Sunday, June 16, 2013

TFH 6/16: The Most Decorated Single Aircrew of World War II

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress, serial number 41-2666 and possibly named "Lucy" at one time, was originally assigned at delivery to the 435th Bombardment Squadron of the 19th Bombardment Group. The bomber was known as a "hard luck" plane. A mission it flew in November 1942 resulted in the accidental deployment of one of the life rafts aboard, destroying the radio aerial and wrapping itself around the horizontal stabilizers. By early 1943, 41-2666 had such a reputation for being shot up that it was abandoned as a parts hulk at the airfield at Port Moresby, New Guinea.

Jay Zeamer, Jr. was born on July 25, 1918 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army Reserve while still a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he graduated in 1940. Zeamer was discharged, accepted into the United States Army Air Corps (forerunner of the United States Army Air Forces and the United States Air Force) as an aviation cadet, and recommissioned after completing pilot training in March 1941. Zeamer flew combat missions in the Pacific during 1942 in Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers. He was transferred to the 43rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) in November 1942 and assigned to group headquarters.

Zeamer began flying missions on B-17s as a fill-in pilot on other crews, but didn't have a plane or a crew of his own...until someone told him where he could find a plane.

Yes, Zeamer pulled 41-2666 out of the Port Moresby airfield aircraft graveyard and had the plane refitted. Not only was the ship repaired, he saw that it was modified with heavier armament than other B-17s belonging to the 43rd Bombardment Group. All of 41-2666's .30 caliber machine guns were replaced with more powerful .50 caliber ones and several of the single gun mounts were converted to doubles. The plane, now known as Old 666 (the "666" coming from the plane's serial number) and carrying 50 percent more defensive armament than any other bomber in the 43rd, flew mission after mission with Zeamer and his crew assembled from other standbys in the group.

Zeamer, who technically wasn't even supposed to be flying B-17s as he'd never been "checked out" on them, was awarded the Silver Star twice for his skills in combat. His crew, never one to shy away from combat, was nicknamed the "Eager Beavers".

On June 15, 1943, the call came for volunteers to fly a pre-dawn reconnaissance mission on the 16th to Bougainville, about 600 miles away. Zeamer and Old 666 volunteered. They took off at about 0400 local time and enjoyed the cover of darkness for the beginning of their mission. Bougainville was thought to be lightly defended and was one of the next targets on the Allies advance against the Japanese-held Solomon Islands.

The intelligence estimates of light defenses were wrong. Just days before, the Japanese had moved almost four-hundred fighters into the territory where Old 666 was about to fly.

As Zeamer and crew were wrapping up their photo-recon mission, they observed at least twenty Japanese fighters taking off from the airfield at Buka. It wasn't long before the enemy aircraft targeted in on the lone American bomber. The Japanese attacked Old 666 from the sides and rear and were surprised by the increased fires coming from the bomber. The enemy thought they'd have better luck trying to strike from dead ahead.

Manning Old 666's forward, stronger-than-normal guns, was bombardier Second Lieutenant Joseph R. Sarnoski. Sarnoski, 28 years old and a native of Simpson, Pennsylvania, was wounded while fighting off the first enemy attack against the B-17's nose. Not long afterwards, Lieutenant Sarnoski was blown to the rear of the bomber's forward compartment by a 20mm shell. His body now wracked by mortal wounds, he crawled back to his post and kept firing at the enemy attackers.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (M-S):

*SARNOSKI, JOSEPH R. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 43rd Bomber Group, Place and date: Over Buka Area, Solomon Islands, 16 June 1943. Entered service at: Simpson, Pa. Born. 30 January 1915, Simpson, Pa. G.O. No.: 85, 17 December 1943. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty. On 16 June 1943, 2d Lt. Sarnoski volunteered as bombardier of a crew on an important photographic mapping mission covering the heavily defended Buka area, Solomon Islands. When the mission was nearly completed, about 20 enemy fighters intercepted. At the nose guns, 2d Lt. Sarnoski fought off the first attackers, making it possible for the pilot to finish the plotted course. When a coordinated frontal attack by the enemy extensively damaged his bomber, and seriously injured 5 of the crew, 2d Lt. Sarnoski, though wounded, continued firing and shot down 2 enemy planes. A 20-millimeter shell which burst in the nose of the bomber knocked him into the catwalk under the cockpit. With indomitable fighting spirit, he crawled back to his post and kept on firing until he collapsed on his guns. 2d Lt. Sarnoski by resolute defense of his aircraft at the price of his life, made possible the completion of a vitally important mission.

The Japanese fighters made run after run, attack after attack, against Old 666. Their onslaught lasted for over forty minutes. The attack persisted until the fighters had to return to base as they were low on fuel.

Five more crew members, including Jay Zeamer, were wounded. One of Zeamer's legs was broken, and he was also shot in both arms and legs. Nonetheless, he successfully maneuvered the B-17 through the enemy and on a course towards home, also managing to fire back at them using the pilot's machine gun unique to Old 666 and destroying an enemy aircraft himself. For his courage and remaining at the controls until he lost consciousness due to blood loss, he became the second Medal of Honor recipient from the mission.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (T-Z):

ZEAMER, JAY JR. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army Air Corps. Place and date: Over Buka area, Solomon Islands, 16 June 1943. Entered service at: Machias, Maine. Birth: Carlisle, Pa. G.O. No.: 1, 4 January 1944. Citation: On 16 June 1943, Maj. Zeamer (then Capt.) volunteered as pilot of a bomber on an important photographic mapping mission covering the formidably defended area in the vicinity of Buka, Solomon Islands. While photographing the Buka airdrome. his crew observed about 20 enemy fighters on the field, many of them taking off. Despite the certainty of a dangerous attack by this strong force, Maj. Zeamer proceeded with his mapping run, even after the enemy attack began. In the ensuing engagement, Maj. Zeamer sustained gunshot wounds in both arms and legs, 1 leg being broken. Despite his injuries, he maneuvered the damaged plane so skillfully that his gunners were able to fight off the enemy during a running fight which lasted 40 minutes. The crew destroyed at least 5 hostile planes, of which Maj. Zeamer himself shot down 1. Although weak from loss of blood, he refused medical aid until the enemy had broken combat. He then turned over the controls, but continued to exercise command despite lapses into unconsciousness, and directed the flight to a base 580 miles away. In this voluntary action, Maj. Zeamer, with superb skill, resolution, and courage, accomplished a mission of great value.

Old 666 didn't make it all the way back to Port Moresby, but did manage to reach a friendly airfield. In addition to the two Medals of Honor, the other seven crew members all received our Nation's second-highest award for valor for their own roles in the successful mission, the Distinguished Service Cross. Links are to Military Times' Hall of Valor.

  • Sergeant Johnnie J. Abel, Jr. - Flight Engineer
  • Second Lieutenant John T. Britton - Co-Pilot. Britton successfully piloted Old 666 after Zeamer was incapacitated and landed the aircraft without any hydraulics, flaps, or brakes. Upon landing, when ground crews thought that the heroic pilot was already dead, he refused to leave his aircraft commander behind in the plane, saving his life.
  • Technical Sergeant Forrest E. Dillman - Gunner
  • First Lieutenant Ruby E. Johnston - Navigator. Lieutenant Johnston was also wounded by the same cannon blast that ultimately proved fatal to Sarnoski. The shell ignited the B-17's oxygen breathing system and Johnston fought the fire, undoubtedly saving the aircraft and crew.
  • Technical Sergeant George E. Kendrick - Gunner/Photographer
  • Sergeant Herbert W. Pugh - Gunner
  • Sergeant William Vaughan - Gunner/Radioman. Sergeant Vaughan continued manning his top turret until the enemy fighters disengaged, despite being wounded in the neck. After Old 666 was clear, he administered first aid to his comrades and also obtained via radio and relayed vital navigation instructions to Britton as the plane's navigational equipment was destroyed. 

No other aircrew was similarly decorated for heroism on one single mission before, and none has since.

Second Lieutenant Joseph R. Sarnoski was initially laid to rest in New Guinea. Two days after the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific was opened on O'ahu, Hawai'i, his remains were reinterred there on January 6, 1949.

I was able to determine that Sergeant Herbert W. Pugh passed away at age 77 on February 24, 1997 and rests in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Sergeant William Vaughan died at age 79 on December 27, 1999 and is buried in Youngstown, Ohio.

At his passing at age 88 on March 22, 2007, Jay Zeamer was the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the United States Army Air Forces. He was buried with full military honors four days later with the United States' most honored at Arlington National Cemetery.

The fates of the remaining Old 666 crew members could not be learned.

The descendent of 43rd Bombardment Group flies with the United States Air Force today and is known as the 43rd Operations Group.

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