Saturday, October 26, 2013

Old 666

For those up on their Bible studies or conversant with horror pics, 666 is the number of the Beast, an associate of the AntiChrist at the time of theApocalypse: “If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666.” (Revelation 13.18).

It is a popular journey amongst thrillseekers to take Flight 666 on Friday 13th to Helsinki, usually abbreviated to Hel:

Today’s post, however, is not about Beasts or Friday 13, but about a World War 2 bomber and a story which makes Chuck Norris jokes look tame.

A B-17 bomber, the type that was modified by the crew of Old 666

The following report is adapted from Wkipedia:

Old 666, B-17E 41-2666 was a World War 11 B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber which was assigned to the United States' 43rd Bomb Group in 1943 and was the aircraft piloted by Lt. Col. (then Captain) Jay Zeamer on the mission that would earn him and 2d Lt. Joseph Samoski each a Medal of Honor, and every other member of the crew a Distinguished Service Cross.


By 1943, Old 666, tail number 41-2666, had suffered heavy battle damage and had gained a reputation as a cursed bomber, often coming back from missions with heavy damage. Grounded at Port Moresby Airport, it was parked at the end of the runway where other aircrews could cannibalize it for needed parts. A military photographer told Zeamer, "I know where there’s a bomber, but no one will fly it anymore because every time it goes out it gets shot to hell!"

Captain Zeamer, who had been unable to acquire an aircraft of his own, had the bomber towed out of the 'bone yard' and, with enormous effort, not only restored the badly battered aircraft to flight status but made many changes.

They included increasing the number of machine guns from 13 to 19, replacing the waist gunners' standard single guns with twin guns, replacing all .30 cal machine guns with the larger and more powerful .50 cal, and adding a fixed-position gun that could be fired from the pilot's station. Zeamer's crew put guns where they did not even need them, and left spare machine guns on the aircraft's catwalk; if a gun jammed at a critical moment they could dump it and quickly replace it. They also mounted a gun behind the ball turret near the waist. These modifications made Old 666 the most heavily armed bomber in the Pacific Theater.

Zeamer and his men zealously guarded their scrounged weapons and parts from other flight crews, even to the extent of sleeping in their plane.

In the months of missions that followed, Zeamer'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 the bomber as "Lucy," that was not a title Zeamer and his crew ever used. The only markings the converted B-17E bore was the tail number—the bomber 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 centre just waiting for a mission. Soon they too, earned a nickname.  They were called the Eager Beavers:

(Back Row) Bud Thues, Zeamer, Hank Dominski, Sarnoski
(Front Row) Vaughn, Kendrick, Able, Pugh

According to Walt Krell, a personal friend of Zeamer and a fellow WW2 pilot:

"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. 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."

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. 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 searchlights, but, in an audacious display of airmanship, Zeamer dove on the positions, shooting out three lights and damaging two others.

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, yet the aircraft landed safely and was quickly patched.

Mapping Mission:

On June 16, 1943 a request went out for a special mission: an unescorted, single-ship mapping mission over hostile territory. According to Walt Krell it was "a reconnaissance mission that nobody wanted to take. Nobody in his right mind, maybe. So they went to see Jay Zeamer and his crew...."

Capt. Zeamer and crew volunteered. Taking off at 4 a.m. to make use of cover of darkness, 'Old 666' and crew headed for Bougainvillea, where they were instructed to take reconnaissance of the Japanese controlled island, to determine logistics and enemy strength for the upcoming Invasion of the Solomon Islands. The flight required flying over 600 miles (970 km) of open sea to reach the target. 

Captain Zeamer had also been 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. According to one report on the mission the new assignment changed the mission from being one of immense danger to one of sheer suicide. 

Arriving at Bougainville Island 30 minutes ahead of schedule and still too dark for photographs, Zeamer ordered the flight to go to Buka.

By 7:40 a.m., with only 22 minutes of flight-time remaining to complete its mission, Old 666 was intercepted by at least 17 Japanese fighters (15 A6M Zeros and 2 Ki-46 Dinahs) of the 251st Kokutai Squadron, commanded by Chief Flight Petty Officer Yoshio Oooki. 

A detailed account of the air battle can be read at:

After making a pass at the heavily armed tail, the fighters came in against the normally lightly armed nose, only to find that this specific bomber possessed much-heavier forward firepower, resulting in two A6M Zeros being shot down. 20mm cannon shells from a third Zero smashed into the cockpit and nose, wounding both Zeamer and Sarnoski before being shot down itself. Sarnoski crawled out of the nose to seek first aid attention, but when a Ki-46 Dinah attacked nose-on, he returned to his guns, shot it down and then shortly thereafter collapsed. The second attack wave knocked out the plane's oxygen system, forcing the bomber to dive from 25,000 feet (7,600 m) to 8,000 feet (2,400 m), where the crew could breathe normally, in just a matter of seconds.

By 8:45 a.m, over an hour after the attack began, the American bomber was over open seas, and the enemy fighters, low on ammunition and fuel, were forced to turn back to Bougainville. 

All the while during the battle Zeamer had continued the mapping and photography that had been his mission. He had kept Old 666 level whilst that photography and mapping had been carried out.

By the time the attackers headed home, one crew member was dead and 5 were wounded in varying degrees, their aircraft heavily damaged. It was during the return flight that Zeamer lost consciousness and Sarnoski, still manning his guns, died. Upon landing, co-pilot Lt. Col. (then 1st Lt.) J.T. Britton told the ground crews to get Zeamer first, but the ground crew said, "He's gone!"; Zeamer, however, was not dead, and lived to receive the Medal of Honor; Sarnoski was awarded his Medal of Honor posthumously. In one of the most decorated flights in history, the rest of the crew received Distinguished Service Crosses. 

Sarnoski needn’t have flown. He had spent nearly 18 months in the combat theatre, had flown dozens of missions and had earned both the Silver Star and Air Medal. Having been ordered home to instruct new bombardier recruits, he had his bags were packed for departure three days hence. Believing that the chances of the return of Old 666 would be improved by his participation in the high risk mission, he had volunteered to be part of the crew.

A death notification was sent to Captain Zeamer’s parents in the United States but the notification was premature. More than 120 pieces of steel were picked from his body and three days of blood transfusions were required to keep him alive. During the ordeal he had lost 50% of his blood volume and by best estimates, he should not have survived. His leg was shredded and 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 happening.

In his 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 unequalled in the annals of air warfare."

On June 30, 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.

The following is from Wings of Valor:

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.

Sixty 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.

Lt Joseph Sarnoski

Lt Col Jay Zeamer in later years

Jay Zeamer died on March 21, 2007 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The day of the funeral, John Baldacci, the Governor of Maine, ordered that all flags throughout the state would be flown at half-mast.

See Jay Zeamer and view his story at:


  1. One of those stories I've never heard - thanks for sharing. His scavenging to ready a bomber reminds me of the stories of LT J.F. Kennedy building his mosquito boat.

  2. You've done a nice job, better than many, of relating the story based on the common sources. I've discovered over twenty years of research on Zeamer's crew, including a multitude of personal interviews, including surviving crew members, that there is quite a lot of misinformation out there. Through a novel I hope to publish and feature screenplay I hope to sell this coming year, I hope to correct the record. In the meantime, I just have to point out that the gentleman you show as being an elderly Jay Zeamer is not Lt. Col. Zeamer, it's Gen. "Hap" Arnold, the commander of the USAAF/AAC in WWII. You can find a photo of an elderly Lt. Col. Zeamer here:

  3. Thank you, Clint. Mistake corrected. Let me know when your book is out, it will also make great gifts.


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