PORT MORESBYE, Papua New Guinea — The battle-scarred B-17 was barely airworthy; she was beat up, war weary and wobbly in flight. But early in World War II, damaged aircraft were considered a precious commodity since spare parts were hard to come by. The B-17, serial number 41-2666, had been relocated to Port Moresby to become a parts donor. Her days as a modern-day fighting machine were over. A motley crew of misfits awaited her arrival. They had their own future plans for 41-2666, and this is their story.
The pilot, Jay Zeamer, was most likely the most motley of the crew. Other aviators considered him a “wannabe pilot,” lacking the skills of a true flyboy. His credentials were impressive. He graduated from MIT with a degree in civil engineering, earned his wings in the Army Air Corps in March of 1941, and served as copilot on a B-26 Marauder twin-engine bomber before WWII. But impressive paperwork doesn’t make good pilots. Zeamer’s classmates and buddies quickly became lead pilots or squadron leaders, leaving Zeamer in the dust of even mediocre pilots. He couldn’t pass the pilot check tests. Although considered a fair pilot by his superiors and peers, he never found the knack for a respectable landing in a B-26. As any pilot knows, landings are nothing more than a controlled crash, but poor Zeamer simply could not control “the crash.”
As he continued to sit in a copilot’s seat, other pilots, especially those from classes behind him, got the promotions and coveted pilot’s seats. Zeamer promptly became bored to death and lost all incentive. His pilot and superiors finally had seen enough of Zeamer after he fell asleep while his plane was in flight. While falling asleep in flight may not be unusual on long flights if a pilot or copilot is not behind the controls, Zeamer fell asleep during a bomb run as his aircraft dodged vicious anti-aircraft fire. The pilot, needing help with the aircraft, had to beat his copilot on the chest to awaken the man. Thus, his transfer to the 43rd Air Group B-17 squadron in Port Moresby.
He was popular and enjoyed many friends at Port Moresby — on the ground. But nobody wanted to fly with him. Allowed to fly occasionally as a substitute navigator or copilot, Zeamer finally sat in a pilot’s seat of a B-17 after volunteering for a photo-recon mission when the scheduled pilot fell ill. The photo-recon mission, an extremely dangerous flight over the huge Japanese stronghold at Rabual, earned Zeamer a Silver Star. Yet, Zeamer still hadn’t qualified as a B-17 pilot.
Still grounded as the operations officer for the 43rd Air Group, Zeamer stayed aloft fairly often as a substitute B-17 pilot even though he lacked the qualifications. He grew fond of the B-17s and loved to fly recon missions, and he wanted the job on a full-time basis. Three things stood in Zeamer’s way: he didn’t have a crew; he didn’t have an airplane; and, as his superiors knew, he wasn’t a qualified B-17 pilot. Enter the Eager Beavers.
He solved the problem of “no crew” by recruiting and/or sweet-talking a bunch of misfits of the 43rd Air Group that no one else wanted. Considered renegades, apathetic oddballs, and master screw-off artists, Zeamer discovered that rebels incline to mesh together, and the crew became one hell of a team. Now all they needed was an airplane.
Flying Fortress serial number 41-2666, touches the ground at the 43rd, its flying days over, its future destined to be stripped bare as a parts warehouse on wheels. Zeamer and the original “Motley Crew” had other ideas. Zeamer asked and received permission to attempt a rebuild of 41-2666 since that was the only way they were going to fly on a permanent basis. How and where they found the parts for an aircraft destined to be a parts factory is an unknown fog of war. Nuff’ said.
Rebuilt and ready for flight, the base commander congratulated the team of misfits and stated a new crew would be flying their rebuilt B-17. Zeamer and his team of nonconformists had other ideas. The team slept in the B-17 and raucously announced the .50 caliber machine guns were loaded and ready for use if some fool came to “borrow” their sleeping quarters. With a shortage of planes and crews, the base commander turned his head the other way and ignored their defiance. He let Zeamer’s crew fly their own plane, but usually expected them to fly missions no one else relished. The oddballs thrived on the danger, and the opportunity. They pestered the operations center constantly and volunteered for every mission turned down by other crews. They became known as the Eager Beavers, and their salvaged B-17 was called “Old 666.”
Due to the danger of recon missions, the Eager Beavers became known, even among combat veterans, as “gun nuts” due to their obsession with protective firepower for Old 666. They chucked the light .30 caliber machine guns and installed the heavier .50 caliber machine guns. In short order, the .50 calibers found the garbage heap to be replaced with twin .50 caliber mounts. A remotely controlled pair of .50 calibers were installed in front of Old 666 so Zeamer could fire them like a fighter pilot. As an extra precaution, the crew hoarded extra machine guns in Old 666 in case the other guns malfunctioned or jammed.
Unconventional, perhaps a bit nutty, but in the Pacific Theater of Operations in the early days of WWII, with targets spread out over hundreds, if not thousands of miles of ocean, commanding officers paid little attention to a crew who volunteered for each and every terrible mission. Then came June of 1943. The Southern Solomon Islands were secured, but the U.S. knew the Japanese were building or improving airfields in the Northern Solomons. Photo intelligence was needed for the upcoming allied invasion of Bougainville Island. Considered almost a suicide mission due to hundreds of miles being flown over enemy airspace in a slow B-17, plus remaining in level flight and taking no evasive action if attacked since the cameras had to remain steady, the mission would require either a very brave or a very crazy crew. Old 666 fit the bill.
The bombardier, Joseph Sarnoski, had 18 months of combat under his belt and was going home in three days. He did not have to fly the treacherous mission, but if Old 666 and his buddies were going, then so was Sarnoski. During a fighter attack, the forward machine guns were manned by the bombardier, so Joe Sarnoski felt he may be needed.
The day of the mission: As they approached the enemy airstrip at Buka, the crew of Old 666 saw a hornet’s nest of Jap fighters taking off and headed their way, over 20 were counted. Most crews would turn and skedaddle for home to report the enemy activity, but Zeamer knew a good photo of the base would help the invasion planning for American aircraft and Marines. Tilting the wings even one degree would throw the camera a half mile off target, so Zeamer kept the big bomber straight and level as the enemy fighters formed a semi-circle to begin their attack.
The fighters, commanded by Chief Petty Officer Yoshio Ooki, a professional and experienced combat pilot, had his fighters all attack at once. Even without knowing Old 666 was armed with extra firepower, Ooki had enough experience to know a lone B-17, no matter how many extra guns were aboard, was a sitting duck and doomed to fall.
The first attack hit Old 666 with hundreds of cannon shells and machine gun bullets. She was badly damaged, and five of her crew were wounded. All the wounded men remained at their battle stations as the fighters came in for their second pass. A direct hit shattered the front plexiglass canopy, football-sized holes ripped the wings, and hydraulic cables were cut.
Zeamer kept the plane flying level and took no evasive action although he, too, had been wounded in the second pass. Then William Kendrick, the photographer, yelled over the intercom that the photography was finished. Zeamer could now begin evasive action, moving Old 666 side-to-side so his gunners had better shots. The fighters came in for their third pass, which destroyed the oxygen system. Flying at 28,000 feet, Zeamer knew he had to execute an emergency dive even with Old 666 heavily damaged so his crew would have the life-saving oxygen they needed to continue the fight.
As Zeamer executed an emergency dive, an enemy 20mm shell exploded in the navigator’s compartment. The explosion blew the navigator Sarnoski out of his compartment and underneath the cockpit. Already wounded once, another crewman found Sarnoski with an enormous wound in his side. The wound was fatal, yet Sarnoski told his buddy, “Don’t worry about me, I’m all right,” then crawled back to his gun. The shattered front plexiglass from a previous attack was now gone, exposing the mortally wounded Sarnoski to 300 mph winds as he manned his gun. He shot down one more enemy fighter. This brave flyboy died about two minutes after downing the enemy fighter. He would not be going home in three days.
The life-or-death air battle continued for 40 minutes. Several enemy planes fell to the guns of the Eager Beavers, although Old 666 was so heavily damaged the crew didn’t believe they’d make the hundreds of air miles back to base. Five men were seriously wounded; Zeamer suffered multiple wounds, yet kept Old 666 flying.
The remaining Japanese fighters returned to Buka, out of fuel and ammunition. Flight Officer Ooki, logically, reported the B-17 as demolished and about to crash in the sea when they last saw it. He was wrong.
Zeamer lost consciousness from loss of blood. He was removed from the pilot’s seat but regained consciousness as he lay on the floor. The copilot, a Lt. Britton, the only one qualified to care for the wounded, remained in back of the aircraft. A gunner, Sgt. Able, frequently sat behind the pilots and watched them fly. That made Able, somewhat able, and the only one left to fly Old 666. He did so with Zeamer coaching him from the floor.
Old 666 made it home. Lt. Britton did return to the cockpit for the final leg back to base. Zeamer was the last man removed from the damaged aircraft because the triage team considered his wounds mortal. Just about every part of Old 666 was torn apart by shells and bullets, except for the camera. The photos were invaluable in the invasion planning of Bougainville.
All of the crew survived, except for Sarnoski. The parents of Zeamer, however, received a death notification that their son had died in combat. Zeamer spent over a year recovering from his wounds in various hospitals. He lived a long life, passing at the age of 88. Zeamer and Sarnoski were both awarded the Medal of Honor, the only time in WWII that two men from one plane were awarded America’s highest award for bravery in combat. All the other alleged “misfits” of Old 666 received the Distinguished Service Cross, the medal second only to the Medal of Honor.
Old 666, the would-be parts warehouse, dodged retirement a second time. She was refurbished, upgraded, and returned to the 8th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. She flew combat with the 63rd Bombardment Squadron, then returned to the U.S. to be used as a base transport aircraft and a heavy bomber trainer before being flown to Albuquerque, N.M., in August of 1945 to be sold as scrap metal. Old 666 met a shabby ending as did most of our WWII aircraft, but she will remain a symbol of American ingenuity and bravery flown to glory by a crew of so-called misfits who were, in fact, as red, white, and blue as any aircrew in WWII.