Valor Friday

| January 22, 2021

“Old 666”

I’m going to return to telling some valor stories that revolve around vehicles again. I talked a while back about the B-24 “Flak Bait” that flew more missions than any other American aircraft during World War II. Today’s subject has an incredible story, but the aircraft was sadly scrapped in 1945. There is only one known photo of the plane in existence, shown above.

The B-17 Flying Fortress is perhaps the most iconic of American heavy bombers of the war. Once such plane was serial number 41-2666. A B-17E model, she was ordered from Boeing for the Army Air Forces in 1941 and delivered in March, 1942. She was sent to Hawaii, arriving in May and then went onto Australia to join the raging war in the Pacific.

Sometime after arriving in Australia, she was assigned to the 19th Bombardment Group (BG) and fitted with a photo reconnaissance camera system. The 19th Bombardment Group had been stationed in the Philippines at Clark Field. The group had been assigned there in November 1941. On 8 December, 1941, the Japanese military attacked the Philippines in earnest. The attack here occurred just hours after the attack at Pearl Harbor, surprising many of the units there, including the 19th BG.

In the fighting on 8 December the group lost 2/3rd of her complement of 19 B-17s at Clark Field. Other elements of the group had been moved just two days prior and escaped unharmed.

During the summer of 1942 #41-2666 (hereinafter referred to as “Old 666”) was assigned to the 8th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron (PRS), but was attached to the 19th BG for most of her recon missions during the time period.

Historical records lose Old 666 for a time, but the aircraft was seriously damaged in December 1942. By this time she had been transferred to the 43rd Bomb Group operating in Australia and New Guinea.

Grounded for a while do to the damage, the records pick the warhorse up again in April, 1943. Airmen, like sailors, are a superstitious lot. Now back with the 8th PRS, Old 666 gained a reputation for being damaged and having unusual accidents. Around this time she was known as “Hard Luck Hattie”.

Late in 1942, all of the bombardment groups in the Pacific were being outfitted with the longer range B-24 Liberator aircraft. During the island hopping campaign ahead, the longer range of the Liberator was preferred. Also, the losses of B-17s over Europe in the latter half of 1942 meant that every available airframe of the type was being sent to the 8th Air Force to bomb Germany and occupied Europe.

May 1943 saw Old 666 transferred again to the 43rd Bomb Group, with the subordinate unit the 65th Bombardment Squadron out of New Guinea.

The recce camera system fitted to Old 666 was a trimetrogon system of three cameras. One aimed directly down and the other two at a 30 degree down slope (so 60 degrees off vertical). The arrangement meant the cameras had overlapping fields of view that allowed stereoscopic imaging. This allowed detailed topographic maps of the areas surveyed. Detailed maps including elevations are important for any military operation, but especially so for the amphibious assaults the South Pacific islands the Allies were going to need to undertake to push back the Imperial Japanese.

Captain Jay Zeamer, the 25 year old squadron executive officer, requisitioned Old 666 as the plane for he and his crew. Calling themselves the “Eager Beavers”, they customized the aircraft for their photographic recon missions.

The “Eager Beavers” repeatedly volunteered for risky reconnaissance missions. Front row: William Vaughn, George Kendrick, Johnnie Able, Herbert Pugh. Back row: Bud Thues, Jay Zeamer, Hank Dyminski, Joe Sarnoski. Just prior to the June 16 mission, Forrest Dillman was added to the crew and John T. Britton and Ruby Johnston replaced Dyminski and Thues, who contracted malaria. (National Archives)

The customizations included replacing the engines, lightening the aircraft, and adding additional .50-caliber machine guns. This included a stationary one in the bombardier’s bubble at the nose of the plane that Zeamer (the pilot) could fire himself from the cockpit. The B-17 normally had 13 guns, but Zeamer’s had at least 16 and perhaps as many as 19.

Zeamer and his team would only actually fly the plane five times. Two of those were shakedown flights, meaning they only had three operational missions in the aircraft. Officially the aircraft was named “Lucy”, but this happened just days before a fateful mission on 16 June, 1943. The name hadn’t come into use with the crew yet. They always referred to it simply as “The Plane” or “666”.

When given the opportunity to assemble a crew, Zeamer selected his good friend and newly battlefield commissioned Second Lieutenant Joseph Sarnoski as his bombardier and navigator. The two men began to pick out other crew. Many of the men in the squadron didn’t like Zeamer’s piloting style, refusing to fly with him again. Soon they found a crew willing to fly with Zeamer. The assembled crew was often called screw offs, renegades, and misfits.

Zeamer had already earned two Silver Stars and two Distinguished Flying Crosses for bravery in action in the South Pacific. Likewise, his bombardier had also earned a Silver Star for gallantry in the air.

On 16 June the crew volunteered to undertake a solo flight of 600 miles one-way to overfly Bouganville. The enemy held island was well defended. Photo reconnaissance required straight, level flight so as to minimize the risk of blurring in the photos. The photographic survey of the island would require 22 minutes of such precision flying over the enemy as the only target in the sky as they reconnoitered Bouganville’s Empress Augusta Bay’s reef filled waters.

Twice before takeoff, Zeamer had rejected as too risky the addition of a recon of the nearby small island of Buka, off Bouganville’s northern tip. However, after arriving at Bouganville they found they were too early. The sun wasn’t high enough to get the proper level of topographic detail. Zeamer polled the crew as to whether they should do the Buka mission first since they had the time and were nearby. The crew thought they should go ahead with it.

As they arrived over Buka, at an elevation of 25,000 feet, the crew of Old 666 found the island swarming with enemy aircraft. Dozens of enemy fighters were lining the sides of the runway there, with about 20 taking off or actively taxiing. The Japanese had moved the aircraft there just the day before in preparation for their operations at Guadalcanal on the 16th.

Zeamer held his course straight and true, hoping the enemy wouldn’t be able to get to their lofty altitude before they began to leave. Unfortunately, the enemy wasn’t cooperating.

After some ineffectual attack runs, the Flying Fortress was attacked by a coordinated flight of enemy Zeroes. Two attacked from below and three were coming across the plane’s front, precluding any evasive maneuvers available to Zeamer. It just so happened they were now starting to fly over their primary mapping objective.

Zeamer held his plane steady, hoping to use his extra guns to fight his way out, and capturing the vital mapping photos they were there to get.

The enemy’s first strafing run resulted in a direct hit to the nose of the B-17. A Japanese 20mm round blew out the bombardier’s station, mortally wounding Sarnoski and seriously wounding the navigator First Lieutenant Ruby Johnston, who was also in the nose compartment.

Another 20mm shell exploded in the back of the cockpit, sending shrapnel into flight engineer Sergeant Johnny Able. The blast had also ruptured oxygen and hydraulic lines, starting a fire on the flight deck.

A third 20mm round also found its way into the front nose of the plane, striking the back wall of the bombardier/navigator compartment. This one hit the firewall there, obliterating Zeamer’s rudder pedals and blowing out his instrument cluster. His left leg was struck with shrapnel and his right wrist was slit open. His co-pilot was passed out, limp at the controls.

Behind Zeamer, in the radio compartment just aft of the bomb bay, the radio operator Sergeant William Vaughn was struck in the neck by an enemy bullet.

In the nose, despite a grievous gash to his side and a gushing wound in his neck, Lieutenant Sarnoski got back up to his station manning the forward gun turret. There he found they were being attacked head-on by a twin-engine Japanese fighter (either a Ki-46 or Ki-45). Firing his twin .50-caliber machine guns, Sarnoski drove off the enemy plane before it could cause any more damage to his aircraft. With nothing left to give, Sarnoski collapsed dead at his post. The former master sergeant, who’d only been commissioned a month previous, was only 28.

The photographic run complete, Zeamer needed to bring his plane lower. He was flying without an oxygen supply, which at 25,000 feet will cause hypoxia quickly. Zeamer’s legs were both injured, his left a mangled mess. More than 150 pieces of shrapnel, much of that from his own plane, remained inside the young pilot.

Despite the extreme pain, Zeamer dove his aircraft to below 10,000 ft, the highest “safe” level without supplementary oxygen. Without altimeter or other instrumentation, he used his engine’s manifold pressure gauge to estimate when he was low enough to level out around what he figured was about 6,000 ft.

While Zeamer was descending, Lieutenant Johnston had made his way to the cockpit and joined Sergeant Able in putting out the fire there. They used their bare hands to extinguish the blaze. The co-pilot Second Lieutenant John T (J.T. Britton) came to. He had been concussed but otherwise was unscathed.

Levelling out, the Japanese pilots correctly surmised that the Fortress was without forward guns. They then lined up to make strafing runs at the plane, hitting it from head on. George Kendrick, the photographer and waist gunner counted 17 enemy fighters.

Without fear of blurring photos, Zeamer was able to take evasive action, turning into the fire of every enemy airplane as they turned in to attack. Despite being in excruciating pain and rapidly losing blood, Zeamer continued this for more than 45 minutes. As he’d bank the heavy bomber, he’d avoid the enemy fighter’s fire and give his gunners at the back of his plane unfettered targeting as the Zeroes flew past them. Throughout the ordeal, one of the longest single air engagements of the war, Zeamer refused to leave the controls. His co-pilot implored him to hand off controls and receive medical care.

Finally out of fuel and without scoring any more hits, the Japanese pilots turned back. The B-17 crew claimed to have downed five enemy aircraft, but post-war Japanese records reveal none were shot down, but one ditched early due to engine failure and three received battle damage.

Out of danger, but not yet safe, Zeamer placed his aircraft on a course back home. Sergeant Able, the flight engineer, took the controls from Zeamer and maintained course while the co-pilot went aft to check on the rest of the crew, since communications were down throughout the plane.

Able held the aircraft’s course as Zeamer drifted in and out of consciousness. Radio operator Vaughn calculated a course to Dodobura in Papua New Guinea for an emergency landing. None of the men expected Zeamer to survive a trip back to their home base, which required flying over the Owen Stanley Mountains (peaking at over 13,000 ft). Co-pilot Britton returned to the cockpit and piloted the plane back with only the engine instruments and a magnetic compass.

Due to damage to the aircraft, the landing at Dodobura was done without flaps or brakes. To stop the aircraft, Britton induced a ground loop near the end of the 6,000 foot runway. A ground loop is normally avoided at all costs as it essentially takes the aircraft and rolls one of the wings into the ground, often flipping the plane over catastrophically.

Their return trip had been 580 miles, a flight of more than three hours at cruise speed. By the time they landed, Zeamer was believed dead, but after medical attention he eventually fully recovered. Sarnoski was the only fatality while only four of the crew were injured on the harrowing mission.

For bravery under fire and completing their mission despite their wounds, both Zeamer and Sarnoski received the Medal of Honor.

To recognize the contributions of the rest of the crew, who worked so well together that despite the odds stacked against them, all the remaining crew received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor.

This remains the most decorated single mission in American history. They also retain the title of most decorated aircrew in US history. Old 666 is one of the most, if not the most, decorated aircraft of the war.

After that crippling mission, due to the specialized nature of her equipment, Old 666 escaped the destruction that would normally befall such a damaged airframe. Returned to the 8th PRS, she even returned to flying combat missions by the fall of 1943.

Old 666 by March 1944 was returned to the states. South Pacific bomb groups had been outfitted with the B-24, and increasingly the B-29, and the B-17s, battle worn as they were, were harder and harder to maintain.

Flying as a transport aircraft in the states she was then used as a crew training aircraft before being sent to Albuquerque in August 1945, where she was sold for scrap.

The gallant crew of Old 666 went their separate ways. Zeamer medically retired in January 1945 from the Army Air Forces after being promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was 26. He’d marry, raise five daughters, and work in the aerospace industry for the next 30 years, retiring to Maine. His wife said he rarely talked about the war or his medal. She said, “I think he didn’t feel he deserved it. He was so close to his bombardier [Sarnoski] and he felt terrible about his being killed.” When Zeamer passed away in 2007 at age 88 he was the last living Army Air Forces Medal of Honor recipient.

JT Britton remained in the Air Force, retiring from the service in 1961 as a lieutenant colonel. He too married and had a son and daughter. After his wife passed he married again and was step dad to three of her children. Britton was the last living man from the mission, which has come to be known as “Tenacity over Bougainville.” He passed away in 2011.

Ruby Johnston also remained in the Air Force. He retired as a colonel, having served in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He died in 1995.

George Kendrick remained in the Army. After the war he served as an engineer in the Korean War. He was commissioned at some point and retired from the Army in 1961. He collapsed in the commissary at Stead Air Force Base in Reno and died in 1966 at age 46. He was married in 1961 and was survived by a daughter from a previous marriage and a grandson. In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross, he was awarded the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Purple Heart, and an Army Commendation Medal.

Herbert Pugh left the service after World War 2 as a staff sergeant. He died in 1997 at age 77. He was survived by his wife Olga, who passed away in 2015. Pugh earned a Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross in addition to his Distinguished Service Cross for service as a tail gunner during the war.

Award Citations;
Captain Jay Zeamer – Pilot, Mission Commander 
2nd Lieutenant JT Britton – Co-Pilot
2nd Lieutenant Joe Sarnoski – Bombardier
1st Lieutenant Ruby Johnston – Navigator
Sergeant Johnny Able – Flight Engineer
Technical Sergeant George Kendrick – Photographer and Gunner
Sergeant William Vaughn – Radio Operator and Gunner
Technical Sergeant Forrest Dillman – Waist Gunner
Sergeant Herbert Pugh – Tail Gunner

If you’d like to read more, here’s an excerpt from LUCKY 666: The Impossible Mission by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin at HistoryNet.com

Category: Air Force, Distinguished Service Cross, Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

Comments (11)

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  1. Jay says:

    Chills. Those were some brass balled and extremely capable aviators.

  2. LIRight47 says:

    What a fabulous story!!

    Another reason why “the greatest generation” was indeed the greatest.

    Thanks for posting this wonderful history lesson.

  3. KoB says:

    Great write up on these Airedaled Heros Mason. Thanks! Thanks for the added linky too.

    Battery Gun Salute…PREPARE…FIRE!

  4. Flakpup says:

    Raise a glass and remember them. Pray that those like them will always walk among us.

  5. ninja says:

    Wow, Mason…You outdid yourself again!

    Thank You for sharing this story of these unsung HEROES with us.

    Never Forget.

  6. AW1Ed says:

    Hand Salute. Ready, Two!
    Thanks again, Mason.

  7. The Other Whitey says:

    B-17s were in high demand in the Pacific. The B-24 was an excellent bomber in its own right, but the B-17 was tougher and had more teeth. General Kenney was loath to part with any of his Forts, even after his bombardment groups had re-equipped with B-24s.

    B-17s in the Pacific had careers that could only be described as adventurous. They bombed Japanese bases wherever they could find them (even after they were supplanted in this role, they still continued delivering ordnance here and there in between other duties). They attacked Japanese shipping, first with high-altitude bombing that invariably failed spectacularly, then later in low-altitude “skip-bombing” strikes that proved much more effective. They often performed high-risk reconnaissance flights such as the one described in the article, as such missions were considered suicidal in any aircraft except a B-17. They flew cargo and personnel into forward bases in contested airspace such as Guadalcanal and Port Moresby, where they were expected to have to shoot their way in and out (and sometimes did). They flew long-range maritime patrols keeping tabs on Yamamoto’s fleet. They even flew air-to-air missions hunting Japanese patrol seaplanes, racking up quite a few of them and thereby blinding the enemy to US and Allied movements.

    They were vital to the war effort against Japan despite being present in small numbers, and continued to be vital even after they were officially replaced; a very small portion of our forces in-theater who made a disproportionately huge contribution to victory. The war likely couldn’t have been won without men like Jay Zeamer & his crew flying those high-mileage B-17s, often held together by little more than duct tape and happy thoughts as they operated from primitive fields on godforsaken South Pacific reefs.

  8. Andy11M says:

    Dogfights on History did a segment about them

  9. Stacy0311 says:

    Thar plane was wat over maximum weight with all the big brass balls in it.

  10. “Flak Bait” was a B-26, not a B-24

  11. Sabre22 says:

    I knew about this mission from martin Caidins book and the history channel segment. The article here is better than both.