
I kept going straight."
The two forces met over Empress
Augusta Bay at 0800. Yoshio Ooki dove his Zero towards the
cockpit of the American bomber and unleashed his 20mm cannon.
Breaking off less than 50 feet from the point of collision, the two pilots
might well have seen the surprise, each on the face of each other. While
holding his bomber on course, Zeamer had unleashed a string of 50-caliber
rounds from his own specially mounted nose gun, raking Ooki's Zero
and sending him plummeting earthward with fuel streaming from his wing
Old 666 shook with the force
of fire from all its nose guns, then trembled as Ooki's 20mm destroyed the
cockpit. Simultaneously, Lieutenant Sarnoski fired at the Zero
to the left (at the 10 o'clock position.) It erupted in front of the
nose from the bombardier's accurate fire, but not before one of its own
20mm canon shattered the Plexiglas of the American bomber. Sarnoski was thrown backward,
beneath the catwalk. His body was shredded with shrapnel and broken
glass. A deadly gash in his side had nearly split him in half.
In the cockpit Captain Zeamer could
see what was happening below. The enemy cannon had ripped huge holes
in the floor of the cockpit and peppered the his own legs and feet with
small pieces of shrapnel. Air screamed in through the holes
in the floor, and Zeamer watched as Lieutenant Johnston rush to the mortally wounded
bombardier to try to stem the flow of blood from a neck
wound. Joe Sarnoski shook him off. "I'm alright,"
he struggled to announce. "Don't worry about me." More enemy fighters
was now firing
on the bomber's shattered nose, and every gun was needed in those critical
Slowly, painfully, Joe Sarnoski dragged his body across a
torn catwalk that was now slick with his own blood. He forced
himself upright and from a crouch opened fire on a twin-engine Dinah
that was moving in for the kill. Once again Sarnoski's accurate fire
sent an enemy fighter down in flames, but not before more cannon fire hit
More than 100 pieces of sharp metal
from this new fusillade tore into Captain Zeamer, shattering his feet and paralyzing his
legs. Bullets sprayed the cockpit and tore into the pilot's
arms and legs. "I never felt so much pain in my life," he
recalled. "One of the shells exploded at my feet. It
ripped off my rudder pedals, tore gobs of flesh from my legs, and
shattered my left knee. Blood from my ruptured wrist was spurting
across my lap every time my heart pumped."
Captain Zeamer and his crew had run
out of time. The last explosion had ruptured the bomber's hydraulic
system, destroyed the cockpit flight instruments, and severed control
cables. It had also knocked out the oxygen supply and, at 25,000 feet the crew would
quickly be rendered unconscious unless Zeamer dove. Despite his
he found the strength manipulate the controls and bank hard to the right, plummeting to 10,000
feet above the sea.
Falling behind Jay Zeamers bomber in
his own desperate effort to avoid disaster, Yoshio
Ooki fought his own controls to nurse his fighter back to Buka.
Pilot Hiroshi Iwano protectively followed his squadron leader in his own undamaged Zero.
Three pilots of the 251 Air Squadron had also taken hits from the accurate fire
of Zeamer's besieged bomber (Tadaharu Sakagami, Tadashi Yoneda, and Ichirobei
Yamazaki), but Kooichi Terada apparently never got in position to fire a round. The
eighth Japanese fighter, piloted by Suehiro Yamamoto, had to break off and return
home after expending all of his ammunition. In all, 251 Squadron
reported firing more than five hundred 20mm and more than seven hundred 7.7mm rounds
in their attempt to destroy the Flying Fortress that had dared to venture alone into
the heavily defended Bougainville/Buka area.
Yamamoto witnessed the stricken
Fortress' desperate dive just as he banked for home. His after-action report
noted: "Enemy aircraft generates smoke and disappeared in the
cloud. Later, it was found having crashed in the mountains of Bougainville."
It was small comfort for the crack
Nippon squadron that had lost one fighter in the ocean and suffered four others
Contrary to Yamamoto's report, Old 666
did not crashed into the mountains. Captain Zeamer struggled with
the controls to pull his bomber out of its dive and level off at 10,000 feet.
Then he pointed her shattered nose
westward, towards home 600 miles distant. Fighting off waves of pain
Jay struggled to keep his bomber in the air. Meanwhile at least seventeen enemy
fighters from other enemy squadrons dove downward on the withdrawing Flying
Fortress to deliver the coup de grace. Sergeant
Able flamed one of them with the twin-50s in the top turret but paid for it in
pain. Enemy rounds struck him in both legs.
Time and again enemy fighters
tried to race ahead of Old 666 for another frontal attack. The nose guns were
out of commission from the heavy damage, Lieutenant Johnston was now
wounded, and Lieutenant Sarnoski was slumped silently over his own
machinegun. He had mercifully slipped into unconsciousness after summoning
one last effort of unbelievable strength to turn back the final deadly assault.
Fortunately, with the mapping mission done, Captain Zeamer was now able concentrate on maximum airspeed and evasion. "I just maneuvered
the hell out of that airplane for the next forty-five minutes as they (Jap
in one after the other," Jay Zeamer recalled.
Lieutenant Britton tried to take
control of the floundering B-17 for his badly wounded pilot. Zeamer
refused to give up, convinced that the fate of his crew depended upon his
own abilities and experience. Unlike a standard bombing mission where,
if you were shot down after reaching target, one still had the satisfaction
of mission accomplishment, unless Old 666 got back to New Guinea
with its film intact the whole ordeal would have been for naught. "He
(Zeamer) was just going at it with a vengeance," recalled Britton. "I
don't know where he got the strength!"
By 0845 the American bomber was over open seas
and the enemy fighters, low on ammunition and fuel, were forced to turn
back to Bougainville. Only then did Sergeant Able leave the ball
turret. He hobbled up to the cockpit on his two wounded legs. There he
found his Zeamer covered in blood and there was a fire in the oxygen system behind
his seat. He shouted for Lieutenant Johnston to come help him, and together the two
wounded crewmen beat out the flames.
Sergeant Pugh left his position at
the tail gun to check on Lieutenant Sarnoski in the ruptured nose of the
aircraft. He found the Eager Beaver's bombardier still
slumped where he had fought valiantly throughout the fray, poised over his gun
with his finger on the trigger. Pudgy Pugh lifted him
up and pulled him away from the jagged edges of the ruined battle
station. Gently he cradled the body of his friend while Old 666
continued its desperate flight home. Halfway there, his head resting
in the young gunner's lap, Joseph Raymond Sarnoski died.
Lieutenant Britton and Sergeant
Kendrick turned their attention to their wounded pilot, cutting away
clothing to find his multiple wounds and try and stop the bleeding.
Throughout the long flight home the indomitable airman passed in and out
of consciousness, but he refused to give up control of his
airplane. "I don't move until the mission is
ended," Zeamer announced.
His determination aside, both of
Jay's legs were paralyzed, both arms were useless, and he was literally
controlling Old 666 by his finger tips. Sergeant Vaughn
managed to give him a shot of morphine to ease the pain while Sergeant Able took a position
in the co-pilot's seat to fly the bomber home. (Lieutenant Britton,
the co-pilot, was occupied with tending the wounded and relaying messages from the radio room
to the cockpit.) "Captain Zeamer, although severely wounded
and losing blood continuously, remained conscious throughout the
trip," wrote the 19-year old gunner. "Although in
great pain he kept his head and kept command of the ship until we
landed. I have never seen a man with so much 'guts'."
Shortly before noon Sergeant Able saw
the northern shoreline of New Guinea in the distance and
returned the co-pilot's position to Lieutenant Britton.
Fighting waves of unconsciousness brought on by the loss of blood,
Captain Zeamer still directed the return and subsequent landing. Fearful that Old 666
was so badly shot up that it wouldn't clear the Owen Stanley Range, he
ordered Britton to land at Dobadura. Without hydraulics or
brakes the co-pilot managed to bring the ship home, taxiing to a stop at
1215. In only eight-and-a-quarter hours several lives had been changed, one
life had been lost--and just perhaps, due to the incredible determination
of one B-17 crew, thousands of Marines might be saved.
The rescue crew that welcomed Old
666 to Dobadura that day were astounded by what they saw. The fortress
bore the marks of 187 bullet holes, and gaping wounds from five 20mm
cannon. While the wounded were helped to the ground and loaded in
ambulances, the semi-conscious
Zeamer overheard one man remark:
pilot last. He's dead!"
of Captain Zeamer's death, including a death notification to his parents
back in the United States, were premature. More than 120 pieces of
ragged steel were picked from his body and three days of blood
transfusions were required to keep him alive. During the ordeal the
intrepid pilot had lost 50% of his blood volume and by all best estimates,
he should not have survived. His leg was shredded and even after
Jay's prospects for survival improved, time it was feared that his leg would have to be amputated. Only the fact
that he had lost so much blood that the surgeons believed he would not survive
the amputation prevented that drastic measure.
Jay's determination to live was perhaps the only thing more
incredible that what he had accomplished in the cockpit of Old 666
on a fateful mission over the Buka Passage. In his own memoirs,
Fifth Air Force Commander General George Kenney wrote: "Jay
Zeamer and his crew performed a mission that still stands out in my mind
as an epic of courage unequaled in the annals of air warfare."
Raymond Sarnoski died in the arms of Pudgy
Pugh on the flight home. His personal determination to remain at
his guns during the most critical moments of the mission had made the
difference, but he paid for it with his life. Two days after the
mission a memorial service was held to remember Lieutenant Raymond
Sarnoski, and the bombardier was buried on a knoll near the New Guinea
airstrip. Sergeants Able and Vaughn obtained permission to leave
the hospital beds where their wounds were being treated in order to attend the
ceremony. The four un-injured members of the crew were also
present, as were scores of other airmen.
Lieutenant Johnston's head wound was second in
severity only to the wounds suffered by Jay Zeamer. Both men were
not only confined to hospitals for major medical attention and neither man was even
told that Joe Sarnoski had died for several days. Five months later, while still undergoing
treatment at Winter General Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, Jay wrote a
letter to Joe's sister Agnes stating:
"I watched the zero that hit both
Joe and myself explode in the air when Joe's tracers hit
it," he wrote. "A twin engine fighter
followed it in but Joe promptly shot him down too. I could
see into the nose compartment through holes which had been shot
in my instrument panel. Joe was trying to pull himself
back up to his guns then but couldn't make it anymore. I
knew then that he had also been hit but I didn't know how badly.
"When we landed I was temporarily
blind (from loss of blood) and nobody would tell me that Joe had
died until two weeks later when I was evacuated from New
While scores of airmen rushed to give blood to
keep Jay Zeamer alive during the first critical 72 hours after the
mapping mission, Colonel Meriam
C. Cooper was reviewing accounts of the mission. As chief of staff
to Major General Ennis C. Whitehead, Colonel Cooper had witnessed many
reports of great bravery and determination in two world wars. (As
a young officer in World War I, in fact, it had been Cooper that had
recommended Frank Luke for the Medal of Honor.) After reading the
reports of the mission over Buka Colonel Cooper
"I consider Captain Zeamer's feat above and beyond the call
of duty, comparable to that of Lieutenant Luke, who stands with Captain
(Eddie) Rickenbacker as one of the leading flying officers of
exceptional courage and daring during the last World War."
General Kenney promptly endorsed Zeamer's recommendation for his
country's highest honor. It was presented in a special Pentagon
ceremony by General Henry Hap Arnold on January 6, 1944.
Thirty days before that presentation the nomination for Lieutenant
Sarnoski's Medal of Honor was also approved. It was presented to
his widow Marie at Richland Army Air Force Base on June 7, 1944.
(Marie subsequently gave the Medal to Joe's parents, who in turn granted
possession to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society).
These presentations marked the first time since
World War I and the fateful mission of Lieutenants Harold Goettler and
Erwin Bleckley to find The Lost Battalion, that the Medal of
Honor was presented to TWO men from the same airplane. The other
seven courageous Eager Beavers were not forgotten in the efforts
to recognize the valor of the crew that had accomplished the mission no
one else wanted..
All seven were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to
the Medal of Honor. It made the nine men who flew the in Old
666 on that June 16, 1943, mission over Bougainville, perhaps the
most highly decorated aircrew in the history of military aviation.
(When these nine awards, along with five Purple Hearts are added to the
multiple high awards previously awarded members of the Eager Beavers,
there is no doubt no other aircraft has ever boasted a more-decorated
On June 30, just two weeks after the photo/mapping
mission of Bougainville, Operation Cartwheel was launched with
MacArthur's infantry landing 60 miles south of Lae and Admiral Halsey's
43rd Infantry (US Army) landing on New Georgia in the first leg of the
march to Bougainville. Six months later US Marines stormed ashore
on Bougainville Island. Their landing point was at Empress Augusta
Bay, the place where Zeamer and crew had ignored enemy fire until the needed
photographs of the landing site could be taken.
Jay Zeamer spent fifteen months of hospital
recovery as a result of his serious, multiple wounds. Following his
release from the hospital he returned to active duty at Mitchell
Field in New York as a Field Air Inspector. On January 18,
1945, Zeamer retired on disability as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Jay returned to MIT to earn his Master's degree in
aeronautical engineering and went on to work for Pratt-Whitney in East
Hartford, Connecticut in 1946. In 1949 he fell in love and
married, and he and wife Barbara raised five daughters.
years after the end of World War II Jay Zeamer, now eighty-two years
old, joined other veterans of the Pacific War for a reunion in
Hawaii. There he visited the National Memorial Cemetery of the
Pacific (known as the Punchbowl). More than 33,000 of his
comrades who never made it home are buried or commemorated there.
Walking slowly among the headstones, Jay stooped
forward to rest on his cane and read an inscription. "I
didn't know he was here," Zeamer said to a nearby Air Force
reporter, while the tears of a half-century welled up in his eyes.
Indeed, following the end of the war, Captain Zeamer's valiant
bombardier had been re-interred on American soil.
Jay let his cane fall to the green grass,
straightened the arch in his back, and presented a long and heart-felt
salute to his fallen comrade. Then, with tears still filling his
eyes, he forced his war-torn legs to bend so that he could kneel at the
grave of Lieutenant Raymond Joseph Sarnoski to arrange a lei of flowers
around the headstone.
At the time of this
writing (November, 2003), Lieutenant Colonel Jay Zeamer, USAAF (Retired)
was the only Army Air Force recipient of the Medal of Honor still
living. He passed away on March 21, 2007.
John Carey Red Morgan
Unqualified - Morally Determined
Mr. Jim Rembisz is a high
school teacher in Joe Sarnoski's home state of Pennsylvania. He
uses the story of Jay Zeamer and Joe Sarnoski to teach history and
patriotism to his students. His research has uncovered much untold
information about these two men, including personal letters before,
during and after their fateful mission. During a visit to Japan he
obtained the official combat record of Yoshio Ooki's 251st
Kokutai squadron and had it translated from Japanese. His
records, copies of letters, subsequent correspondence with Jay Zeamer,
and other important materials were instrumental in preparing this
story. Mr. Rembisz has a personal involvement in the story as
well--his mother Agnes was the sister of Joe Sarnoski.
Birdsall, Steve, Flying Buccaneers, Doubleday &
Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1977.
Bowman, MSGT Joe, Untitled Manuscript based on personal research
Caidin, Martin, Flying Forts, Meredith Press, New Yor, NY, 1968
Caidin, Martin, "Mission Over Buka", Argosy Magazine,
Cohn, Art, "Z Is for Zeamer", Liberty Magazine, January 15,
Humphreys, Ned. "Resolute Defense..At Price of His Life". Crosshairs,
Volume 5, Number 2. The Bombardiers, Inc., June 1990.
Tillman, Barrett, Above and Beyond, The Aviation Medals of Honor,
Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 2002.
Personal Letter from Jay Zeamer to Joe Sarnoski's
sister Agnes, November 9, 1943.
Personal Letter from Jay Zeamer to Jim Rembisz, January 27, 1986.
Personal Letter from General Curtis E. LeMay to Jim Rembisz, January 25, 1989.
Official Combat Reports, 251 Kokutai Squadron, June 16, 1943.
GSA Form 6994, Transmittal of and/or Entitlement to Awards, Joseph R. Sarnoski,
NPRC, St. Louis.
Part II - World War
A Very Special Thanks to Author/Historian Barrett
Tillman for his special assistance and creative support in the
development of this series.
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