Medal of Honor recipient Jay Zeamer dreamed of flying for the military. However, he had a heck of a time getting into the pilot’s seat.
No Longer A Co-Pilot
Zeamer started in the Infantry Reserve, eventually transferring into the Army Air Corps to fly. But, he found himself unable to pass the check ride and stuck as a co-pilot. In 1941, he found himself co-piloting B-26 Marauders.
He was tired of being a co-pilot, so he went to the 403rd Bomb Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group, where his friend Sgt. Joe Sarnoski was the bombardier, and he flew B-17s.
Zeamer took over as the first pilot on a mission, performing calmly and expertly, earning him a Silver Star. Zeamer was now a pilot, but he did not have a plane or crew. Eventually, his friend, Sarnoski, became his bombardier and navigator.
They began to build a team. Many pilots did not last past one mission, but they found a crew of renegades and oddballs and were dubbed “The Eager Beavers.”
When they arrived at the 65th Bomb Squadron, they found a damaged plane, B-17E. It had taken such a beating that it was being used for parts. People believed that its bad luck was due to its tail number, #41-2666. Zeamer’s crew gladly adopted the old girl and called it “Old 666.”
They fixed her up and added upgrades, such as a .50-caliber machine gun and twin .50 calibers replacing the waist gunner’s single guns. Even Zeamer had a gun in the cockpit. In the end, “Old 666” had 19 guns.
On one tough mission in June 1943, they were all alone on a recon-mission to map Bougainville and get a picture of Buka Island. Soon they were spotted with 17 Japanese Zeros after them.
Five attacked once, but Zeamer hit one plane with his cockpit gun, and Sarnoski took out another. However, 20mm shells hit the cockpit and nose of the plane, injuring Zeamer and Sarnoski, who died from his wounds.
Four hours later, the entire crew was wounded, and the plane was taking a beating. The Zeros eventually retreated, and so did Old 666, limping home with very few controls, no instruments, and no oxygen.
It took months for him to recover from his injuries. Zeamer and Sarnoski were given the Medal of Honor, while the crew received the Distinguished Service Cross.