Tenacity over Bougainville
"Jay Zeamer and his crew performed a mission that still stands out in my mind as an epic of courage unequaled in the annals of air warfare."
- Gen. George Kenney, 5th Air Force Commander
Capt. Jay Zeamer's remarkable crew was the most highly-decorated aircrew in history. Zeamer and the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Joseph Sarnoski, received the Medal of Honor, while seven other members of the crew were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Nation's second highest honor. Nearly all received the Purple Heart for wounds sustained in combat.
In the spring of 1943, a 43rd Bomb Group crew headed by Zeamer salvaged a wrecked and bullet-ridden B-17E and fitted it with extra machine guns -- 19 in all. Nicknamed the "Eager Beavers," they regularly volunteered to take their B-17E Old 666 on the most dangerous missions, including a seemingly impossible one on June 16, 1943.
In preparation for a planned major amphibious landing, they flew 600 miles unescorted over open sea to photograph Buka and Bougainville islands. While passing over Buka, about 20 Japanese fighters took off to intercept the lone aircraft. Rather than break off the mission, however, Zeamer continued on. As the crew finished the photo run down the coast of Bougainville, the first of several vicious, coordinated attacks began. Zeamer and his crew desperately fought against overwhelming odds to bring back their B-17 and its precious reconnaissance film.
During the first attack, the bombardier, Sarnoski, shot down a Japanese fighter, but he was knocked back by cannon fire. Although mortally wounded, he crawled back to his gun position and shot down another Japanese fighter before collapsing. He had been scheduled to go home just a few days later.
Zeamer maneuvered the B-17 to shoot down a fighter with a fixed gun in the B-17's nose, but cannon fire shattered his left knee, paralyzed his legs, and caused profuse bleeding. Enemy fire also shot the rudder pedals away, started a fire, and disabled the hydraulic, oxygen, and interphone systems. Zeamer refused medical attention, and continued to forcefully maneuver the aircraft while the crew, many of whom were also wounded, fought back.
Finally, after 45 minutes of continuous combat, several Japanese aircraft had been shot down, and the attacks ceased. For the rest of the flight, Zeamer passed in and out of consciousness from blood loss. The B-17 had received nearly 200 machine gun and five cannon hits. The flaps and brakes were inoperable, but Zeamer managed to land the aircraft at Dobodura without further injury. With about 120 metal fragments in his body, Zeamer's life hung in the balance for several days, but in the end, he survived.
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