Jay Zeamer Jr.
U.S. Army Air Forces
Medal of Honor
Bougainville, Solomon Islands
June 16, 1943
When U.S. Army Air Forces Captain Jay Zeamer Jr. lifted his B-17E Flying Fortress off the runway at Port Moresby, New Guinea, on June 16, 1943, neither he nor his eight crewmen knew the sortie—an unescorted mapping flight over the Japanese-held island of Bougainville in the Solomons—was destined to become the most decorated American air mission of World War II.
The pilot and his crew were unlikely heroes. Assigned to the 65th Bombardment Squadron, 43rd Bombardment Group, Zeamer had a reputation for coolness that bordered on complacency and was said to have recruited a crew “of renegades and screw-offs.” The bomber’s reputation was little better. By 1943 the battered B-17E with tail number 12666 was considered cursed and had been parked at the end of the Port Moresby runway to be cannibalized for parts.
But Zeamer and his crew, needing a plane, patched holes in the plane’s fuselage and made it air-ready—with modifications. They increased the number of machine guns from 13 to 19, doubled the waist gunners’ armament, replaced all .30-caliber machine guns with .50- caliber weapons and added a fixed gun in the nose that Zeamer could fire remotely from the cockpit. There was no time to add the customary nose art or name the bomber. The crew knew the Fortress simply by its tail number—666.
Zeamer and his men then volunteered for various missions, stepping forward in June for the Bougainville mapping run. Unknown to the aviators and the 43rd BG intelligence officers, however, the Japanese had moved 400 fighter planes into Rabaul and the Solomon Islands during the night of June 15.
The heavily armed 666 left Port Moresby at 0400 with Zeamer at the controls, 2nd Lt. John T. Britton as co-pilot and bombardier 2nd Lt. Joseph Sarnoski in the nose. They made it to the Solomons without incident. While photographing Buka, a small island north of Bougainville, however, the crew observed enemy fighters taking off. Despite the threat Zeamer continued his critical mapping run. At 0800, as the crew photographed Bougainville’s west coast, 15 Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes and two Mitsubishi Ki-46 Dinahs intercepted 666.
After making a pass at the heavily armed tail, five of the Zeroes came in against the usually weaker nose, only to find that the bomber possessed heavier forward firepower than most B-17s. Zeamer took out one Zero with his fixed gun, and Sarnoski downed another, but not before the Japanese pilots had raked the Fortress’ nose and cockpit with 20mm cannon shells. Shards of metal and Plexiglas tore into Sarnoski’s abdomen, the force of the blast throwing him backward. Despite his wounds Sarnoski crawled back to his guns, shot down a third enemy fighter and continued firing until he collapsed. More cannon fire hit the cockpit, peppering Zeamer’s arms and legs with shrapnel and shattering his left knee.
The initial attack had destroyed the B-17’s rudder controls, punctured hydraulic lines and disabled the forward machine guns. Worse, it had knocked out the plane’s oxygen system, forcing Zeamer to dive to 8,000 feet to enable his crewmen to breathe.
For 45 minutes the Japanese planes harried the B-17. The Fortress’ gunners battled them while Zeamer—bleeding and in pain—maneuvered to meet each frontal attack head-on, presenting the smallest possible target.
By 0845 the bomber was over open seas, and the enemy planes turned back. Six of the B-17’s crewmen were wounded, and Sarnoski had died soon after the Fortress turned for home.
Unable to reach Port Moresby, co-pilot Britton landed at a closer airfield. Though holed 192 times, “Old 666” had returned with intelligence vital to the success of the Bougainville invasion. Zeamer and crew were credited with five Japanese fighters. Both Zeamer and Sarnoski received Medals of Honor, the other crewmen the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest decoration for valor in combat. Jay Zeamer died in 2007, at age 88. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.