In 1943, several US airmen went on a suicide mission. Two men were awarded a Medal of Honor – the only time in WWII that two men received the same award for the same engagement. Interestingly enough, their careers didn’t start out well.
Jay Zeamer, Jr. got his wings in 1941 at Langley Field. All his classmates became pilots and got their own planes and crews, but not Zeamer. Although he could fly and had a passion for it, he just didn’t have what it took to be a pilot.
Still, he could fly, so when America entered the war, they made him a co-pilot. In March 1942, they sent him to Australia where he again tried to become a pilot but again failed. So they sent him to the Solomon Islands – same thing. Zeamer was to spend WWII as a co-pilot, navigator, gunner, and anything else; just not a pilot.
Joseph Raymond Sarnoski met Zeamer at Langley. Sarnoski got his wings, but they made him a bombing instructor, something he wasn’t happy about. In 1942, they sent him to Australia where he became a Technical Sergeant, but he wasn’t happy about that, either.
He wanted to see combat, so they let him fly a few missions, promoted him to Master Sergeant then sent him to the Solomon Islands to train others. Despondent, he turned to the one person who couldn’t fly a plane. As to what happened next, you first have to understand what was happening on the islands.
After bombing Pearl Harbor, Japan occupied territories in the South Pacific, including the Philippines (which was American property). The island of Rabaul was, therefore, Japan’s key to the region.
America’s priority, however, was on Europe. Since it couldn’t ignore Japan, the original plan was to contain them till Hitler and Mussolini were out of the way.
General Douglas MacArthur fired the air chief in early 1942 and replaced him with General George Kenney’s Fifth Air Force.
The Fifth began calling themselves “Ken’s Men” and began receiving awards, including several Medal of Honors. Even Sarnoski earned a silver star for an earlier engagements. And Zeamer? The Intelligence Section in Port Moresby.
The Japanese at Rabaul were stepping up their activities to retake the rest of the Solomons and Papua New Guinea, but US reconnaissance flights were impossible because the island’s volcano kept spewing smoke. Zeamer volunteered for the job, flew below the smoke, and got his photos while the crew fought off the enemy.
He still wasn’t an official pilot, but he had flown so well they stopped caring. On 16 January 1943, he sank an 8.000-ton ship and was awarded a Silver Star. That should have earned him a plane and crew, but they had none to give him.
Their eye fell on old 666 a B-17E 41-2666 which was assigned to the United States’ 43rd Bomb Group. 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!”
Still, it flew and was more heavily armed than other Flying Fortresses because they’d rebuilt it almost from scratch. They increased the number of machine guns from 13 to 19, replaced the waist gunners’ standard single guns with twin guns, replaced all .30 cal machine guns with the larger and more powerful .50 cal, and added 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.
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.
The group volunteered for missions no one wanted and were called the Eager Beavers – always taking the most dangerous jobs but always making it back alive. All received Silver Stars while Sarnoski got an Air Medal and became a second lieutenant.
By March, skirmishes against the Japanese were increasing, culminating in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. The Japanese defeat gave MacArthur the plan to take the Philippines back. Called Operation Cartwheel, it meant attacking their bases at Bougainville, Buka, and Rabaul. If those fell, the Americans could take the other islands till they reached the Philippines.
But a raid against such heavily defended positions would be suicide unless they knew what they were up against. No one volunteered, so MacArthur settled on a reconnaissance flight over Bougainville. The Eager Beavers stepped forward. Two caught malaria and Sarnoski was ordered back to the US to teach, but he couldn’t let the rest go without him.
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