Jay Zeamer Jr.¬†(July 25, 1918‚ÄďMarch 22, 2007)¬†

✪ Jay Zeamer Jr. was a pilot of the United States Army Air Forces in the South Pacific during World War II. He received the Medal of Honor for valor during a B-17 Flying Fortress mission on June 16, 1943. After the war, he became an aeronautical engineer and worked in the aerospace industry.

Born in¬†Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Zeamer grew up in¬†Orange, New Jersey, the son of a women’s club leader and sales representative for (later vice-president of) a global leather exporter. He spent many summers at¬†Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where he enjoyed rowing a homemade boat in the harbor.

Zeamer became an Eagle Scout at the age of fourteen. (He is one of only eleven known Eagle Scouts who also received the Medal of Honor). After a freshman year of high school in Orange, he was enrolled by his father in Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana, where he completed the Senior Infantry Reserve Officers Training Corps course. Zeamer won honors in marksmanship every year during his education at Culver and he served in the Culver Rifles Color Guard during his last two years. After completing ROTC Advanced Camp, he was given a certificate in lieu of a commission in the Infantry Officer Reserves Corps for which he could apply upon his twenty-first birthday.

Zeamer attended a year of junior college at Culver after his graduation, taking on a more rigorous curriculum and attending summer school which allowed him to enter the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) as a second-year student. In August 1939 after turning twenty-one in July, he received his infantry commission, becoming a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve and was assigned to the 312th Infantry, 78th Division.

Interested in aviation since childhood, Zeamer joined the M.I.T. flying club based in nearby Norwood in 1938. Within a year he obtained his solo license with a hundred solo hours in his logbook. He also served as manager of the club. In October 1939, Zeamer applied for the Army Air Corps flight training program and was accepted in December. His entrance to the program was deferred until after his graduation from M.I.T. in June 1940 with a B.S. in civil engineering, specializing in structural engineering. Zeamer began elementary flight school training as a flying cadet in the Chicago School of Aeronautics at Glenview, Illinois, where his leadership skills earned him the position of Captain of Cadets of Class 41-B.

In March 1941, he received his wings and a commission in the¬†U.S. Army Air Corps¬†after graduating from basic training and advanced flight school at¬†Maxwell Field,¬†Alabama. He was initially assigned to the¬†96th Bombardment Squadron¬†of the¬†2nd Bombardment Group¬†as an assistant engineering officer. Zeamer was later transferred to the¬†63rd Bombardment Squadron,¬†43rd Bombardment Group, where he served as the squadron’s executive officer. It was there that he first met his future bombardier,¬†Joseph Sarnoski. Sometime during the summer, Zeamer and “all the rest of the second lieutenants” were sent to¬†Patterson Field¬†in¬†Dayton,¬†Ohio, to assist with the service testing of the new¬†B-26 Marauder¬†by the¬†22nd Bombardment Group. Following his return to¬†Langley Field, Zeamer was assigned to the group’s¬†19th Bombardment Squadron¬†as a co-pilot.

On December 8, 1941, the 22nd was transferred from Langley to California to fly anti-submarine patrols and reconnaissance off the west coast of the United States. In March 1942, the 22nd BG was deployed to Australia, where Zeamer flew his first combat mission as a B-26 co-pilot on April 6, 1942. He was promoted to first lieutenant that same month. Still, due to issues of reaction time and aggressiveness on the controls, Zeamer had never checked out as first pilot in the B-26.

With the arrival of his old group, the 43rd, in Australia flying the new “F” model Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress¬†in August 1942, Zeamer sought and obtained a transfer from the 22nd to the 43rd. He reported for duty with the¬†403rd Bombardment Squadron in Torrens Creek,¬†Australia, on September 22, reuniting with his gunnery trainer and friend from the previous summer, Joe Sarnoski.¬†Lacking any experience in the B-17, Zeamer had to scrounge for flights at first as a self-described “squadron errand boy” before finally gaining combat experience in October as a substitute copilot and navigator.¬†Despite having not yet been checked out as first pilot in the B-17, Zeamer flew his first mission as pilot-in-command on November 20; a photo reconnaissance of Simpson Harbor at¬†Rabaul,¬†New Britain. He was awarded the¬†Silver Star¬†for the mission. The mission also completed his transition to first pilot.

Around the end of 1942, Zeamer began putting together his own flight crew, beginning with Sarnoski and squadron navigator Charles “Rocky” Stone. Popular accounts of the crew and its formation refer to them as “screw-offs, renegades,” and “misfits,” but are not completely borne out by the actual record.¬†In time, they began to call themselves “The Eager Beavers” due to Zeamer’s habit of constantly volunteering for missions as they became available. An early incarnation of the crew was awarded Air Medals for the sinking of a merchant vessel at Rabaul on January 17, 1943. in late March 1943. He was promoted to captain in early April, as well as made squadron operations officer. On April 12, the Eager Beavers flew a mission to Rabaul for which he was awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster to his Silver Star.

The Eager Beavers Flight Crew with “Old 666

In May 1943, Zeamer was made squadron executive officer and took on the upgrading of a B-17E, #41-2666, recently acquired from the¬†8th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron for photographic mapping purposes. The plane was one of the few in the theater equipped with the¬†trimetrogon¬†camera system, which allowed the creation of photographic mosaics for generating accurate ground maps. The aircrew replaced the aircraft’s aging engines with new upgrades, stripped the bomber of much of its extra weight and added additional heavy machine guns, including dual¬†.50 caliber M2 Brownings¬†in both the radio compartment and waist gun positions, three in the nose including a fixed .50 caliber in the plexiglas combing that Zeamer could directly fire from his pilot’s control yoke. Contemporary accounts, including the 65th Bomb Squadron’s morning report for that day, as well as Zeamer’s own flight log, record the aircraft being equipped with 16 active .50 caliber machine guns, with three additional spares stored in the B-17’s catwalk for quick combat-related substitution, if and when needed. Now transformed into a gunship, the B-17 was known to its aircrew as “666,” or popularly as Old 666

In April 1943, Zeamer and the crew was approached about a solo, 1,200-mile round-trip photo-mapping mission of the western coast of Bougainville, with emphasis on Empress Augusta Bay where future marine landings would be made. Such maps were considered to be vital for a future invasion of the island 

The necessary weather for such a run proved elusive for two months, until mid-June. On June 15, Zeamer was contacted again regarding the mission. At 04:00 the next morning, on 16 June 1943, after intense preparations in the days before, the crew headed for Bougainville. Twice already, once the night before and once as the aircraft was taxiing for take-off, they were ordered by V Bomber Command to do a photo recon of the Japanese airstrip on Buka, a small island off the northern tip of Bougainville. Zeamer rejected the idea both times as being too dangerous because of an almost certain interception by enemy fighters during the sustained level flight for the mapping operation.

However, Zeamer put the question to his aircrew of whether to either pass the time flying over the ocean or perform the Buka recon. After they voted for flying the recon mission , Zeamer flew northeast in a loop to come back over Buka on their way into the mapping run. Photos taken that day reportedly showed twenty-one Japanese fighters taxiing or taking off to intercept. With approximately a minute left in the mapping run, “Old 666” faced a coordinated attack by eight¬†A6M3 Model 22 Zero¬†fighters from 251¬†KŇćkŇętai, as well as an unidentified twin-engined fighter. The ensuing attack mortally wounded¬†bombardier¬†Sarnoski, who struggled back to his machine gun to drive off a second Zero after being blown back from his position by a¬†20 mm¬†cannon shell¬†fired from the first Zero. A total of four 20¬†mm shells destroyed the pilot’s side of the instrument panel and broke Zeamer’s left leg above and below the knee, leaving a large hole in his left thigh. He was also hit by shrapnel in both arms and his right leg, with a gash in his right wrist. Three others were also wounded, including the navigator and top turret gunner, who responded to a resulting oxygen fire by putting it out with rags and their bare hands.

Due to the loss of oxygen and in an effort to escape their attackers, Zeamer dove the B-17 violently from 25,000 feet down to approximately 10,000 feet, estimating the altitude by an increase in engine¬†manifold pressure. The Japanese followed them down and commenced a forty-minute series of attack passes at the nose of the B-17. Despite his wounds, Zeamer avoided any further extensive damage to the plane by repeatedly turning into the oncoming fighters, just inside the trajectory of their fixed fire, a technique he learned while in the 22nd BG. By doing so, the Zeros would continue rolling into the bomber without hitting it, but exposing themselves to the B-17’s rear machine guns. Eventually, all of the Zeros broke off the attack due either to damage, lack of ammunition or a lack of fuel.

After the engagement, an assessment revealed that all the B-17’s oxygen and hydraulic systems were destroyed, as well as all of the pilot’s¬†flight instruments. However, the¬†magnetic compass¬†and engine instruments on the co-pilot’s side were undamaged, as were all four engines. Too wounded to move and unwilling to give up command of his aircraft, Zeamer directed and advised the top turret gunner after he took over co-piloting duties, allowing the unwounded co-pilot to attend to the wounded. The lack of oxygen, in addition to Zeamer’s and the navigator’s injuries, meant a return to Port Moresby over the¬†Owen Stanley Mountains¬†was impossible. Instead, they made an emergency landing at an Allied fighter airstrip at¬†Dobodura, New Guinea.

Without operable brakes or flaps because of the destroyed hydraulic system, the B-17 was ground-looped by the co-pilot without any additional damage. The final casualty count was one killed (Sarnoski) and four wounded. Zeamer was initially believed dead from a substantial loss of blood, but was treated with the other injured aircrew members by the 10th Field Ambulance of the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps before being transported back to Port Moresby the next day.

Colonel Merian C. Cooper, chief of staff to the deputy commander of the Fifth Air Force & Major General Ennis Whitehead recommended Zeamer be awarded the Medal of Honor, to which Fifth Air Force commander General George Kennedy concurred. Zeamer received the award from Chief of the Army Air Forces General Henry H. Arnold on January 16, 1944 at the Pentagon.

Sarnoski was also posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, marking only the third time in U.S. history that two members of the same crew received the Medal of Honor for a single mission. All other members of Zeamer’s aircrew received the¬†Distinguished Service Cross. This remains the most highly decorated single air mission; and Zeamer’s aircrew the most highly decorated in American history.

Zeamer was promoted to major on July 8, 1943, and lieutenant colonel in April 1944. He spent 15 months in recovery, regaining most of the use of his left leg, and returned to active duty at Mitchel Field, New York as a Tactical Field Air Inspector. On January 18, 1945, Zeamer retired from the USAAF on disability.

After his service retirement, Zeamer returned to MIT and obtained a master’s degree in¬†aeronautical engineering¬†in 1946. Zeamer then worked for a series of aerospace companies:¬†Pratt & Whitney¬†in¬†East Hartford, Connecticut, followed by¬†Hughes Aircraft¬†in¬†Los Angeles,¬†California; and finally¬†Raytheon¬†in¬†Bedford, Massachusetts. In 1968, Zeamer moved to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where he enjoyed rowing in the harbor as he had done in his childhood. He retired in 1975.

Zeamer married in 1949, and with his wife Barbara raised five daughters: Marcia, Jacque, Jayne, Susan, and Sandra. Barbara Zeamer stated that he rarely talked about his wartime experiences or the medal. “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.”

Zeamer died in a¬†nursing home¬†at the age of 88 on March 22, 2007. At the time of his death, he was the last living Medal of Honor recipient of the U.S. Army Air Force.¬†Zeamer’s funeral was held on May 11, 2007. He is interred at¬†Arlington National Cemetery in¬†Arlington, Virginia.¬†On the day of his funeral, the governor of Maine,¬†John Baldacci, ordered flags in the state be flown at¬†half-staff. ‚ú™


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