Lucky 666 The Impossible Mission
By Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
Hardcover in dustjacket, 354 pages, indexed
Published by Simon & Schuster October 2016
Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
If Jay Zeamer Jr. were growing up today he would likely have been diagnosed with ADHD and medicated. Fortunately for all concerned, Jay grew up in Boothbay Harbor, Maine in the 1930’s. There his spirit for exploration and knowledge manifested itself early. He was constantly on the go, wandering far from his home to see what was around the next corner. He was well known to the fishermen there being reliable enough to trust with odd jobs and errands. At age ten he constructed his own small boat from scrap and extended his exploration efforts to the harbor and nearby inlets. By aged fourteen he was an Eagle Scout, by sixteen a cadet at Indiana’s Culver Military Academy. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jay was a B-26 Marauder co-pilot flying with the USAAC 22nd Bomb Group.
With the war now underway the 22nd deployed to Australia and began flying missions against the Japanese. Zeamer aspired to be a command pilot with his own aircraft and crew, but could never master landing the “hot” B-26. He was relegated to the co-pilot position, where he soon grew bored. So bored that he fell asleep in the co-pilot’s seat during a bombing mission. In the aftermath of that incident Zeamer applied for a transfer to the 43rd Bomb Group, a Boeing B-17E unit.
In the 43rd Zeamer begins to come into his own. He checked out as a command pilot and was promoted as the Group’s Operations Officer. While gaining a reputation for preparation and aggressiveness, he was also no stranger to breaking the rules. He was well known for volunteering for missions, and had soon attracted a nucleus of a crew with similar attitudes to fly with him, including bombardier Joe Sarnoski, a friend from before the war. They quickly gained a reputation for taking and successfully completing the risky missions which no one else wanted, often returning in a damaged aircraft. When B-17E 41-2666 was transferred in from the 8th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, Zeamer and crew claimed it as their assigned ship and began to “Zeamerize” it. The camera mounts made it valuable, but the requirements of photographic work required a predictable, straight flight path at a fixed speed and altitude. Zeamer’s crew replaced the engines and removed all the excess weight possible to increase the speed of “Old 666”, and proceeded to install additional .50 machine guns wherever possible to increase her defensive armament. When they finished they had mounted seventeen .50 plus two spares, making 41-2666 the most heavily armed Flying Fortress of the Second World War.
On 16JUN43 “Zeamer’s Eager Beavers” flew into history. They had volunteered for a photo reconnaissance mission to map Bougainville Island, vital for the planning of the upcoming Marine amphibious assault. At the last minute command tacked on an additional target, the Japanese fighter strip on Buka. Zeamer had initially refused the additional mission, but after arriving at Bougainville a half hour ahead of schedule elected to make the extra run anyway. This alerted the Japanese defenses and “Old 666” was the focus of forty minutes of Japanese attacks, the longest continuous aerial battle in USAAF records. Zeamer’s crew would emerge as the most decorated crew in USAAF history, with the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to both Zeamer and Sarnoski, Distinguished Service Crosses for the other seven members, and five Purple Hearts among them. Sarnoski’s award was posthumous, Zeamer almost lost his leg. 41-2666 returned with almost 200 bullet holes and five cannon strikes, but was repaired and continued to fly until the end of the war. The photographs proved vital for the planning of the Bougainville assault.
Authors Drury and Clavin provide a wealth of detail on Zeamer and Sarnoski’s back story leading up the their historic mission. There is some interesting content on the previous combat flown by Zeamer leading up to the historic Bougainville mission. There is still some controversy regarding both the aircraft and the specifics of the action that day. As an example, sources vary as to the number of Japanese aircraft which intercepted Zeamer and crew, some say as many as twenty-one, some as few as eight. Zeamer’s Medal of Honor citation credits them with downing five fighters, Japanese records indicate no losses from Buka, and none shown in the surviving (although incomplete) records from Bougainville. Drury and Clavin explain this discrepancy as “the fog of war” and “a defeated enemy proved time and again to have lied about its military losses”, but without explaining exactly who the Japanese were trying to deceive by falsifying their own records.
Certainly a heroic mission with historical importance. Flying Fortress 41-2666 is of interest to modelers because of this and also because of the modifications made by Zeamer and his crew. The book is a good read and could be made into an outstanding movie with the right backing. Are you listening, Sir Peter?