By Tom Clavin
“The Overlook” appears every Thursday at tomclavin.substack.com. An overlook is usually a place from which one can see in many if not all directions, including where one has been and where one is going. If you enjoy the column, please "like" it and let me know what you think by commenting (check out previous ones while you're at it). Likes, comments, and shares help with author discoverability on Substack.com, and all support is appreciated.And don't forget to hit the ‘Subscribe’ button – it’s free!
It used to be that whenever July 25 rolled around, I thought of it only as my birthday. Then Bob Drury and I began working on the book that would eventually be titled Lucky 666. It’s a gripping World War II story and the main character is Jay Zeamer. His birthday is this Sunday too. It’s not a particularly significant one – were he still alive, Zeamer would be turning 103. But it does provide an opportunity to tell some of his story.
Zeamer was born in Pennsylvania but grew up in Orange, New Jersey, with his family spending summers in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. He was a bright student and Eagle Scout and he enjoyed tinkering with machines. As a teenager he built his own boat that he took on long sails and he rebuilt a car that he drove back and forth to the Culver Academy in Indiana and later to MIT in Massachusetts. When World War II began in Europe, Zeamer joined the Army. What he most wanted to do was become a pilot in the Army Air Corps. As a lieutenant he trained at Langley Field in Virginia where he met and became good friends with a bombardier, Sgt. Joe Sarnoski.
Though Sarnoski had also been born in Pennsylvania, he and Zeamer had much different backgrounds. Joe was one of 16 Sarnoski siblings in a family that scraped out a living in coal country. In 1936, when he was old enough for younger brothers to take over the routine chores at home, Joe joined the Army. By the time he met Jay Zeamer, he was an experienced instructor hoping to be sent overseas – especially after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The two men did wind up shipped off to Australia, arriving at different times in 1942. The situation there was very precarious because the Japanese had occupied most of the southwest Pacific and the beleaguered American, British, and Australian forces had their backs to the wall as the Japanese made plans to gobble up the rest. The Jimmy Doolittle raid on Tokyo and victory in the Battle of Midway offered rays of hope that the army and navy of the Rising Sun were not invincible. Another positive sign was the arrival of B-17s bombers, which with increasing efficiency were rolling off the Boeing assembly line back in the States.
The Flying Fortress, with its ability to fly long distances to deliver destructive payloads and its durability, became a powerful weapon in the Pacific Theater. By the time Jay Zeamer and Joe Sarnoski were reunited at the Allied base at Port Moresby in New Guinea in late 1942 – both were now members of the 43rd Bombardment Group -- Jay was a B-17 pilot and Joe was an experienced bombardier. Though Jay was a popular airman, he wasn’t the most popular pilot because he was something of a renegade, creating his own flight plans and improvising on missions, and he took too many risks. He found himself “benched,” looking for a plane to fly.
Jay was not one to sit idly and wait for something to happen. With Joe, he recruited a crew of so-called misfits, guys other captains were glad to give away, and then they found at the end of a runway a B-17 discarded as too damaged to fly again. The nine men, who would earn the name “Eager Beavers” because there was no job or mission they wouldn’t tackle, set to work rebuilding the plane. It was dubbed “Old 666” because those were the last three serial numbers on the tail. By the spring of 1943, with Jay piloting and Joe the bombardier, Old 666 was in the air and attacking Japanese positions. During one of the missions, Jay earned his second Silver Star by using the Flying Fortress like a fighter plane and strafing anti-aircraft guns that were knocking other B-17s out of the sky.
That June, the Allied brass had determined that the key to taking the Solomon Islands and thus inflicting a major loss on the enemy was the invasion and occupation of Bougainville. But they knew little about the island, such as how heavily fortified was it and where was the best location for the Marines to go ashore. The only way to gain crucial intel was to send a lone B-17 on the 600 miles to Bougainville to photograph it. Actually, the 600 miles going there would not be enough, because if the bomber did not return with the film, the mission was a waste of men and resources. Clearly, this was close to being a suicide mission, and the top brass could not order a crew to undertake it.
As soon as Jay and the Eager Beavers heard about the mission, they volunteered. They not only believed that by now they were the best crew in the 43rd Group but when they rebuilt their B-17 they had armed it with 19 .50-caliber machine guns, so it was the most powerful fighting bomber in the southwest Pacific. At 4 a.m. on June 16, 1943, Old 666 took off.
I don’t want to give away the whole story. Five years ago, Lucky 666 was published and you can find it in paperback and e-book and there might still be an original hardcover or two in bookstores. But for now: Old 666 did return. However, not every member of the crew made it back alive. That day in June 1943 saw the longest dogfight in military aviation history, and with two Medals of Honor (one of them posthumous) and other awards, Jay and Joe and the rest of the Eager Beavers became the most decorated American crew of any war. They completed their mission. A few months later came the successful invasion of Bougainville by U.S. Marines and the tide of the war turned in favor of the Allies.
Me: I simply get another year older. Actually, that is the way I always used to look at a birthday, as turning another year older. But for an inexplicable reason I am thinking more positive: A “birth day” is the beginning of a new year. Maybe that new year will include good things. Okay, maybe it won’t, but I prefer to think of the promising possibilities a new year offers.
Tom Clavin, once again turning 39, is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including this latest collaboration with Bob Drury, Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, published by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com to purchase a copy.