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THE EAGER BEAVERS Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea: The battle-scarred B-17 was barely airworthy; she was beat up, war weary, and wobbly in flight. But early in WWII, damaged aircraft were considered a precious commodity since spare parts were hard to come by. The B-17, serial number 41-2666, had been relocated to Port Moresby to become a parts donor. Her days as a modern-day fighting machine were over. A motley crew of misfits awaited her arrival. They had their own future plans for 41-2666, and this is their story. The pilot, Jay Zeamer, was most likely the most motley of the crew. Other aviators considered him a ‘wannabe pilot’ lacking B17s PARKED IN REVETMENTS AT PAPUA NEW GUINEA AIRFIELD

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THE EAGER BEAVERS Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea: The battle-scarred B-17 was
barely airworthy; she was beat up, war weary, and wobbly in
flight. But early in WWII, damaged aircraft were considered a
precious commodity since spare parts were hard to come by.
The B-17, serial number 41-2666, had been relocated to Port
Moresby to become a parts donor. Her days as a modern-day
fighting machine were over. A motley crew of misfits awaited
her arrival. They had their own future plans for 41-2666, and this
is their story.
The pilot, Jay Zeamer, was most likely the most motley of the
crew. Other aviators considered him a ‘wannabe pilot’ lacking
B17s PARKED IN REVETMENTS AT PAPUA NEW GUINEA AIRFIELD
the skills of a true flyboy. His credentials were impressive. He
graduated from MIT with a degree in civil engineering; earned
his wings in the Army Air Corps in March of 1941, and served as
copilot on a B-26 Marauder twin-engine bomber before WWII.
But impressive paperwork doesn’t make good pilots. Zeamer’s
classmates and buddies quickly became lead pilots or squadron
leaders, leaving Zeamer in the dust of even mediocre pilots. He
couldn’t pass the pilot check tests. Although considered a ‘fair’
pilot by his superiors and peers, he never found the knack for a
respectable landing in a B-26. As any pilot knows, landings are
nothing more than a controlled crash, but poor Zeamer simply
could not control ‘the crash’.
As he continued to sit in a copilot’s seat, other pilots, especially
those from classes behind him, got the promotions and coveted
pilot’s seats. Zeamer promptly became bored to death and lost
all incentive. His pilot and superiors finally had seen enough of
Zeamer after he fell asleep while his plane was in flight. While
‘falling asleep in flight’ may not be unusual on long flights if a
pilot or copilot is not behind the controls, Zeamer fell asleep
during a bomb run as his aircraft dodged vicious anti-aircraft fire.
The pilot, needing help with the aircraft, had to beat his copilot
on the chest to awaken the man. Thus, his transfer to the 43rd
Air Group B-17 squadron in Port Moresby.
He was popular and enjoyed many friends at Port Moresby; on
the ground. But nobody wanted to fly with him. Allowed to fly
occasionally as a substitute navigator or copilot, Zeamer finally
sat in a pilot’s seat of a B-17 after volunteering for a photo-recon
mission when the scheduled pilot fell ill. The photo-recon
mission, an extremely dangerous flight over the huge Japanese
stronghold at Rabual, earned Zeamer a Silver Star. Yet, Zeamer
still hadn’t qualified as a B-17 pilot.
Still grounded as the Operations Officer for the 43rd Air Group,
Zeamer stayed aloft fairly often as a substitute B-17 pilot even
though he lacked the qualifications. He grew fond of the B-17s
and loved to fly recon missions, and he wanted the job on a full
time basis. Three things stood in Zeamer’s way: he didn’t have a
crew; he didn’t have an airplane, and, as his superiors knew, he
wasn’t a qualified B-17 pilot. Enter the Eager Beavers.
He solved the problem of ‘no crew’ by recruiting and/or sweet-
talking a bunch of misfits of the 43rd Air Group that no one else
wanted. Considered renegades, apathetic oddballs, and master
screw-off artists, Zerman discovered that rebels incline to mesh
together and the crew became one hell of a team. Now all they
needed was an airplane.
Flying Fortress, serial number 41-2666, touches the ground at
the 43rd, its flying days over, its future destined to be stripped
bare as a parts warehouse on wheels. Captain Jay Zeamer and
the original ‘Motley Crew’ had other ideas. Zeamer asked and
received permission to attempt a rebuild of 41-2666 since that
was the only way they were going to fly on a permanent basis.
How and where they found the ‘parts’ for an aircraft destined to
be a ‘parts factory’ is an unknown fog of war. Nuff’ said.
Rebuilt and ready for flight, the base commander congratulated
the team of misfits and stated a new crew would be flying their
rebuilt B-17. Zeamer and his team of nonconformists had other
ideas. The team slept in the B-17 and raucously announced the
.50 caliber machine guns were loaded and ready for use if some
fool came to ‘borrow’ their sleeping quarters. With a shortage
of planes and crews, the base commander turned his head the
other way and ignored their defiance. He let Zeamer’s crew fly
their own plane, but usually expected them to fly missions no
one else relished. The oddballs thrived on the danger, and the
opportunity. They pestered the operations center constantly
and volunteered for every mission turned down by other crews.
They became known as the Eager Beavers, and their salvaged B-
17 was called ‘Old 666.’
Due to the danger of recon missions, the Eager Beavers became
known, even among combat veterans, as ‘gun nuts’ due to their
obsession with protective firepower for Old 666. They chucked
the light .30 caliber machine guns and installed the heavier .50
caliber machine guns. In short order, the .50 calibers found the
garbage heap to be replaced with twin .50 caliber mounts. A
remotely controlled pair of .50 calibers were installed in front of
Old 666 so Zeamer could fire them like a fighter pilot. As an extra
precaution, the crew hoarded extra machine guns in Old 666 in
case the other guns malfunctioned or jammed.
Unconventional, perhaps a bit nutty, but in the Pacific Theater of
Operations in the early days of WWII, with targets spread out
ONLY KNOWN PHOTO OF OLD 666
over hundreds, if not thousands of miles of ocean, commanding
officers paid little attention to a crew who volunteered for each
and every terrible mission. Then came June of 1943. Southern
Solomon Islands were secured, but the U.S. knew the Japanese
were building or improving airfields in the Northern Solomon’s.
Photo intelligence was needed for the upcoming allied invasion
of Bougainville Island. Considered almost a suicide mission due
to hundreds of miles being flown over enemy airspace in a slow
B-17, plus remaining in level flight and taking no evasive action if
attacked since the cameras had to remain steady, the mission
would require either a very brave or a very crazy crew. Old 666
fit the bill.
The bombardier, Joseph Sarnoski, had 18 months of combat
under his belt and was going home in 3 days. He did not have to
fly the treacherous mission, but if Old 666 and his buddies were
going, then so was Sarnoski. During a fighter attack, the forward
machine guns were manned by the bombardier so Joe Sarnoski
felt he may be needed.
The day of the mission: As they approached the enemy airstrip
at Buka, the crew of Old 666 saw a hornet’s nest of Jap fighters
taking off and headed their way, over 20 were counted. Most
crews would turn and skedaddle for home to report the enemy
activity, but Zeamer knew a good photo of the base would help
the invasion planning for American aircraft and Marines. Tilting
the wings even one degree would throw the camera a half mile
off target, so Zeamer kept the big bomber straight and level as
the enemy fighters formed a semi-circle to begin their attack.
The fighters, commanded by Chief Petty Officer Yoshio Ooki, a
professional and experienced combat pilot, had his fighters all
attack at once. Even without knowing Old 666 was armed with
extra firepower, Ooki had enough experience to know a lone B-
17, no matter how many extra guns were aboard, was a sitting
duck and doomed to fall.
The first attack hit Old 666 with hundreds of cannon shells and
machine gun bullets. She was badly damaged, and five of her
crew were wounded. All the wounded men remained at their
battle stations as the fighters came in for their second pass. A
direct hit shattered the front plexiglass canopy, football-sized
holes ripped the wings, and hydraulic cables were cut.
THE JAPANESE AIRFIELD ON BUKA ISLAND
Zeamer kept the plane flying level and took no evasive action
although he too had been wounded in the second pass. Then
William Kendrick, the photographer, yelled over the intercom
that the photography was finished. Zeamer could now begin
evasive action, moving Old 666 side-to-side so his gunners had
better shots. The fighters came in for their third pass which
destroyed the oxygen system. Flying at 28,000 feet, Zeamer
knew he had to execute an emergency dive even with Old 666
heavily damaged so his crew would have the life-saving oxygen
they needed to continue the fight.
As Zeamer executed an emergency dive, an enemy 20mm shell
exploded in the navigator’s compartment. The explosion blew
the navigator Sarnoski out of his compartment and underneath
the cockpit. Already wounded once, another crewman found
Sarnoski with an enormous wound in his side. The wound was
fatal, yet Sarnoski told his buddy, “Don’t worry about me, I’m
alright,” then crawled back to his gun. The shattered front
plexiglass from a previous attack was now gone, exposing the
mortally wounded Sarnoski to 300mph winds as he manned his
gun. He shot down one more enemy fighter. This brave flyboy
died about two minutes after downing the enemy fighter. He
would not be going home in 3 days.
The life or death air-battle continued for 40 minutes. Several
enemy planes fell to the guns of the Eager Beavers, although Old
666 was so heavily damaged the crew didn’t believe they’d make
the hundreds of air miles back to base. Five men were seriously
wounded; Zeamer suffered multiple wounds, yet kept Old 666
flying.
The remaining Japanese fighters returned to Buka, out of fuel
and ammunition. Flight Officer Ooki, logically, reported the B-17
as demolished and about to crash in the sea when they last saw
it. He was wrong.
THE CREW OF OLD 666: TOP ROW, L TO R: BUD THUES, JAY ZEAMER,
HANK DYMINSKI, JOE SARNOSKI. BOTTOM ROW, L TO R: WILLIAM
VAUGHN, GEORGE KENDRICK, JOHNNIE ABLE, FORREST DILLMAN
Zeamer lost consciousness from loss of blood. He was removed
from the pilot’s seat but regained consciousness as he lay on the
floor. The copilot, a Lt. Britton, the only one qualified to care for
the wounded, remained in back of the aircraft. A gunner,
Sergeant Able, frequently sat behind the pilots and watched
them fly. That make Able, somewhat able, and the only one left
to fly Old 666. He did so with Zeamer coaching him from the
floor.
Old 666 made it home. Lt. Britton did return to the cockpit for
the finally leg back to base. Zeamer was the last man removed
from the damaged aircraft because the triage team considered
his wounds mortal. Just about every part of Old 666 was torn
apart by shells and bullets, except for the camera. The photos
were invaluable in the invasion planning of Bougainville.
All of the crew survived, except for
Sarnoski. The parents of Zeamer,
however, received a death notification
that their son had died in combat.
Zeamer spent over a year recovering
from his wounds in various hospitals.
He lived a long life, passing at the age
of 88. Jay Zeamer and Sarnoski were
both awarded the Medal of Honor, the
only time in WWII that two men from
one plane were awarded America’s highest award for bravery in
combat. All the other alleged misfits of Old 666 received the
Distinguished Service Cross, the medal second only to the Medal
of Honor.
the 63rd Bombardment Squadron, then returned to the U.S. to
be used as a base transport aircraft and a heavy bomber trainer
before being flown to Albuquerque, New Mexico in August of
1945 to be sold as scrap metal. Old 666 met a shabby ending as
did most of our WWII aircraft, but she will remain a symbol of
American ingenuity and bravery flown to glory by a crew of so-
called misfits who were, in fact, as red, white, and blue as any
aircrew in WWII.