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The Most Honored Photograph

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Doesn’t look like much, does it? But, depending upon your definition, this photograph, a team effort by 9 men, is the most honored picture in U. S. History. If you want to find out about it, read on. It’s an interesting tale about how people sometimes rise beyond all expectations.

It takes place in the early days of World War II, in the South Pacific, and if you’re a World War II history buff, you may already know about it.

The Screwed Up Pilot

First, let’s get this out of the way. Jay Zeamer wasn’t a photographer by trade. He was mostly a wanna-be pilot. He looked good on paper, having graduated with a degree in civil engineering from MIT, joining the Army Air Corps, and receiving his wings in March, 1941. He was a B-26 bomber co-pilot when World War II started.

His classmates all rapidly became lead pilots and squadron leaders, but not Jay. He couldn’t pass the pilot check tests despite trying numerous times. He was a good pilot, but just couldn’t seem to land the B-26. Landing, from what I’ve read, was considered one of the more important qualifications for a pilot. Stuck as a co-pilot while his classmates and then those from the classes behind him were promoted, he got bored and lost all motivation.

Things came to a head when co-pilot Zeamer fell asleep while his plane was in flight. Not just in flight, but in flight through heavy anti-aircraft fire during a bombing run. He only woke when the pilot beat him on the chest because he needed help. His squadron commander had him transferred to a B-17 squadron in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea where he was allowed to fly as a fill-in navigator and occasionally as a co-pilot. He was well liked and popular — on the ground. But no one wanted to fly with him.

Zeamer finally managed to get into the pilot’s seat by volunteering for a photoreconnaissance mission when the scheduled pilot became ill. The mission, an extremely dangerous one over the Japanese stronghold at Rabual, won Zeamer a Silver Star – despite the fact that he still hadn’t qualified to pilot a B-17.

The Eager Beavers

Zeamer become the Operations Officer (a ground position) at the 43rd Air Group. Despite his lack of qualification, he still managed to fly as a B-17 fill-in pilot fairly often. He had discovered found that he loved to fly B-17s on photoreconnaissance missions, and he wanted to do it full-time. There were only three things standing in his way: he didn’t have a crew, he didn’t have an airplane, and oh, yeah, he still wasn’t a qualified pilot.

He solved the first problem by gravitating to every misfit and ne’er-do-well in the 43rd Air Group. As another pilot, Walt Krell, recalled, “He recruited a crew of renegades and screwoffs. They were the worst — men nobody else wanted. But they gravitated toward one another and made a hell of a team.”

The plane came later. An old, beat-up B-17, serial number 41-2666, that had seen better days was flown into their field to be scavenged for spare parts. Captain Zeamer had other ideas. He and his crew decided to rebuild the plane in their spare time since they weren’t going to get to fly any other way. Exactly how they managed to accomplish their task is the subject of some debate. Remember, there were so few spare parts available that their ‘plane’ was actually brought in originally to be a parts donor.

But rebuild it they did. Once it was in flying shape the base commander congratulated them and said he’d find a new crew to fly it. Not surprisingly, Zeamer and his crew took exception to this idea, and according Walt Krell the crew slept in their airplane, having loudly announced that the 50 caliber machine guns were kept loaded in case anyone came around to ‘borrow’ it. There was a severe shortage of planes, so the base commander ignored the mutiny and let the crew fly – but generally expected them to take on missions that no one else wanted.

The misfit crew thrived on it. They hung around the base operations center, volunteering for every mission no one else wanted. That earned them the nickname The Eager Beavers, and their patched up B-17 was called Old 666.

The Eager Beavers: (Back Row) Bud Thues, Zeamer, Hank Dominski, Sarnoski (Front Row) Vaughn, Kendrick, Able, Pugh.

The Eager Beavers: (Back Row) Bud Thues, Zeamer, Hank Dominski, Sarnoski (Front Row) Vaughn, Kendrick, Able, Pugh.

Once they started flying their plane on difficult photoreconnaissance missions, they made some modifications. Even among the men of a combat air station, the Eager Beavers became known as gun nuts. They replaced all of the light 30 caliber machine guns in the plane with heavier 50 caliber weapons. Then the 50 caliber machine guns were replaced with double 50 caliber guns. Zeamer had another pair of machine guns mounted to the front of the plane so he could remotely fire them like a fighter pilot. And the crew kept extra machine guns stored in the plane, just in case one of their other guns jammed or malfunctioned.

As odd as all this sounds, the South Pacific theatre in the early days of World War II was a chaotic area scattered over thousands of miles with very little equipment. Having a plane with an apparently nutty crew who volunteered for every awful mission not surprisingly made the commanding officers look the other way.

Buka

In June, 1943, the U. S. had secured Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands. They knew the Japanese had a huge base at Rabual, but were certain there were other airfields being built in the Northern Solomon Islands. They asked for a volunteer crew to take photographs of Bougainville Island to plan for an eventual invasion, and of Buka airfield on the north side of the island to assess for increased activity there. It was considered a near-suicide mission — flying hundreds of miles over enemy airspace in a single, slow bomber. Not to mention photoreconnaissance meant staying in level flight and taking no evasive action even if they were attacked.

Credit: World Factbook

Credit: World Factbook

The only crew that volunteered, of course, was Jay Zeamer and the Eager Beavers. One of the crew, bombardier Joseph Sarnovski, had absolutely no reason to volunteer. He’d already been in combat for 18 months and was scheduled to go home in 3 days. Being a photo mission, there was no need for a bombardier. But if his friends were going, he wanted to go, and one of the bombardier’s battle stations was to man the forward machine guns. They might need him, so he went.

They suspected the airstrip at Buka had been expanded and reinforced, but weren’t sure until they got close. As soon as the airfield came in sight, they saw numerous fighters taking off and heading their way. The logical thing to do would have been to turn right and head for home. They would be able to tell the intelligence officers about the increased number of planes at Buka even if they didn’t get photos.

But Zeamer and photographer William Kendrick knew that photos would be invaluable for subsequent planes attacking the base, and for Marines who were planning to invade the island later. Zeamer held the plane level (tilting the wings even one degree at that altitude could put the photograph half a mile off target) and Kendrick took his photos, which gave plenty of time for over 20 enemy fighters to get up to the altitude Old 666 was flying at.

The fighter group, commanded by Chief Petty Officer Yoshio Ooki, was experienced and professional. They carefully set up their attack, forming a semi-circle all around the B-17 and then attacking from all directions at once. Ooki didn’t know about the extra weapons the Eager Beavers had mounted to their plane, but it wouldn’t matter if he had; there was no way for a single B-17 to survive those odds.

During the first fighter pass the plane was hit by hundreds of machine gun bullets and cannon shells. Five crewman of the B-17 were wounded and the plane badly damaged. All of the wounded men stayed at their stations and were still firing when the fighters came in for a second pass, which caused just as the first. Hydraulic cables were cut, holes the size of footballs appeared in the wings, and the front plexiglas canopy of the plane was shattered.

Zeamer was wounded during the second fighter pass, but kept the plane flying level and took no evasive action until Kendrick called over the intercom that the photography was completed. Only then did he begin to move the plane from side-t0-side allowing his gunners better shots, just as the fighters came in for a third wave of attacks. The third pass blew out the oxygen system of the plane, which was flying at 28,000 feet. Despite the obvious structural damage Zeamer put the plane in an emergency dive to get down to a level where there was enough oxygen for them men to survive.

During the dive, a 20mm cannon shell exploded in the navigator’s compartment. Sarnoski, who was already wounded, was blown out of his compartment and beneath the cockpit. Another crewman reached him and saw there was a huge wound in his side. Despite his obviously mortal wound, Sarnoski said, “Don’t worry about me, I’m all right” and crawled back to his gun which was now exposed to 300 mile an hour winds since the plexiglass front of the plane was now gone. He shot down one more fighter before he died a minute or two later.

The battle continued for over 40 minutes. The Eager Beavers shot down several fighters and heavily damaged several others. The B-17 was so heavily damaged, however, that they didn’t expect to make the several hundred miles long flight back home. Sarnoski had already died from his wounds. Zeamer had continued piloting the plane despite multiple wounds. Five other men were seriously wounded.

Flight Officer Ooki’s squadron returned to Buka out of ammunition and fuel. They understandably reported the B-17 was destroyed and about to crash in the ocean when they last saw it.

The B-17 didn’t quite crash, though. Zeamer had lost consciousness from loss of blood, but regained it when he was removed from the pilot seat and lay on the floor of the plane. The copilot, Lt. Britton, was the most qualified to care for the wounded and was needed in the back of the plane. One of the gunners, Sergeant Able, had liked to sit in the cockpit behind the pilots and watch them fly. That made him the most qualified of the crewman, so he flew the plane with Zeamer advising him from the floor while Britton cared for the wounded.

The plane made it back to base. (Britton did return to the cockpit for the landing.) After the landing, the medical triage team had Zeamer removed from the plane last, because they considered his wounds mortal. Amazingly, the one thing on the plane not damaged were the cameras and the photos in them were considered invaluable in planning the invasion of Bougainville.

Epilogue

All of the wounded men recovered, although it was a close thing for Captain Zeamer. In fact, a death notification was sent to his parents somewhat prematurely. He spent the next year in hospitals recovering from his wounds, but lived a long and happy life, passing away at age 88.

Both Zeamer and Sarnovski were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the mission, the only time in World War II that two men from one plane ever received America’s highest medal for valor in combat. The other members of the crew were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor as an award for bravery.

So, somewhat surprisingly, the most decorated combat flight in U. S. history didn’t take place in a major battle. It was a photo-reconnaissance flight; the flight of ‘old 666′ in June of 1943.


About the author: Roger Cicala is the founder of LensRentals. This article was originally published here.


 
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  • BigEnso

    Yep, that was the Japanese propaganda line at the time … and for a long time after the war ended too.

  • Bob Parker

    My Dad served in New Guinea which made this story especially interesting for me. I agree with others who think the word HERO is so loosely thrown around these days.

  • Bridget N

    Adam Baldwin maybe? He’d be great.

  • Douglas Trulli

    Anyone who purposely puts themselves in harms way and
    looks to save someone is a fool. One who sees and reacts to save a life is a hero.

  • Makikiguy

    Wonder if Zeamer ever got his left seat????

  • csanders

    I would’ve liked to see Obama’s National Park minions tell these guys the WWII Memorial is closed….

  • Stee

    There are situations, such as this one, where a job needs to be done, and there is no way of mitigating the risk. Whoever volunteers knows up front they are putting themselves in harms way, but they know that if no one takes on the job, then there will be an even greater hardship further down the road by a greater many more people. These volunteers understand the greater good, and the ‘big picture’. You say this makes them a fool.
    According to you, that makes every soldier in the landing craft approaching the beaches on D-Day a fool ?

    Think before you speak.

  • Stee

    Something that is good starts out as good. The reality is it takes time to get accepted as good. It’s more about perception, and overcoming pre-conceived bias….and ignorance.

  • Stee

    The only thing dead about Hollywood is the legacy distribution system.
    People still want movies to be made. How they get their revenue in the future will continue to evolve.

  • Stee

    You support everyone has a right to an opinion, so long as it’s the same as yours ?

  • Stee

    This is a great story….but…

    So the German Blitzkrieg wasn’t part of WWII ?….since according to this article, the war didn’t begin until 1941.

    It’s incredible the author actually includes the line: “and if you’re a World War II history buff”

  • MohammedTheTeddyBear

    Sorry, you’re confusing me with flaming, America-hating leftists like Mr. Clooney and yourself. Maybe you should get a new eyeglass prescription?

  • Recon Marine

    What amazes me is how the comments digress from the original story about the flight and it’s crew, to Wikipedia, then to Hollywood, Batman,
    and then drivel

  • Chee Meng

    While everyone is entitled to one’s view and definition, to hear you label one who sacrificed his/her life to save others as a fool is revolting and unacceptable. Stand on the other shore and see if you still maintain your stand.

  • Chee Meng

    Patriotic, heroic, brave, courageous, fearless, ….. no words can aptly describe what Capt Zeamer and his team did. No one would have faulted them if he had turned around on seeing the overwhelming odds. It was not mentioned so I take it that none of the team suggested turning back. Sarnoski, in spite of being heavily injured, clawed back to man his station, this is out of the ordinary. For their accomplishment, they now stand among the bravest.

  • Y2K

    Congressional Medal of Honor? Really? Seems like they could get that right. At least he didn’t say that they “won” the MOH.

  • John Lanford

    uh, like I said. ‘Dead’, as we know it.

  • collinnyo145

    My Uncle Joseph recently got
    an awesome blue Mercedes-Benz R-Class Diesel by work part time using a lap-top.
    my sources J­a­m­2­0­.­ℂ­o­m

  • ConradCA

    WW2 didn’t begin for the USA until Dec. 1941.

  • ConradCA

    The Japanese chose war of their on volition. They decided that their invasion and conquest of China was more important than peace. Only an idiot could blame the USA for the actions of the Japanese at the start of WWII.

  • ConradCA

    That’s not what he said. He said Clooney is one of the progressive fascists trying to destroy or fundamentally change our country.

  • Timothy Cliett

    There is a T.V. show on the History Channel called “Dogfights” where they show the mission of how The B-17E “Old 666″ went up against 17 Japanese fighters while finishing a mapping mission. The episode is called “Long Odds” and there are two other interesting missions on the episode that you would like. This article and the episode both tell the same story.

  • Missouri Roots

    Hollywood already made one bomber movie in 1990, “Memphis Belle”. So, it’s unlikely to make another, especially called “Old 666″.

  • Harry_the_Horrible

    Did they ever find Jap records on how many planes the bagged?
    IIRC, B-17s were hell on Japanese fighters.

  • shakey

    There is no such thing as the “Congressional” Medal of Honor.

  • Don’tTEAonME

    Ignorant moron.

  • Max Pixel

    Blow it out your ass too.

  • Patriot

    You will find there are plenty of armchair pilots who will talk a different story about what THEY would have done.
    The proof however is in the pudding, if they had been in the actual situation, you must ask yourself, what would they actually do. I would BET it would have been something entirely different and without the success of this mission.

  • Reed C Bowman

    Please correct. It’s “Rabaul” not “Rabual”!

  • New_Clear_Waste

    Do you really have to politicize everything, even an exemplary act by servicemen whose politics you have no idea of?

  • New_Clear_Waste

    You get the Poor Taste Medal, for throwing politics into something that everybody, liberals and teabaggers and everyone else, should feel proud of

  • New_Clear_Waste

    Um, lambs for the slaughter was Iraq. That was Bush, not Obama. Speak for yourself about sitting on your ass and collecting handouts – and going to KKK rallies and waving confederate traitor flags.

  • David Givens

    The story here is how tenastic the men were to serve & fly. (Just be aware that WWII saw thousands of men, equally brave, fly to their early graves fighting global evil…many, many thousands.) What really made the difference here was that their Boeing held together, and they survived. Hat’s off to men & women that designed & built that ship! And, God bless the American fighting man’s spirit.

  • Ralph

    Yeah i loved that movie as a kid! I still remember when one of the turrets on the belly of the plane fell off or when the plane next to them split up, with the belle crew counting the survivors popping out of the plane.

    Anyway, it’s not completely the same. This story is more like a dirty dozen with a plane.

  • Ralph

    Oh dang it, so i guess you have the dibs on the movie ;) Seriously though, i want to see this movie.

  • cas_e

    This is the most interesting article I’ve read on here in a while. Really interesting I enjoyed that.

  • Kkeelann

    This epilogue is incorrect. Lt. Walter E. Truemper, navigator, and S/Sgt. Archibald Mathies, flight engineer, of the 351st Bomb Group, 510th Bomb Squadron; a/c 231763, known as “Ten Horsepower, both posthumously received the Medal of Honor for their actions of 20 February 1944. Their copilot was dead and their pilot seriously wounded. The crew who could bailed out. Truemper and Mathies, refusing to leave their pilot, tried three times to land the plane. The three men died when, on the third attempt, the plane crashed.

  • trish

    Read ” UNBROKEN” by Hillenbrand. True story of Louie Zamperini. Its riveting and you will never forget this soldier or his story ( WW2 in the Pacific Theater.)

  • Bjørn

    To be honest, this story would seem too farfetched and unrealistic for a movie. :)

  • DaveinOlyWA

    “non” Heroes panic, give up, say “hell with it”… to say that
    “Sully” was not a hero is beyond comprehension. Yes he was a great pilot and there are thousands with his skills out there but there are definitely not thousands out there that can perform quickly under extreme pressure… He did. He literally created a miracle.

    unless you are a pilot, I have to say you are a bit out of place minimalizing his accomplishments

  • Joshua Thirteen

    I did NOT minimize his accomplishment. He is a man in a million, a savior of many. I meant no disrespect or slight to his magnificent courage and skill under pressure. I’m not sure if there is a single word to describe him, just arguing for a narrower definition of hero.

  • DaveinOlyWA

    Joshua; i completely understand your original comment and that is the reason i responded. i simply dont agree with your definition of a hero. in this world comprised of a millions of colors you are trying to create a black and white definition and imho, you failed quite spectacularly.

    FYI; re-read your comment. you most certainly did minimize him but such that it is. I am not here to change your mind. only letting you know what is on mine

  • harrier

    Yes indeed a great movie indeed it would make. Like the dirty dozen only better and real. It could be in the category with Memphis Belle and the upcoming Unbroken. The dirty dozen were criminals I believe but these guys were just misfits. That’s it “The Misfits”

  • harrier

    In the discussion of about them being fools they were behaving impetuously just as they were before when they got into trouble. They were thinking of getting the shots which was very important but also getting back with the shots was also important. Great shots on a plane that is shot up, crashed and everyone killed would have done no good at all. They were somewhat lucky to get back in one piece but nothing should detract from their bravery and daring under fire and they did survive. Sometimes doing the unexpected in a crisis like this will put the opposition at a disadvantage. God bless them. The entire crew deserved awards.

  • scopedope

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki were payback!

  • SSBohio

    That would be “Blow it out your ass too, TInkerbell.” The two clauses need a comma to separate them.

  • bruceapilot

    Truth is stranger than fiction.

  • Freddy

    I sure hope they don’t defile this by making a hollywood type or amateur movie. They are always dramatic and inaccurate. You know, throw a love story in or maybe some sort of hugging, crying, and all depressing. Or maybe something that glorifies certain types of people over others to try and alleviate undue biases making even the veterans who were in the Tuskegee squadron(s) cringe at the inaccuracies and racist portrayals of blacks and whites (Red wings or whatever). People who want to make movies about this but don’t know ANYTHING about aerial combat or real life military aircrewman. They would no doubt make it sappy and wildly appealing to those that would never step onto the plane in real world combat or volunteer for a life threatening mission.

    -Freddy “Alphie” H-60 Crewchief and Flight engineer.

  • upena1

    No such thing as a Congressional Medal of Honor. It is the Medal of Honor.

  • TexasPete65

    Jay Zeamer is the Class Exemplar for the USAF Academy Class of 2014.